“Everyone here is so old!” stage whispers a woman to her queuemate outside the UEA. “How dare you?” I gently mock back, however she is not wrong. We are as far from the formation of Public Image tonight as they were from Hitler being named as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, and the mohicans have all grown longer overnight. The impression that there is a well of middle-aged politeness to proceedings is little dissipated once inside by the gentleman perched on the steps down into the central auditorium’s well passing the hour until show time (nine o’clock sharp!) by reading a hefty hardback volume, and the number of extra chairs laid out around the venue. A pointless onstage DJ plays vintage ska records.
There is a saying that one should judge a person by their actions, not their looks, but as PiL take the stage there is an overwhelming temptation to assign the roles immediately. On drums and bass, imagine Kermode and Mayo having bulked up considerable in order to play the lead roles in a remake of The Krays. Stage right, one of Geoffrey Bayldon’s more outre characters is being workshopped, hidden behind the PA stack (and with a full complement of onstage monitors) a gentleman who appears to perform nothing more or less than the role of the lead singer’s batman or major-domo and, front and centre, Little Johnny Lydon who may or may not have forgotten to change out of his pyjama bottoms prior to the show.
Nontheless, the noise they make is glorious. Drummer Bruce Smith gives every impression of being one of the few people who could reasonably replace Charlie Watts at the drop of (hi) hat, Scott Firth shakes the very fillings (or false teeth) of the crowd and Lu Edmonds – for it is he – happily breaks one of Robert Forster’s ten commandments of rock and roll by swapping guitar every single song (on the one occasion he doesn’t, there is an alternate bass wheeled forward for Firth instead). I say ‘guitar’ – much of the set is performed on what looks like a long-necked lute, heavily customised with pick ups and switches and fed through an effects board which is not so much the size of a small house, but bears no little resemblance to a scaled model village bas-relief of Norwich itself. This is the instrument (peers over half moon spectacles – “A ‘Saz’, I am led to believe, Your Honour”) which is played with a slide during a triumphant, climactic ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ later on.
Lydon initially seems in fine voice. Two songs in he pauses proceedings to inform us that he is on the bounce back from a heavy ‘flu attack and to apologise for the state of his singing. There is a large dustbin on stage into which he expectorates enthusiastically throughout. I don’t know if this is a regular thing or whether it’s just for tonight, nevertheless he seems genuinely touched at our imagined indulgence. Imagined, because he is on cracking form. I’m not bigly into their back catalogue, so until those ones you recognise at the end (‘…Love Song’, ‘Public Image’, a splendidly doomy ‘Open Up’) they could have been playing the entire new album for all I know. Or care. Avuncularly Dad-shimmying throughout, TAFKAJR spits (sometimes literally) lyrics over his band’s sonic cathedral (TM) provoking no little gentle hopping from foot to foot down on the dancefloor. Or ‘floor’ as we’ll call it. At one point, during a sententious bit of beat poetry delivered over a doomy soundscape someone (possibly in a ‘Destroy’ leather jacket) yells “Fuck off”. It’s all we can do not to tut them out of town.
As the actual legitimate harmonies of the chorus of ‘Rise’ fade away we are informed that the lead singer will now retire to the dressing room for a fag before resuming his duties, which leads to the unprecedented – certainly in my experience – sight of an audience waiting patiently, having a chat, nipping to the loo and checking their phones to see if the babysitter’s been in touch whilst waiting patiently for an encore that they know is definitely coming, whooping, foot-stamping, clapping in unison or no. With this in mind, everyone declines to indulge in any of the latter and concentrates on the former.
A hearty ‘Public Image’ a last sloosh of brandy, an oddly ambiguous comment about “…taking our country back” and what looks like a phenomenal impression of someone offering their sincere thanks for our forbearance regarding his performance and he is gone.
Some of them were on sticks.
It made me think..
The old man looked at Johnny.