If you can forgive those adverts for the butter (and please do – actually they were pretty funny and they did fund new PiL music, so let’s all just get over it, shall we?), John Lydon must surely be one of the most iconic musical artists still occupying a stage. Tonight’s stage was the O2 Indigo, the second (but still significant) performance space under the East London tent. The gig was part of a tour promoting PiL’s 2015 self-released album What The World Needs Now and the scheduled stage time was 8.45pm.
At 8.45pm precisely (it’s all a little less anarchistic these days) PiL came onto the Indigo stage accompanied by chants of “Johnny, Johnny”. Johnny responded with part smile, part scowl, and we were off. PiL have been around nearly as long as Lydon it seems; a remarkable thirty-eight years in fact – albeit with a sixteen-year hiatus from 1993. There have been multiple line-up changes in that time, the only consistency being generated by Lydon himself. The current band of Lydon on vocals, Lu Edmonds on guitars, Scott Firth on bass and Bruce Smith on drums is the one that reformed with the filthy butter cash in 2009 and is the most consistent line-up of any. It’s no surprise that they seemed entirely at ease with each other.
They opened with Albatross, a song that contains the staple ingredients of what PiL is all about: throbbing bass and drums, ethereal swirling guitars, guttural, snarling vocals. These days he’s not Rotten, there’s no running about, no gobbing, and his hair no longer defies gravity. Lydon occasionally relies on the lyrics that are before him atop a lectern and he occasionally wears glasses too, though whether this is to help with seeing the words or the audience isn’t entirely obvious. Were it not for the racket, the other three musicians and the giant ‘PiL’ logo hanging behind him, he looks like he could be delivering a speech at party conference. The only difference being that his opinions and convictions might actually be worth something. He’s not afraid to share those convictions either: introducing The One by growling “This is a love song for our soldiers who are still out there fighting over a fucking little bit of sand. This is our England and I love it!”.
The new record was well represented tonight with no less than seven songs coming from it, though not surprisingly the highlights came in the form of the older stuff that was played. Religion, a none too subtle pop at the Catholic Church, was epic, if very, very long. For this Scott Firth played an electric upright bass, presumably because the Fender Jazz he wore the rest of the time didn’t vibrate deeply enough through internal organs. “Do you like the bass?” asked Lydon part way through the song. We did. “Turn up the bass!” he cried moments later. ‘That’s not possible’ we all thought. Wrong. It was possible. The bass became trouser flappingly loud. The set closed with Rise, a sing-a-long classic and the floor, filled with middle-aged, middle class ex-punks duly obliged. It ought to be a condition of entry at PiL gigs that you bring a photo of what you looked like 40 years ago.
They came back out with I’m Not Satisfied and Shoom, both from the new record, sandwiching Leftfield’s Open Up – the only cover of the night. The encore was practically a gig in itself. In total, PiL played for 2 hours; not bad going considering the singer is just into his seventh decade. Lydon might have disgustingly helped increase sales of churned milk fat eight years ago, but the wide grins leaving the O2 tonight indicated an audience bereft of any concerns of selling out or feelings of being short-changed. Lydon and his band felt as fresh, invigorated and relevant now as they ever have and long may it continue.
Review and Photography by Simon Reed of PiL on Saturday 4th June 2016.
See more of Simon Reed’s music photography on his personal website: www.musicalpictures.co.uk