When is a band…a band? Put another way, is a famous group still the same artistic endeavor when almost all of the original members have been shipped off or shown the door? Is Journey still Journey if celebrated singer Steve Perry is nowhere to be seen? After all, he wasn’t in the original, pre hit parade line-up. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones have managed many shifts over the years and yet few feel they are missing the true version of the legendary act. Five years after it was formed, Public Image Ltd took the stage for a performance on the German TV show Rockpalast. Guiding the group was former Sex Pistols lightning rod Johnny “Rotten” Lyndon, while original founding members Keith Levine and Jah Wobble were MIA.
Still functioning under the PiL label, this new collective featured seasoned session musicians and on again, off again drummer Martin Aktins, and within a short 72 minute spectacle, rewrote the post-punk power that the band once evoked. In its place was the polish of Joseph Guida’s guitar playing, the precision of Louis Bernardi’s bass, and the ’80s MTV twonk of Arthur Stead’s almost unnecessary keyboards. Doing the angry young man thing to full tilt tantrum levels, Lydon made sure the jaunty German pit was in pure pogo mode. He even tosses in a slick revamp of “Anarchy in the UK” for the eager audience. But just like the title of the band’s latest hit (“(This is Not a) Love Song”), this is not the band that many ran too once Rotten, Jones, Cook, and Vicious imploded. Instead, it’s all superficial.
When PiL percolated up from the downward spiraling depths of the DIY movement, it marked a significant departure from what we were to expect from Lydon. Heavily influenced by reggae and dub and employing arhythmic drums and musical dissonance, it stood in stark contrast to the three chord chaos that ‘inspired’ it. Instead, Lydon, Wobble and Levine played painter in the studio, developing riffs and bass lines that would often contradict each other, the singer’s brilliant lyrical adventures weaving in between them with insight and precision. The ultimate expression of their muse, 1979’s amazing Metal Box remains a masterpiece of menace, a double LP declaration of everything popular, mainstream, and acceptable.
So it’s sad to see Lydon lumbering around the stage, struggling to make the same sense of the songs he once mastered with sinister aplomb. It’s like watching a rebel retreat into retirement, especially when the set strays beyond the more structured material. “Public Image I” and “Annalisa” are a great opening one two punch, tunes meant to introduce the audience to what PiL is prepared to offer. Even the next song, “Religion”, retains the standard concert tropes. Then “Memories” and “The Flowers of Romance” arrive and throw things for a legitimate loop. By the time Lydon is screeching the chorus of “Chant”, the crowd has grown ambivalent. So it’s wise for the singer to toss in the commercial count of “Anarchy” as well as the half-hit “Love Song”. The encore arrives with more difficult takes such as “Under the House” and “Bad Life”, while “Low Life” and “Public Image II” round out the set list.
It’s a sobering experience. As much energy and excitement as the band generates, as much musicianship is shown by the seasoned pros recreating PiL’s sound, you can’t help but feel slightly…cheated (now there’s a sentiment Mr. Lydon can latch onto). For all his heroin disaster drone, Levine’s guitar defined the band’s early sound and few can recreate it. Mr. Guida tries, but rarely reaches his forerunner’s rarified air. Similarly, Wobble was one of the best bass fusionists around. He could merge influences as diverse as rockabilly, R&B, Latin, and African and make it come across as purely unique and appropriate for the song. Splice Lydon on top, his pissed-off poetry an expert combination of alienation and annihilation and PiL was perfection. What we see on Rockapalast is a mere shadow.
And yet it’s a competent and often compelling silhouette. There is no denying the sheer invention and power of PiL, their approach so deconstructive that it creates something completely new within its wake. Even better, by smoothing out the rough edges and getting audiences to realize there is more to the maelstrom than just chutzpah and challenge. Lydon never liked the poseur position he had to take as part of the Pistols and always used PiL as a platform for how he really felt about performance. You can see him trying to size up the crowd, contemplating what moves will have the most effect as he crosses the small stage.
It’s a shame then that an interview with the singer, taken from the same setting, is so anticlimactic. Many of us remember the time when Lydon sat down with Tom Snyder for one of the more memorable Tomorrow programs ever. Abrasive, rude, and comically snarky, it was a perfect reaction to a clueless old man trying to claim cool. Here, our frontman doesn’t seem very invested. He’s aloof to the point of distraction, both on his and our side. We want information and real insight. All we get is a passive PR push. At least the rehearsal footage allows us into the PiL inner circle. It’s more eye opening than the bland and cranky Q&A.
All of which argues the original question. Would this version of PiL be any more palatable had Levine and Wobble still been around? Would they succumb to playing “Anarchy in the UK” as a ‘give the people what they want’ panacea? Even today, with Lydon leading a “reformed” PiL through a mandatory late career comeback/ resurrection, we still aren’t witnessing “the real thing”, just another reticent recreation of the same. While it may be too much to ask to see the actual founding members running through an entire album ala the current trend, something like Live at Rockpalast 1983 should give us more of a glimpse of what made Public Image Ltd. so special. Instead, we appear already past the prime.