This is not a review. This isn’t an earnest cultural study. This is just me…
‘Icon’ is an overused word, especially in music, but this week I got to see the real deal because John Lydon was playing in my hometown. He’d almost certainly despise me for saying so, but for my generation that’s like seeing Elvis or The Beatles – someone who represents a seismic change (arguably the last) back when rock ’n’ roll was still a serious, evolving art movement rather than simply cold, hard product – the only difference being that he remains a genuinely independent artist, not on the Fortune 500 or a grotesque parody of his younger self. This is why he was at a medium-sized campus venue on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday night in Norfolk.
‘What’s the nightlife like around here?’ he asked the audience at one point.
‘You’re it,’ someone called back.
‘Then I’m spoiled for choice!’ said he.
Like everyone else, I can reel off a list of personal heroes; people I have never met that have nonetheless had the most profound effect on the way I think and live my life, as influential as my closest friends and family. Art, politics and celebrity are weird like that, and, let’s face it, a little bit creepy. But whenever I revisit John Lydon’s work, or something new emerges (as it just has with the new PiL album What The World Needs Now…), I am forcibly struck with the realisation of how much I owe this man, and how much his words and his convictions have influenced the way I turned out; oh, and the world, of course. Like I said, he is genuinely iconic.
As a teenager in the seventies, I was a classic prototype for the provincial punk. I grew up in a council flat, I was a working class only child, isolated, idealistic and already out step with the locals. In those days, my hometown was hard-core ted – there were rebel flags flying on the street where I lived – with a youth culture otherwise dominated by skinheads, football and a big National Front presence. You didn’t have to be very different to catch all kinds of hell around there. I went to a huge new comprehensive school, and was weedy, bookish, already an atheist, and fiercely anti-Nazi and nuclear, much to the horror of my parents, a disagreement of views which, on my father’s side, was mostly addressed by violence. Needless to say, I did not fit in anywhere. England in those days was miserable and bleak as well, just as hopeless and Dickensian as it is now, but with less entertainment options. Thatcher was already waiting in the wings. I was Peter Pan in reverse, yearning to grow up and escape, although to where I wasn’t exactly sure. The only options suggested by both school and family were the Army or some sort of unskilled labouring job. That’s what everyone seemed to expect you to do. No one even suggested apprenticeships, and a lot of people I knew were already on the dole. I remember asking the deputy-headmistress about university once and just being told flat out that people like me didn’t go there.
What there was in my world was cheap fags (traded for dinner tickets in the school playground), John Peel’s Sounds of the Seventies, the NME, Dansette record players and affordable vinyl. I started out with a few second-hand singles – John Lennon, The Who, T-Rex, Bowie – and was amazed by Alice Cooper on Top of the Pops, but the first time music actually spoke to me was through the early work of the Sex Pistols; specifically, it was John Lydon, talking and singing about stuff that no one else was saying, not at home, school or in the media. You listened to him and you knew that he got you, that he wasn’t going to put up and shut up, and that you didn’t have to either. Now, before you start with all the alternative musicology, I know all the arguments about Pere Ubu, the New York Dolls, the MC-5, and Iggy and The Stooges. I loved The Ramones, I still have all my Crass, Wire, Magazine and Joy Division vinyl, and I’ve seen The Fall more times than I can remember, but for me, when it came to the initial and vital articulation of the rage and frustration of the working class teenage experience, and the whole Cold War, pre-apocalyptic idiocy of it all, it was Lydon that said it all. And he’s still saying it, as iconoclastic and combative as ever, with that same Dalek intensity, and just as fiercely independent: the reformation of PiL was entirely self-funded. He’s still performing, still working in order to perform, and still evolving. Every project, every PiL album, is different to the last, informed by the music of the many who have served, the unifying feature throughout being Lydon himself.
And when the Pistols imploded, the way revolutionary movements always do, and Malcolm McLaren was flogging the dead horse and turning everything it stood for into a pantomime and then a tragedy, I stuck with John and the Public Image project. Looking back as an academic, I think I began to understand revolution and experiment in art back then, with Lydon blazing a noisy, passionate trail as ever, moving from dada to expressionism and abstraction, throwing garage punk at heavy dub and all manner of world and even classical music, a shadow falling forward anticipating trance and industrial. And in the true Structuralist sense, everything was political. Like the man says, ‘Anger is an energy.’
