Public Image Ltd’s tour reached Bristol on September 28th.
It’s not revelatory to say that John Lydon is a complicated fellow. His long and storied history notwithstanding, in the last decade he has declared support for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and advocated for both Leave and Remain in the ‘Brexit Years’. For most, if not all, those opinions are at odds, but Lydon is able to wholly justify them to himself, if not to anyone else.
So it goes: midway through tonight’s show Lydon is barracked by an audience member which clearly infuriates him, roaring back in response: ‘Rundown lavatory of a country and you dare challenge me. You’re the cunts that ruined Britain…but I like you.’ He may be contradictory, but he is at least true to himself. His schtick is no act.
If it is, it must be exhausting. As he and the rest of Public Image Ltd, the original post-punks, walk (or, in Lydon’s case, lurch) on to the stage, clad in an oversized pinstripe jacket and tie, he takes to the mic: ‘I have one request for you this evening. Put your cell phone up your arsehole. When that light gets in my eyes, that’s when the music stops.’ Impressively, the crowd (mainly made up of greying/balding heads, barring some smatterings of youth) generally acquiesce to his demand.
Otherwise, Lydon lets the music do the talking for the first half of the set. The grandstanding Penge (from new album End Of World) opens, with the band in close proximity to one another despite the size of the stage (aside from the keyboardist who contributes behind a curtain at the side) before they rattle through an epic, wiry Albatross (complete with booming drums), a vivacious Being Stupid Again and a bouncing This Is Not A Love Song, which garners the first response from an admittedly sedate crowd.
Of course Lydon (who recites his lyrics from a stand) notices the crowd and responds as such, either through his surrealist humour (‘You seem quite subdued for a pair of tits’) or more directly (‘You’re very quiet so we came back to spite ya’, he gleefully declares before the encore).
Although he doesn’t move from his front-of-stage position, Lydon moves every other part of his body and is a beguiling performer, delivering his lyrics operatically and rolling his Rs at every opportunity. He even spits and clears his nostrils frequently (‘that’s stage snot – you’re a humourless lot’) reportedly due to a long-standing sinus issue.
Regardless, it’s hard to take your eyes off the frontman, but Bruce Smith on drums proves to be no slouch and, along with Scott Firth on bass, combines to make an excellent rhythm section.
But Lu Edmonds does his best to steal the limelight, in an understated way. Looking like a young Gandalf, clad in bow tie and black waistcoat, he plays a variety of different guitars which add warmth or anxiety to the sound as required. On the likes of The Body, the spindly Poptones or the warped sci-fi prog of Death Disco, his dexterity is stunning in contrast to his unassuming presence. The band have their moment as Smith stands up and Firth plays double-bass on a marauding Flowers Of Romance.
It’s a barnstorming show before an encore of Public Image (which, it must be said, still sounds like Lydon’s first band), their cover of Leftfield’s Open Up and a celebratory Rise. And then, after the show has ended, Lydon has one more statement to make which perfectly summarises the dichotomy of the man: ‘We will never join the shitstem,’ he declares, and then: ‘I can’t sing the song Hawaii as it will tear my heart out but please say Aloha to my beloved Nora,’ in reference to his wife who passed away earlier in the year.
As he leaves the stage in tears, it would have been beyond the pale to feel sympathy for him just ten minutes earlier.
Like John Lydon, life is complicated.