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.

Airborne Toxic Event and me. A love story.

5th November 2011, Shepherds Bush Empire, London

“This band means everything to us, its pretty much all we’ve got”

Every time I’ve seen The Airborne Toxic Event, singer Mikkel Jollett has said this towards the end of the gig.

If you’ve never seen the band then you may well think “Yeah, that’s bullshit” and I can see where you’re coming from – and I guess it has probably become an integral part of the show, like when Bruce Springsteen asks Miami Steve what time it is.

But you get the feeling that he means it.

The Airborne Toxic Event first came to my attention in November 2008 when they did a UK tour covering 30 gigs in 30 nights, including the more well-travelled cities but also places like Yeovil, Derby, Fife, Aldershot, Barrow In Furness, Dundee.

I’d be hard pressed to even GO to 30 gigs in 30 nights, even if they were all round the corner and I didn’t have to work.

I saw the band three times on that tour at their London residency, at gigs promoted by the excellent Club Fandango. (check out the video diary with a slightly bemused looking Steven Chen (guitar and keyboards) coming to terms with the UK)

Their first album had gotten a grey market UK release, forty minutes and ten tracks of sheer rock’n’roll genius, not a superfluous note or a wasted word.

The buzz got louder as to what a great live band they were. The crowd was bigger for each gig, and what a show they put on! In the tiny back room of the Dublin Castle in Camden they pounded out their songs of doomed love and big hooks. It was the closest I will ever get to seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Stone Pony, New Jersey.

And on the third night, when the singer jumped into the crowd for a bit of that old rock’n’roll down with the people stuff, he ignored all the adoring twenty-something girls, stuck his arm round my shoulders and the mike in my face, and I did the best I could to remember the words to “Gasoline”… Proud moment, although the cynical me did have room for the thought that he may have been trying to recreate the famous cover shot to “Born To Run”, and I was the only big fat brown man available.

Great band, great set of gigs.

So then through a series of personal mishaps on their part and having to leave the country for a while on my part (don’t ask), I went through 2009 and 2010 ATE-less. They cancelled a European tour in 2009 owing to ill-health and a couple of UK gigs too and I thought, well, that’s that. They’ve missed the boat now. Great band, fantastic album, at least we have the memories and they didn’t last long enough to get crap.

Early 2011. Back in the UK again, bit out of touch with music, scanning the TV listings and there on Sky Arts is a concert by The Airborne Toxic Event. At Disney Concert Hall (check name). Its lovely shot in B&W (check) with a choir and a marching band! There’s new songs! And a cover of the fabulous Magnetic Fields’ “The Book Of Love”!

Further investigation reveals a new album “All At Once” and, glory be, a UK tour ! They’re doing  a week of gigs in London, revisiting the smaller venues where they made their name locally. These gigs are sold out but I manage to get tickets for an intimate sit-down gig at the Drill Hall via Facebook.

And hearing them for the first time in stripped-down acoustic mode, its like listening to the songs again for the first time. They make so much sense sung quieter and less frenetically, and Mikkel’s extensive between-song yarns flesh out the story, which is, basically, that if a girl called Catherine hadn’t dumped him, all the great songs on the first album wouldn’t have been written.

Thank God for bad relationships. Happiness is overrated. At least when it comes to artists writing decent songs. But that’s a topic for another day…

So I seek out a ticket for any of the gigs in the rest of the week. I’m prepared to pay quite a lot.

Somebody on the fans forum has a spare for the Kings College gig and wants it to go to a fellow fan. I insist on payment, she refuses, so I end up buying her a drink in exchange for the ticket.

The gig is amazing, better than I have ever seen them play.

So up until April 2011 I had seen The Airborne Toxic Event five times for a grand total cost of £15.  Plus a pint of Guinness.

The ticket for Shepherds Bush Empire costs me more than the other five gigs combined – but the band is worth every penny, and then some.

A word about the songs. Lets be clear, there is nothing that original here. The Airborne Toxic Event are alchemists and mixers in the same way Blur and Oasis were. Mikkel knows exactly how to write a song, with the little pause before the whole song goes crazy – It is the utter conviction with which they play that makes the difference, its something that Springsteen has (obviously) and Dexys, and the Proclaimers, and the Hold Steady. None of those acts were particularly innovative, but they all bring a new freshness to the musical styles they plunder.

The stagecraft is superb – you do get that with American bands, they tend to be about putting on a show and less about being “too cool for school” than their British equivalents.

This is an excellent desktop backgroundmade by a far more dedicated fan than me and including some great shots of the gig, and a setlist also. Thanks Erfy. If that IS your real name… 8=)

No “Book Of Love” tonight which is a shame. They covered it before Peter Gabriel, and better than he did it. But check out the Magnetic Fields original , it’s the best version of the three.

And as for the encore… continuing the Brooce theme, they do an extended version of their chugging country rock anthem “Missy” incorporating snatches of “I’m On Fire”, ”I Fought The Law” and “Folsom Prison Blues”.

And its that triumvirate of Bruce, Clash and Cash that defines them, their influences and where they want to be.

There’s a genuine bond that exists between band and audience. I’ve never seen anybody else actually come down off the stage within five or ten minutes of the gig finishing for meet and greets, autographs and pictures. They do give the impression that they actually care about that stuff, and I’m still idealistic enough to think that’s important.

A quick word about the support band, Leeds’ The Chevin. Pretty standard anthemic indie but played well and vigorously and with enough in the songs to hold promise of things to come.

I reckon the best thing for them would be NOT to be hugely successful until the second album at least, lest they find themselves on the Big Pink path of premature expectation and end up writing a second album identical to the first.

In conclusion, as I type this I have by my side half a drumstick that drummer Daren Taylor tossed into the crowd at the end of the gig. Which I then got him to sign afterwards. I joke that it will be up on ebay tomorrow but we both know that I shall be treasuring it forever, along with the pick belonging to The War On Drugs and the setlists from The Broken Family Band. That’s right, setlists plural.

I should be way too old to get excited by that sort of thing – but there’s something about this band that turns me into a teenager again.

And ain’t that the whole function of rock music?