A third of a century after the heyday of British punk, John Lydon can do without gobbing, one of the fabled scene’s viler customs. Wednesday night at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, during the first song of a marathon performance with a reformed version of his post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd., Lydon felt on his cheek a splatter, an unhappy reminder of the days when surly London teens would show affection for their musical heroes by showering them in saliva.
“You’re at the wrong gig at the wrong time, a–hole,” Lydon told the offending fan, sneering much like he did when he went by the apt surname Rotten. “If you spit on me one more time, I’m going to lacerate your f—ing face.”
A few songs later, Lydon simmered down and reassessed the situation. “You only spit on your enemies, and I have never been your enemy,” he said, declaring the sold-out club a “house of friends.” “Save it for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party chimpanzees.”
The peacemaker approach was appropriate, considering Lydon was looking to distance PiL from the Pistols. The groups share a similar defiant spirit, but musically, they’re almost nothing alike. Whereas Pistols tunes are three-minute time bombs, ready to blow, PiL songs are long tangles of sparking fuse. They’re not slow-burns, exactly, but they’re more tick-tick-tick than boom.
After the uncharacteristically anthemic opener, ‘This Is Not a Love Song,’ a driving punk-funk pop tune concise enough to have reached the British Top 10 in 1983, PiL laid into a series of much longer songs, layering drummer Bruce Smith’s disco beats, bassist Scott Firth’s dead-simple dub grooves and utility player Lu Edmond’s fiddly guitar and banjo bits.
Lydon’s voice was the fourth instrument, a cackling, quavering howl that took great effort to bring forth. The iconic frontman, visibly thrilled to be back on the road with PiL, would vibrate as he sang, shaking the strands of spiky blonde hair atop his head. Wednesday’s show was his second straight in New York City and the last stop on the PiL reunion tour. A film crew was on hand to document the event, but it never got between the group and its audience.
The camera surely captured Lydon’s trademark rants — he dissed George W. Bush and religion, big-upped Obama — and as entertaining as they were, the music was frequently better. ‘Albatross’ was 10 minutes of repetitive bass and stark, discomfiting throb. ‘Flowers of Romance,’ which found Lydon cracking sarcastic lovey-dovey smiles and blowing Marilyn Monroe-style kisses, was a sort of Adam Ant rockabilly number, complete with upright bass. On ‘Warrior,’ as Lydon paraphrased ‘This Land Is Our Land,’ the band fell in somewhere between New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and Haddaway’s ‘What Is Love?’
During the set-closing ‘Religion,’ Lydon called on the sound man, “Walter at the altar,” to jack up what he insisted the almighty created on the eighth day: bass. The already-prominent low-end notes reached a painful volume, and for several minutes, as Firth bore down on the same six ribcage-rattling notes, Lydon found another way to test the endurance of his audience.
“This is my roots,” Lydon said at the start of this three-song encore, “proper music for proper people.” The theme of the night was inclusion, and by the finale, ‘Open Up,’ he was sincerely thanking the stage crew and roadies. Lydon has described PiL as a corporation, not a band, and in that sense, Wednesday’s show — if not the entire tour — was a celebration of employees and shareholders. It was also a chance for the CEO to repackage and resell his personality, PiL’s only real product, a valuable commodity fans may have forgotten they need.