John Lydon and Public Image Ltd are still What the World Needs Now…

“PiL proved that even the most off-the-wall, meticulously textured genius gets a little ho-hum if you do it for long enough…”

By Miriam Benjamin

I walked up to the Concord Music Hall to see Public Image Ltd, and I was struck by how geriatric the crowd was. I mean, I knew it was gonna be a lot of old dude punks, but it was surprising to see that so many of them were still willing to rage.

I just wanted to see John Lydon in action. Public Image Ltd (PiL) is Lydon’s band and has been since the Sex Pistols imploded in 1978 (in the Sex Pistols he was lead singer Johnny Rotten). I like PiL casually, probably less than I should. I was there because of Lydon’s reputation as a live performer, a reputation he staked out for himself during his tenure in the Sex Pistols.

I’m not sure what I was expecting—after all, at 59, Lydon’s pretty old. He’s had his famously disgusting teeth redone. At the gig, he wore bright turquoise reading glasses, which he needed because he had all his lyrics in a big binder on a music stand. He had some kind of a cold, so he kept plugging one nostril and shooting snot out of the other one. Occasionally the snot landed inside the onstage garbage can, but most of the time it decorated the floor. In the middle of the show, he sniffed some nasal spray, muttering something about how it was from Walgreens.

I was boggled. Like, this is Johnny Rotten. “There ain’t no future in England’s dreaming,” “I am an Antichrist”—he authored all that call-to-arms, incendiary punk shit, and here I was listening to him politely discourse on Walgreens nasal spray.

Lydon’s schnoz aside, PiL just put out their tenth album (What the World Needs Now…). They’re a mature band for mature people. I shouldn’t have come expecting punk antics, but I inadvertently witnessed a few: a woman started screaming “Johnnyyyy!” at Lydon, who stopped shuffling his lyric sheets and straightened up. His beady eyes widened and lasered in on an audience member to my left. “Shaaat aahp,” he drawled, “That’s soooo fucking off-putting.” The voice subsided. Although Lydon grinned and grumbled “Oh, carry on,” I heard no more high-pitched “Johnnys” for the rest of the night.

Too bad: a little more hostility could’ve gone a long way towards livening things up. PiL proved that even the most off-the-wall, meticulously textured genius gets a little ho-hum if you do it for long enough; they played for an hour and 20 minutes before the encore, and only about 15 minutes of it was exciting. Lydon’s a powerful and distinctive vocalist, obviously—PiL wouldn’t still be around today without his atonal caterwaul. But although his voice is immediately gripping, it wears quickly. I was done when Lydon started furiously wiggling his jowls to produce a more intense vibrato.

The most egregious bore of all was “Religion,” from PiL’s first album, Public Image. On the record, “Religion I” is a snappy denouncement of hypocrisy in the church; live, it transformed into a ten-minute improv fest, featuring an electric stand-up bass and a guitar being played with a hand-held fan, primary color lights and all.

Then there was the obligatory new album stuff. Unfortunately for PiL, only two of those songs deserved a live outing. “Double Trouble” has a tongue-in-cheek, benignly aggressive spoken word introduction (“What, you fuckin’ nagging again?”) and “Shoom” featured the rousing cry, “what the world needs now is another FUCK OFF!” The others—“Bettie Page,” “Know Now,” and “Corporate”—were merely repetitions of better PiL songs, and they droned on endlessly.

Yet it always astounds me how much I’m capable of forgiving after a lights-out encore. PiL finished with “Public Image” and “Rise.” “Public Image” is a howling, accusatory number that, thematically, fit in with the songs from the rest of the set. But some combination of a lot of practice on Lydon’s part (incredibly, it’s been a set list staple since it was written 37 years ago) and increased audience participation made “Public Image” more powerful than any of the songs that came before.

Until “Rise,” that is. “Rise” is the only gorgeous song PiL has—the gently-strummed major chords felt cathartic after what seemed like an eternity of bony basslines and nonstop hi-hat banging. Lyrically, “Rise” is everything Lydon had been trying to say in a single song: use your anger to make a difference in the world. But, he adds with a figurative wink, don’t take it from him—he’s just an old geezer who used to be in a punk band.