Heaven, London, April 2
PiL is John Lydon’s escape route. First, when they formed in 1978, it meant freedom from the expectations and manipulation that dogged the Sex Pistols. Then, when the band reanimated in 2009, it was a path back to credibility after butter ads and reality TV. To the cognoscenti, after all, PiL’s second album ‘Metal Box’ from 1979 is Johnny Rotten’s best record.
But nostalgia could never be enough for him, and May will bring the first PiL album in two decades, boldly titled ‘This is PiL’. Is this out with the old and in with the new? As usual, it’s complicated. Judging from new songs forcefully aired tonight, ‘This is PiL’ delves deeper than ever into the band’s earliest inspirations: genres beyond punk’s tight borders. Opener ‘Deeper Water’ conjures mellifluous dub reggae, while the brazen ‘Lollipop Opera’ is powered by a growled dancehall-style lyric. Elsewhere, ’70s Krautrock is embraced afresh.
Lyrically, this LA resident remains preoccupied with Finsbury Park and Britishness, but, with John Lydon, contradictions come at every turn. Though there is punk attitude – he spits, swigs brandy, scorches a heckler – he is generally a font of good vibes. “Bass will purify your soul,” he declares, and later, “friends are for forgiving”. But typically, the 56-year-old adds: “I forgive you, for instance. Call that applause?”
The setlist spans every PiL era, from avant-garde and dance experiments to pristine ’80s anthems. Lydon’s fond of stadium-rock moves – clapalongs with the audience, the micstand extended into the crowd – and it makes for incongruous moments. Yet his music has never lost intensity. Tonight, it overwhelms even him as he grows tearful during ‘Death Disco’. For all his poised disdain, Lydon still cares.
No band can hold full attention throughout a two-and-half-hour set in which 10-minute songs are more norm than exception. But the tedious overuse of false endings doesn’t overpower the excitement that a reinvigorated John Lydon commands. This, clearly, is one fugitive who it will always be worth pursuing.
This article originally appeared in the April 21st issue of NME