In their earliest days, both the US and UK punk scenes lived by the rock ‘n’ roll rally cry written by Pete Townshend for the Who in 1965: “I hope I die before I get old.” Some followed the call into oblivion and left the punk world before they and it got supposedly commercialized and artistically weak. But for those that remained, which were many of the scenes’ most enduring musicians, the question remains: what happens when you get old? How can one translate the spirit of resistance that let you cry “Hope I die” when burning out passed you by long ago? How can you still rebel when you’ve carried on, finding yourself in a status of respectability? John Lyndon gave Washington, DC answers to those questions when Public Image Ltd. gave an intimate performance at U Street Music Hall this past Tuesday night.
Lyndon, for those not in the know, is probably better known by his stage name “Johnny Rotten.” As the front man of the Sex Pistols—still one of the most incendiary and volatile bands in the mainstream canon of rock and roll—Lyndon partook in defining aesthetics and ethics of the UK punk scene to the masses on both sides of the pond. Following the Pistols’ break-up in 1978, Lyndon would abandon the live fast-die young musical and behavioral direction of the punk movement when he formed Public Image Ltd., one of the pioneers of post punk. That directional shift is what allows Lyndon—the sole constant of PiL—to still entertain and incite rebellion in a way that feels organic. He does not come off as a washed-up revolutionary pining for his past position of power, rather a preacher whose message is malleable to fit the time.
“Just seems to be about every song we write is a rebellion,” Lyndon told the sold out crowd before launching into their bi-polar dance punk piece “Out of the Woods” from 2012’s This is PiL. What do Lyndon and PiL have to rebel against? Unlike The Wild Onewho would rebel against anything, Public Image Ltd.’s focus is razor sharp: they know their enemies and craft their songs to act as kryptonite spears.
In a socio-political lens, there are the familiar topics that rock music has set in its crosshairs since day one. But one-dimensional tirades against “Corporate” or “Religion,” from PiL’s releases in 2015 and 2012, respectively, are for the work of young, piss-and-vinegar songwriters; Lyndon and PiL challenge their audience with ideologically varied, cheeky political think pieces. “Corporate,” was less a classic railing against the accused evils of big business and more a howling address to the electronically distanced nature of contemporary society. Lyndon howled—in the Banshee wail, mile-a-minute rant style that has developed since the Sex Pistols—“Here’s your World Wide Web and your iCloud…I’m here for you,” even as scores of audience members took photos, snapchatted, tweeted and posted about the moment. It hurts to be so right sometimes, huh John?
The members of PiL also proved themselves apt and adapting their message to the city they play in. Where “Religion” does come off as strong, horror-movie like condemnation of the Catholic/English Church, Lyndon snuck in some deeper truth to the manic, Gollum-meets-Pazuzu sermon he gave. For all his politicizing, Lyndon declared that he “Should be in the Republican debate.” After a call-and-response that sprung from a mention of Donald J. Trump, Lyndon gave a stare that hit the soul of everyone in the room and roared “This is your religion!” He was all too right, considering the crowd he was addressing.
Musically, Public Image Ltd. and post-punk are a rebellion against the, at time, agonizingly repetitive sonic formulae of punk music. In the case of PiL, this translates to a aural arsenal that ranges from the mechanical whir of proto-industrial percussion, the popping grooves of 80s worldbeat, whiffs of reggae and island syncopation, spy rock riffage, flairs of Spanish/Arab scales and the beats of early dance music. All of this is then transcribed on top of the energy and exploratory inquisitiveness of classic punk music. Guitarist Lu Edmonds began incorporating an electric saz—a seven-stringed Turkish/Iranian instrument—when he joined PiL, and the even the tiniest tonal differences it brought sounded like a radical challenge to the guitar-based conventions of rock music.
Vocally, Lyndon challenges the mile-a-minute whine of his early years, and countless subsequent punks modeling themselves on it, through his modern, more methodical, preacher’s delivery. What Lyndon may lack in sheer range, belting prowess, or flashy technique, he more than makes up for in lung capacity, range of manipulative tools, and that unearthly howl that still makes every hair in the room stand to. Lyndon know he’s not the best technical singer; so he crafts himself into one whose virtuosity lies in range of expression rather than range of notes.
Lyndon, and the rest of Public Image Ltd.’s answer to the question posed by “Hope I Die Before I Get Old,” is not one of resignation but resolution. With age comes wisdom; insight with wisdom; and with insight the better ability to connect to your audience and adapt your revolutionary message. Before the group closed out their nearly-two hour set with the So-sounding “Rise,” Lyndon gave a cheeky grin as he addressed the crowd, “Just more songs of rebellion, but you know…” Lyndon left the statement unfinished: a tacit assurance that more rebellion is to come.
To learn more about Public Image Ltd.’s music and career, visit www.pilofficial.com