Wednesday, March 14, 2012

DVD Review: Public Image Limited: Live at Rockpalast 1983

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Public Image Limited: Live at Rockpalast 1983
Directed by Christian Wager
MIG / WDR, 1983 / 2011
58 minutes, USD $19.95

Public Image Limited (aka PiL) is not just the band that John Lydon formed after his time with the Sex Pistols, but once it’s initial members left (and pretty early on in the 1980s), essentially it became the name of Lydon’s back-up group, since musicians came and went so fast during it’s initial 14-year run (1978-1994; though a version reformed in 2009).

There is certainly a marked difference between the Pistols and PiL, despite both starting with the letter “P,” and that is certainly to Lydon’s credit. While the former were musically talented, they were certainly not very disciplined. The latter, on the other hand – and this is especially true in later incarnations of the band – were a tight and consistent unit.

For a series of shows in Germany and Japan – part of which was taped for this release when they appeared at the “uberdisco” Zeche, in Bochum, Western Germany, on Halloween 1983 – Lydon assembled a collection of touring musicians to join him and original PiL drummer Martin Atkins. While the rest of the band doesn’t necessarily look the part (guitarist Joseph Guida, for example, looks like he should be in a pre-hair-metal rock band), they certainly play like they do, giving Lydon a strong backing for his music.

During the Pistol days, in “Johnny Rotten” mode, it seemed all Lydon did was give that tilt-headed, unblinking glare which works for about a minute, and snarl out some lyrics while being a living embodiment of sarcasm. In PiL, however, while some of that still exists, he seems a lot more relaxed, and, dare I say it without destroying his public image (pun intended), he seems to be having a good time. Rather than just hanging on the mic stand, hunched over and screaming, he jumps off the stage and approaches the audience pretty often, and frequently does that reggae-style skank dancing. Heck, he even smiles repeatedly. No, this is not JR, this is JL, even though he still occasionally leans in and sings into the camera.

As this excellent performance shows, PiL take an early Stooges and / or later Flamin’ Groovies influence and base many songs on a single riff, such as with “Religion,” that is played in a round, over and over, with slight changes. Mix in a bit of atonal No Wave, and this makes it hypnotic. PiL creates something of their own though, by also adding a reggae touch (just a smidge) and an elaborate keyboard set-up that would make Rick “I’m Boring” Wakeman notice.

If I had to pick a quintessential PiL-styled song from this DVD, it would be “Memories,” though my fave is by far one of their biggest successes, relatively speaking, “Bad Life.” In this one Lydon doesn’t sing as much as atonally caterwaul. It’s more known, however, for the repeated line, “This is what you want / This is what you get…” On the DVD box, however, they state that the band’s biggest hit was “(This is Not a) Love Song.” Fair enough.

While it may not be the classic Lydon-Wobble-Levene-Atkins version of PiL, this put-together band still delivers the sound. [Two quick sidebar PiL stories: when PiL first played in New York City at the Ritz in 1981, they stood silhouetted behind a curtain while the club played prerecorded tracks. The ticket-paying fans were not impressed, and the resulting riot did a lot of damage to the club. Second, while I was working for cable access show Videowave, PiL was scheduled to appear for an interview, but the story we heard from their management was that Levene was MIA looking for drugs, so the rest of the band decided not to bother showing up, being the only non-shows in Videowave history, other than a new, young singer named Madonna Ciccone.] Quite honestly, I was not impressed with PiL back then, finding them too contrived for my Ramones-Heartbreakers-Dictators taste, but this DVD shows that there was definitely something there quite interesting, in a more primal way. This especially shown in the song “Under the House,” where everyone on stage other than Lydon rhythmically pounds drums together, while he sings / chants.

As a surprise, for the eighth song Lydon dusts off his Rotten character and delves into “Anarchy in the U.K.,” showing he still has some of the fire that lit up the Pistols. While played a bit too sterile (i.e., not sloppy, like the Pistols, but sounding more precise like the studio album/single), I’m not complaining; I sang along with it and enjoyed it. And as not a surprise, after the song, Lydon says goodnight and leaves the stage with the band. Short 33-minute set?

Well, as you can see below, they came back and played nearly as long an encore as the set itself, thankfully. Between each of these songs, though, they leave the stage and then return. Oddly, they end their show with “Public Image.” Why is this odd? Because they began the gig with the exact same song. Happily, it’s a good one.

In all, there is a total performance from beginning to end, and nearly an hour of music. Lydon’s between-song comments are kept to a minimum (thankfully), and the music stands out.

The Rockpalast series was/is far superior to any of the then-contemporary American relatives like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concerts or In Concert, because the German version played the entire show (I have no idea if the original airing had commercials or not), and did not resort to any of the ridiculous special effects that the U.S. ones did, such as split screens, flipping the images, annoying angles, or the dreaded kaleidoscope effect (that’s where there are five images in a circular pattern, and they twirl around the center). Rather, you have clear images using multi-camera editing, and a dynamic sound for its time period (i.e., pre-HD).

There are two extras: the first is a six-minute interview with Lydon done by Rockpalast host Alan Bangs. Lydon seems to be wearing pajamas and a bathrobe (I should go back and see if he’s wearing slippers…). He asks some decent questions, about such topics as the original PiL members (Lydon states that they’re busy with their “own projects,” which is to musicians what “spending more time with their families” is to politicians) and Lydon’s experience working on the film Cop Killer. Before long though, Lydon being Lydon, he gets bored and says, “Are we done?” and walks off. Y’see, Lydon is solid ego. His public persona has always (well, since joining the Pistols anyway) believed that what he feels at any particular moment, is the most important thing, regardless of anyone else’s needs. Now, one can look at this admiringly, as being his own person. I find it’s easier to be like that than have to attended to someone behaving in that manner. Being obnoxious is only good in the first person, but again, Lydon being Lydon, he has never been able to think beyond his own skin. I mean this as an observation rather than a judgment… Okay, maybe it’s a bit of both…

The second extra is the band – with Lydon still in PJs and robe – soundchecking “Annalisa” and “Chant.”

I would recommend this without hesitation. It’s Lydon and his music at the top of his game, and an easy groove with which to have some fun.

John Lydon: Vocals
Joseph Guida: Guitar
Louis Bernardi: Bass
Arthur Stead: Keyboards
Martin Atkins: Drums

Set List:
Public Image Limited
Flowers of Romance
Anarchy in the U.K.
(This is Not a) Love Song
Low Life
Under the House
Bad Life
Public Image II

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