It’s always a good thing to get out of your musical comfort zone. PiL playing a gig at Reading’s Sub89 provided an opportunity to see the post-punk legends featuring the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten in action. A few clips from their 2013 Glastonbury set, and a hilariously funny new single were enough to suggest they were worth seeing.
They opened with that single, with sweary lyrics about broken toilets and having to get the plumber in. If you only know John Lydon (as he now calls himself) from the days when he was Johnny Rotten, PiL are a very different beast. Instead of three-chord primal rock’n'roll it’s dub-reggae tinged bass riffs and intricate guitar textures. Lu Edmonds with his overgrown beard and slightly disturbing stare is what Rasputin might have looked like had he been a rock musician, swapping between guitar and electric bağlama, sometimes making some very Robert Fripp-like sounds. The amazingly tight rhythm section provided the foundation of the music giving Edmonds the space to weave textures and colours around the grooves.
As for Lydon himself, the standard refrain that he can’t sing was never really accurate. He does have a highly unconventional and individual vocal style, and you can still hear the influence of Peter Hammill in the way he uses his voice as much as a lead instrument than as a vehicle for the lyrics. He’s still got a definite rock star charisma, and his voice is still in remarkably good shape compared with some of his peers. His atonal howling could be compelling, though you often found yourself listening as much to the infectious bass grooves or the inventive guitar lines.
“Death Disco” was a particular highlight, with Lu Edmonds alternately riffing and repeating the motif from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”, which in combination with the circular bassline came over like a muscular version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. The main set ended with a dark and theatrical polemic against religion, culminating in the repeated chant of “Turn Up The Bass”, which was indeed turned up to levels where you felt the low frequencies in your guts rather than your ears. After all that, the more conventional pop of the encores, ending in “Rise” was just a coda to the evening.
Even for someone who normally listens to metal and progressive rock, this was a great gig. Lydon has still got it, is currently on great form, and the other three musicians form a very tight and inventive band. And if you stop and think about it, the combination of a guitarist who sometimes sound like Robert Fripp and a singer whose major influence is Peter Hammill is actually a bit Prog.