It’s tricky to pin down when John Lyndon morphed from enfant terrible to national treasure – were those notorious butter ads the cause of, or in response to, the phenomenon? Whatever the timeline, the metamorphosis is assuredly complete - the snarling, snotty disaffection of his youth is now caught in the aspic of BBC4 retrospective documentaries and the occasion rerun of a Julian Temple film. This, though, is the key to Lyndon’s magnificence. It’s worth reflecting that his initial burst of fame predates that of countless acts now trading off past glories, while he pushes all of that to one side. Back in the day, you might have caught PiL doing a supercharged version of "Pretty Vacant", but since reforming the band in the late noughties (that was what the adverts were for, by the way) it’s always been about looking forward. Watching the band today it’s hard to even imagine he practically invented a musical genre, only to cast it aside, though it’s typical of this contrary fellow that this latest outing is cheekily titled the "Public Image is Rotten Tour" (just in case we might completely forget where all this started).
Let’s just get one grumble out the way first, though. Support bands can prove to be a delightful surprise, as an entirely unfamiliar act grabs your attention with songs previously unheard tickling your ears with the promise of future triumphs. Equally, they can be a discordant racket, barely listened to by a disinterested crowd, and the cause of frustrating and tiresome changeover delay. In short, they are tricky to get right, so warming up the crowd with a DJ instead can be a pragmatic and effective alternative. Last year, Jon Dasilva (former resident DJ at The Haçienda) kicked off for the Happy Mondays, warming up the crowd nicely by deftly building up a crescendo of pounding sound that proved to be the perfect opener for the band. Sadly, what we got prior to Public Image Limited was a bloke playing records – mostly low key dub and reggae to a largely empty room – for what seemed like forever. Gradually the auditorium filled with people as his interminable and undistinguished set trudged on, not because of interest, or even curiously, but transparently due a desire to establish a strategic vantage point from which the band could be seen. Bear in mind that this is a mature crowd we are talking about – why make the poor devils stand for over an hour waiting, while nothing much at all happened, just so they can protect their POV? I almost felt sorry for the DJ, unloved and unnoticed on stage, but nothing became him like the leaving it.
It was, therefore, a bored and therefore subdued audience that confronted PiL when they launched into a blistering version of “Warrior”, and though it was quickly and clearly obvious the band was determined to blast away the cobwebs, it took the anthemic “Body” to bring the crowd truly on board. Dramatically lit from the outset, the staging was all about Lyndon. Flanked by Lu Edmonds on guitars and Scott Firth on bass, both of them performing in the shadows, and with Bruce Smith tucked away behind his drum kit, the spotlight remained on Lyndon throughout. He remains an extraordinarily charismatic fellow, wildly gesticulating behind his crib sheet music stand and dressed in a baggy, striped black shirt and trouser combo, topped off with a white collar. It brought to mind a fire and brimstone preacher - imagine Mark Williams from the Father Brown TV series going nuts and you’re getting remarkably close.
Despite complaining of a throat problem he sounded in fine voice – the worry of it impinging on his performance far more than the practical limitations he might have imagined. If anything, the pained torment of “Death Disco” sounded all the more authentic when his vocals occasionally cracked. Undercut by Edmonds’s eccentric homage to Tchaikovsky, it was the first of many stand-out moments in the set. Despite the occasional lapse - “The Room I Am” was an indifferent poem that had Lyndon seemingly channeling Hawkwind’s Bob Calvert – the evening proved to be a showcase of treat after treat, as the superb musicianship of his fellows allowed Lyndon free reign to extemporise his way through classics such as “Cruel”, “Fishing” and the evergreen “Flowers of Romance”.
Inevitably, the set closed on some of their better known songs, with something tentatively approaching a sing along for “This is Not a Love Song” and “Rise”. If the crowd seemed a tad muted (“I can’t hear you!” Lyndon would occasionally bellow) I don’t think the cause was indifference, despite Lyndon’s continuing concern that he was below par. Glancing around at the faces about me, it looked much more like hushed reverence for one of music’s last truly great showmen. When he nipped off stage, helpfully assuring us that is would only be for a couple of minutes while he had a fag, the audience duly waited with a quiet patience I’ve never witnessed at a gig before. No stomping, no chanting, no baying for an encore. Just a dignified fortitude until the band returned with a their eponymous signature tune, before closing with a brilliantly profane fusion of “Open Up” with “Shoom”, in which he typically, and repeatedly, told us all to fuck off.