Public Image Limited, Bristol Academy

The Boy Looked At Johnny (1977)

There was this awkward, shy, Asian lad from South London.

He lived in an area where there were at best three or four non-white families and while he was growing up he was subject to regular racially-based jollity from the less tolerant neighbours and occasional threatened violence.

He was a pretty good runner so managed to avoid it becoming actual violence though 8=)

1976/77 was an awkward time to look different in London. The National Front was on the rise. (For younger readers, they were like the British National Party only they didn’t really bother to try to appear respectable)

They were gaining massive ground, certainly in London where at one point an opinion poll gave them 20% of the vote.

There was also this youth movement going on, based on some loud, fast guitar-based music people called punk rock.

The major figures (as far as this boy was concerned) were The Clash and the Sex Pistols.

The Clash released a song called “White Riot”, which on casual listening seemed to have troublesome lyrics that were certainly not intended by the song’s writers.

The Sex Pistols didn’t seem to be as political as The Clash, but they rocketed to national infamy after swearing on live teatime television.

The people who liked these bands dressed very strangely – torn jeans, weird,menacing haircuts and the occasional swastika.

The National Front saw this, and made certain assumptions about punks. The boy was a bit worried about this, although he loved the music. There were reports of the NF infiltrating gigs to try and recruit.

Then two things happened. The singer of the Clash introduced their version of the reggae classic “Police And Thieves” song on stage with the words

“This is a song written by a wog, and anyone who doesn’t like wogs can fuck off”.

And in the run-up to the local elections, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, a skinny, gobby, weird looking fucker called Johnny Rotten, whose quotes in the press and on TV mainly consisted of snarly put-downs and pisstaking, said the following about the National Front

“How can anyone vote for something so ridiculously inhuman?”

A clear, clear statement from the punk movement’s main figure that the racists were not cool.

Now this may not sound like a big deal in an era when anti-racism in all musicians is taken for granted, but believe me, back then it really meant something

The boy looked at Johnny and said “thanks mate”.

Part Two – The Man Looked At John (2012)

“Hello Bristol. Country Life. Do you want to see my knob of butter?”

John Lydon comes in for a lot of stick, some of it perhaps justified.

I know all about the butter adverts – but I can’t really complain about people “selling out” when I am currently working on a contract for a insurance company.

And the Pistols never claimed to be communists, did they?

And the stuff in the jungle on “I’m A Celebrity” was brilliant. I still maintain the old bugger walked out because he realised he was in danger of winning and becoming a National Treasure.

I’ve deliberately stayed away from the various Sex Pistols nostalgia-fests. Some things are best left in the past.

But Public Image Limited are a different matter. From the start, they were different, as far as you could get from the expected “John’s punk band” when the Pistols imploded.

Always managed to miss seeing them live though until this evening. I’m far more excited about it than a man of my age should be, strictly speaking.

PiL start with “This Is Not A Love Song” and within a couple of numbers its clear where the inspiration comes from – this is basically a white rock band playing with a dub reggae sensibility. Scotty’s concrete piledriver bass is an excellent rendition of Jah Wobble’s work on “Public Image” and “Metal Box”. What really gets me is how bloody danceable this all is – in ’79 you wouldn’t have DANCED to Albatross, but tonight it’s impossible not to.

PiL play for two hours, and for once, an old band playing the songs from the new album is if anything better than the greatest hits.

“Reggie Song”, “Deeper Water”, “One Drop” and “Lollipop Opera” (below) are all instant classics, fitting in seamlessly with the back catalogue.

If the gig has a low point – and in two hours this is inevitable – its some of the late eighties stuff where the band went all stadium rock. I do like “Rise” but I’m bemused that it gets the biggest reception of the evening.

Highlight for me is a powerful extended version of “Religion II” with blood-red stage lighting giving the impression of a church – a scary memory for all lapsed Catholic boys, on stage and off.

“Thirty years and you’re still scared of me. I am your friend. Your special friend.”

PiL were a long way ahead of their time, so they never really got the major recognition they deserved – and it always looked to nme as if Lydon was too concerned with being the outsider to play the game and clean up financially – and you have to respect that, I think.

Only in the past ten years, with record deals hard to come by and careering into middle age, has he mellowed to the point where he appears on TV and radio shows

He’s still prepared to play Johnny Rotten (see his recent appearance on Question Time). I didn’t watch it, to be honest – I didn’t need to, I knew exactly what he’d do and I was too busy listening to the new album.
Awesome evening, well pleased, and if my other Catholic musical hero can deliver as much next year I will probably be able to die a happy man.

No, I don’t mean Boy George.

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