Public Image Ltd. (PiL) The Fonda Theater 11/29/15
Public Image Ltd. manage to occupy their own a special niche in punk rock by doing one simple thing—not allowing themselves to be classified as punk rock. Since PiLs inception in 1978, the band's always been in a state of centrifugal motion from the raw, sloppy artform synonymous with PiL's frontman and sole original member John Lydon (you can still call him Johnny Rotten if you want). Since then, the former Sex Pistols frontman has used it as his vessel for musical exploration. Ten albums, a 17-year hiatus and a slew of lineup changes later, the sentiment still rings true. Crass, anti-establishment rants atop a thumping, free-floating stew of dancey post-rock has no loyalty to any particular genre, at least on the surface. Ultimately though, PiL did create the field manual for punk rockers looking to diversify and age gracefully. For Lydon, today that path looks something like a spiky-haired Pavarotti blowing snot rockets on stage.
Around 10 p.m., PiL greeted the sold-out crowd at the Fonda Theater. It seemed fitting that the barriers in front of the venue on Hollywood Blvd. blocking the street for the annual Christmas parade were lifted just in time for the appearance of the man famous for declaring himself an Antichrist. Backing Lydon were PiL's members Lu Edmonds on guitar, Bruce Smith on drums and Scott Firth on bass—all past members at one time or another now thrust into the present behind the band's long awaited fall 2015 release What the World Needs Now...
The band waltzed out sporting dignified black suits, including Lydon who used a music stand to hold what we assume was a songbook full of his lyrics. It was an odd touch of class to the performance from the lovable, foul-mouthed front man. An opening, mock argument about a broken toilet set the stage for the operatic vibrato that escaped his lips on "Double Trouble," the set opener from the new album was nothing if not a sound confirmation of his studied vocal training. But his trademark sneer still coaxed its way through his vocal chords when he dusted off the band's 1983 song "This is Not a Love Song," a track lampooning fans who were calling them commercial sellouts at the time it was released. Ironically, it went on to become the band's biggest international hit.
Throughout the show, the band's airtight rhythms rumbled behind Lydon, held together by the machine-like precision of Smith's drumming and the beefy growl of Firth's bass which once served as the low end for the Spice Girls (yeah, really). Edmonds supplied the screeching, devilish guitar riffs, despite looking like a dead ringer for Jesus. The character and range in Lydon's voice got a workout with the new material, evidenced by the song "Bettie Page" in which his timbre goes from operatic, to sarcastic to full-on Devo as he snarks off about American censorship and hypocrisy. In a salute to his current country of residence, he showed his patriotism by firing off a snot rocket or two onto the stage. How he conjures up enough nasal cannonballs to do it on cue throughout his set still remains a glorious mystery.
As he threw on some glasses to to get a good look at his free poetry on "Deep Water" his band hammered the crowd with their hypnotic industrial-inspired grooves that had got the aging LA punks shuffling around on the floor. Lydon's goading, goat-like vocal delivery on the track rained over the crowd as the six-minute song wore on and blended almost seamlessly into the teeth-gnashing growl of "Corporate."
Still, despite the title of his latest book Anger is an Energy, (inspired by the song "Rise") we still prefer a sarcastic version Lydon who can properly offend us over an angry one who gets offended. His sly dig at LA following a pair of classic tunes ("The Body" and "Warrior") was an ideal example: "LA has always been a bit subdued," he said to the crowd as he tried to rile them up. "I don't know why I chose to live here," an awkward silence and a few boos followed his comment. "Take a joke you fuckin cunts. I'm not going anywhere anytime soon." Then he even took a moment out of the set to pause the music and allow us to shout obscenities at him.
At his most devilish, he embodied the voice and spirit of Lucifer himself on a 13-minute version of "Religion," taking it all the way back to the First Issue album. His screed against Christianity is still enough to give the little girl in The Exorcist a run for her money. But you could also see the a wry smirk appear on Lydon's lips as he took joy in finding the shock and awe floating around in the eyes of the crowd. It is that ability to shake people up by showing them your art that embodies the spirit of punk ever present in PiL's DNA. He also reminded us that when all else in this world fails you—whether it's spiritual or material—you can always turn up the bass. Midway through the "Religion" rant, Lydon called for Firth's electric stand up bass to be turned up in the house sound system to the point where the floor shook. "The bass will set us free!" he yelled as the rumbling notes caused a minor tremor in our bones. It was proof that no matter how old and semi-dignified he may seem, Lydon has the power to turn any venue into his sonic chapel, one where the true Lord lives down below.
Setlist on the next page
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Setlist: Double Trouble Know Now This Is Not a Love Song Bettie Page Deeper Water Corporate Death Disco The One Disappointed The Body Warrior Religion Open Up / Shoom
Encore: Public Image Rise