On Wednesday night, he was brilliant, as was the band. I mean, they’re all avant-garde rock ’n’ roll royalty, look ’em up: Bruce Smith, Scott Firth, the remarkable Lu Edmonds… But Lydon was hypnotic, captivating. ‘You’re very quiet,’ he said, before the crowd kicked off, ‘I’ll take that as admiration.’ And it was; the atmosphere was reverent, although someone should maybe tell people my age that pulling out the old punk gear does look a bit ridiculous, even for Norwich. It was fascinating to watch a craftsman whose skills have been so honed by forty-odd years of performance – the idiosyncratic and much-impersonated moves, the style, the gallows humour, the edge and, most of all, the voice all there, growing old and still shouting. ‘I’m like a fine wine,’ said he, ‘I improve with age.’
You could see the whole history of the man in his face as he sang, with genuine passion, for the better part of two hours: new material, crowd pleasures and classics, ending with ‘Religion’ (Parts I and II), an angry atheist’s sermon from the first PiL album that the other Sex Pistols had apparently deemed too strong to record a few months earlier. In a new and darker age of fundamentalism and medieval levels of torture and murder, what else could he end on? There were traces of the teenager in there somewhere, too, miming to Alice Cooper, changing the world at the Marquee and the 100 Club; then there’s the older, wiser survivor – a man whose work made a lot of other people very rich – remembering and grieving, the son, the husband, the father, and, always, the jobbing artist. There was something mythic and Modernist about it all, like Epic Theatre: larger than life, challenging, mad and still very human and raw. When a couple of kids invaded the stage he put them down even more forcibly than security: ‘This is my stage, I’ve earned it, so stay the f*** off it.’ Yeah, he f***ing has.
So I stood there, old, bald, slowly going blind, on that sticky floor with my beautiful wife, thinking about my life, and that particular venue. I saw my first band there when I was fourteen or fifteen – it was The Revillos and the ticket cost 50 pence. I saw a lot of heroes there: The Cramps, Iggy Pop, Killing Joke, The Stranglers, The Damned, Bill Hicks, The Meteors, Alien Sex Fiend, The Anti-Nowhere League, The Sisters of Mercy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, bloody Hawkwind over and over again… I’ve lost count. (I’m aware I sound like my dad talking about Bob Dylan, but we all get there in the end. Eminem is already pushing forty.) And then, of course, there’s the university itself. After a suitably mis-spent youth (like they used to say at Stone Henge, ‘It’s never too late to have a happy childhood’), I actually went there, first as a student and then as a lecturer, because regardless of what a variety of dubious authority figures told me when I was a kid, if you worked hard enough and you didn’t give up then people like me did go to university. And, not being able to play the guitar or kick a football, that was my working class escape route. I remain, however, a bit Jude the Obscure, because if I was after middle class respectability and financial security I never really achieved it. I still write and work for myself more than for anybody else, but, by the same token, I don’t have a boss, and I have a lot more options than my mum and dad ever did.
So, yes, I admit it, this is a panegyric to John Lydon and Public Image Ltd, good and bad, warts and all. I don’t care. I’ll take anything, and in five decades I have never felt disappointed. He doesn’t need my endorsement, I’m nobody special, but I need to say it anyway. Thanks, mate, you changed the world, and you changed me, too. It hasn’t necessarily been any easier – I’m still an argumentative, cynical, sceptical old sod, and my side doesn’t usually win – but my life has undoubtedly been better for your continuing influence and example. Cheers.
This was the set, by the way:
‘Double Trouble’ – What The World Needs Now… (2015)
‘Know Now’ – What The World Needs Now…
‘This is a Not a Love Song’ – This is What You Want, This is What You Get (1984)
‘Poptones’ – Metal Box (1979)
‘Disappointed’ – 9 (1989)
‘The One’ – What The World Needs Now…
‘Deeper Water’ – This Is PIL (2012)
‘Corporate’ – What The World Needs Now…
‘Death Disco/Swan Lake’ – Metal Box
‘The Body’ – Happy? (1987)
‘Warrior’ – 9
‘Religion’ I & II – Public Image (1978)
‘Public Image’ – Public Image
‘Rise’ – Album
For a proper review of PiL at The Manchester Academy on September 19, have a look at Backseat Mafia.