Words by John Noblet
Tonight’s double hitter, Public Image Limited (PiL) and The Selecter, maybe one of the stranger tour packages in recent memory. Apart from both acts having their biggest success in the post Punk era of the early eighties, they have little in common.
We roll through the O2 Academy doors about an hour after they open, and The Selecter are already playing the hits. And at first glance it’s clear they’ve got a highly polished, shiny-as-hell version of the two tone experience on stage. Suits? Check. Eight piece band? Check. Complete with brass section? Check. An adorably enthusiastic keyboard player, all the trimmings, exuberance and smiles galore? You better believe it.
Pauline Black looks great in her tight blue suit and hat at a jaunty angle; rude girl attitude on show till the day she dies, with that distinctive voice on fine form. Although The Selecter‘s other vocalist, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, definitely deserves a mention – as a performer, he’s full of exactly the kind of confidence needed to front a band, the kind that makes you watch him without really questioning why.
Tonight’s incarnation of The Selecter sounds fuller, shinier, even sexier than the eighties version. Musically they seem unafraid of pulling in new influences to thicken the sound, like the funky drummer rhythm that backs their version of ‘Last Train to Skaville’. And rather than being a museum piece or nostalgia trip, they come across as a band that still have something to prove – which is admirable as they formed almost thirty five years ago.
Everyone loves a bit of showbiz and The Selecter are definitely that; however tonight’s headliners, Public Image Limited take very much the opposite approach. Entering in pitch black, when the lights do come up on the band it’s still considerably darker than for The Selecter‘s set.
PiL’s bassist and drummer lock into a moody, tense, groove, whilst their guitarist, with the kind of hair that would allow him to play a wizard in a children’s television programme, plays atonal lines over the top. Vocalist, John Lydon, wails and yells in a genuinely disturbing manner. There is no chorus in this opening song (hell, many people wouldn’t call it a song) and the overall effect is one of creeping dread, of profound cognitive dissonance.
The second song is just as uncompromising as the first, and cements the final, complete change in atmosphere from The Selecter’s sweaty Ska love fest. You can feel those around you sinking deeper into their own thoughts; the applause is controlled, respectful, there’s even a couple of seconds lag before the clapping starts – like the audience need a moment or two to come out of their collective trance.
About the third song in we get treated to one of PiL‘s few hits, ‘This Is Not a Love Song’. But tonight it sounds bigger, scarier and more menacing than it ever did on record; thick with the low end you’d expect from acts such as Massive Attack.
PiL milk the verse riff for all it’s worth, building up the anticipation for the chorus to impossibly high levels. Somehow it segues into the beautiful riff from ‘Poptones’, it’s a fantastic touch, but unfortunately wasted when the song is all but stopped because Lydon can’t hear his vocals. I’m not having a go at the guy for needing to hear his own voice – in fact, he’s reasonably polite about the whole thing and the show continues with no hitches. It’s just a shame that the moment is broken, so deep is my reverie at that point.
My friend Craig turns to me and says, “…church of PiL”, hitting the nail square on the head – the band inspire the same level of reflection that huge cathedrals do, albeit from a thoroughly atheist perspective. And the other thing this experience has in common with a church is that, like a religious service, ignoring what’s going on is not an option. You either give in to what’s happening around you, or you leave.
Most of the set follows the same formula. The rhythm section proceed with the kind of military precision you’d expect from Sly & Robbie; sometimes thickening the sound with synths or an eerie white noise, providing a rock solid foundation for guitarist Lu Edmonds and Lydon to work their strange magic over – repetitive riffs pummeling you into submission whilst the vocals flirt with the idea of melody, Lydon revealing his voice to be a strange and versatile instrument.
It’s impressive how much mileage PiL can get out of this, and how many influences you catch flickers of. At various points in the set you get snatches of Dub, early Hip Hop and Kraut Rock – I even catch a hint of Hacienda era Acid House in a couple of tracks. And although PiL will often be thought of as “the band Johnny Rotten formed after The Sex Pistols”, it’s clear tonight they’re a band with each member making an important, essential contribution, rather than a faceless vehicle for an ageing rock star.
One of the few sing along moments of PiL’s set is during ‘One Drop’, from the bands’ most recent album, This Is PiL. In my opinion it benefits massively from being performed live, and from the punishing volume of the O2 Academy‘s huge sound system. Lydon’s proclamation that “we come from chaos” sounds more sinister than ever, and there’s a definite apocalyptic edge when he sings lines such as “we are the last chance”. By comparison the encore is a jolly walk in the park, with crowd pleasers such as ‘Rise’ and ‘Public Image’.
One of Lydon’s earliest and most notorious slogans was the phrase “no future!”, and PiL are an unflinching, methodical examination of exactly what that “no future” entails. Of lives without meaning, bashed back and forth by uncaring corporate forces, of a modern world that may be colourful and distracting, but is revealed to be shallow and meaningless. It is the music of tower blocks and dual carriageways at 3am, of the all those things we avoid thinking about.
There are other bands that make music that similar to PiL, but none as effective. Many set out to do something similar but just end up glamorising the darker side of life, or are simply so bleak that they forget to be compelling. Tonight we’ve been taken on a harrowing journey through the uncharted badlands of our own psyches, and I for one, feel so much better for it – like a psychic cleansing has occurred.
Plus I’ve made a point in this review not to mention some of the media circus surrounding Lydon; not just because there are thousands of words written about them elsewhere, nor because I was commissioned to write a review, but because Public Image Limited are worthy of discussion for what they do as a band, on stage. A fact that won’t change whatever ridiculous antics Mr Lydon may choose to sully his reputation with.
And if you like strange(r) music, and haven’t done so already, you owe it to yourself to check them out.
For more on Public Image Limited (PiL), visit http://www.pilofficial.com
For more on The Selecter, visit http://www.theselecter.net/
For further gigs at the O2 Academy, visit http://www.o2academybirmingham.co.uk/