"Proper fucking noise!" John Lydon declared with a crooked grin on Tuesday, facing a crowd at Club Nokia in Los Angeles for the opening night of Public Image Ltd.'s first U.S. tour in 18 years. "If you want to be mellow, that's fine by me. If you want to squeal like a pig, that's fucking fine by me."
For nearly two hours, Lydon and the reformed PiL reignited loud and brooding songs from across the band's history, in a show that doubled as a warm-up gig for the band's Friday performance at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. "What a fucking audience," Lydon said happily. "The only one spitting is me."
Lydon twice left a lasting mark on the modern evolution of rock & roll. As Johnny Rotten, he was a punk rock originator, playing frontman and instigator for the tragically short-lived Sex Pistols, and then quickly went about obliterating that movement as a post-punk pioneer at the center of the more experimental Public Image Ltd. And he did both before he even turned 21.
In 2010, Lydon appeared onstage less like a young man who might jump down your throat than immovable object, his provocative vocals rooted not only in rage but experience. He wailed with real pain during "Death Disco," a song written as his mother was dying, as guitarist Lu Edmonds unraveled intense, ringing riffs like a loaded spring.
There were no Pistols songs played (unlike earlier tours) and none needed, as PiL operated amid swirling dark clouds of noise, emphasizing the brooding, uncompromising tone of PiL's sound. The group's early signature song, "Public Image," was not far removed from the raw, straight-ahead rock of the Pistols, but with a guitar sound that became the template for U2's the Edge and other players. "Albatross" was all post-punk gloom and slicing riffs, while the deep grooves of "Religion" were provocative and riveting, as Lydon turned toward drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth and said: "Turn up the bass! Do you want more bass?"
Fans sang back at the appropriate moments, as if PiL hadn't been out of action all these years. After a shout-along to "Disappointed," Lydon announced, "I need to take a piss and I need to catch my breath. You don't mind if we take our break now, do ya? I'm fucking desperate!" He was back onstage after a few minutes.
Lydon has taken some abuse in recent years for appearing in a butter commercial back in Britain and for joining, and then abandoning, the cast of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, among other TV projects. But he's never watered down he essential persona, and it was in full bloom amid the affectionate taunting and ranting between songs, his eyes bulging as always.
After the tribal beat and more shredding from Edmonds on a dissonant "Flowers of Romance," Lydon leered at his fans and advised them, "Let that into your bowels!"
"This is Not A Love Song"
"Flowers of Romance"