Public Image Ltd and not the Sex Pistols, was John Lydon's greatest creation, and his first two PiL albums, with Jah Wobble and Keith Levine, stand as achievements of immense magnitude. But Johnny couldn't maintain it, and an album later, fired his band and released the Live In Tokyo album. It suddenly become crystal clear that PiL was Johnny was PiL.
Fast forward 30 years and Johnny is performing the last song before the encore of a two hour set at the depressingly empty Hammerstein Ballroom Saturday night. The sang began life as "Sod In Heaven", written for the Pistols, but John took it with him when he quit and turned it into a Psalm of sorts, renaming it "Religion I" and the angst direness of "Religion II". Lydon merged the two and the 15 minute version he sang on Saturday began with new words, condemning Catholic Priests for child molestation, before continuing his shout down of organized theology for hypocrisy, theft, and arrogance. For taking poor peoples money with promises they can't keep.
Lydon has been in fine voice all night, gargling inbetween 8, 10, 15 minute tour de forces, to keep his pipes clear. There is rust on them, age has deepened his voice without changing it. On "Religion", John uses his stentorian whine -so unique it singlehandedly changed a country, in the force of theological discourse, he is not a rabid punk anarchist, he is a smart, focused rabble rouser. The time seems to stand still as Lydon who spits out his words, half rap, half the voice of authority, pouring on the polemic.
PiL are in town to sell their new album, This Is PiL, the first new material in twenty years . And though they only pull out three songs for the album, given that it is 2012, the sound they generate is very close to The Metal Box: a bass so heavy it sounds like dub and a disco so fraught with anguish it seems to be dancing at its funeral, that is really all they had time to. The album is excellent, maybe his third best. Every song on it is great, it is as if he jumped not 20 but 30 years.
But the tour isn't doing well, Lydon had toured in 2011 and many people who caught it, to be among the best in his career. But This Is PiL didn't sell well, and it was too soon for a return. And… the tickets were too expensive. I paid $100 for my balcony seat, If he had priced them for $25 – $40 he would have done much better.
But New York missed out because Lydon is in tip top shape. A little tubby now, with untucked white shirt, baggy pants and yellow hair, he lead his three piece band through art-rock classics, new and old, which proved just how influential he was on everything from trip hop to modern dance. Everything began and started with the bass, his one real instruction all night was "Turn the bass higher" and by the end of the night, the first balcony was vibrating.
The entire evening we were in the hands of a master, when a bouncer used too much force against a fan, he set everybody straight. "There will be no need for you" he told the muscleman before advising the audience. "We are all friends here. This is my stage, stay off it. That is your stage,' he said pointing to the floor. "There was no more trouble.
Playing songs from all parts of his career, two off The Metal Box, four off the newbie, Lydon brought absolute power and conviction, letting the songs develop at their own pace as he powered them with that world beating voice, and in a performance of "Death Disco" letting his back up band play with both the disco and the classical elements. Like every song he played tonight, except the ones off the second album where his 1979 performance at the Palladium was unbeatable, these were the best imaginable. The new songs didn't just fit in, they shone, "Reggie" is as great a song as Lydon has ever put his name to. "I'm no vulture, this is my culture" he sings on "One Drop", a fascinating dissertation on the ineffable nature of being.
The penultimate song of the evening was "Rise", with, in a set not built for it, the audience joining in on "Anger is an energy". If Lydon was upset with the light turn out he certainly didn't show it. He was 100% on, bopping up and down, arms to the heaven, dancing to the powerful deep bass beats, and triggering his disco charges as he lead a fine band. A terrific performance by the man who changed the face of modern music.