On Christmas Day, 1978, and on the following day (what Brits call “Boxing Day”) Public Image Ltd. played two legendary gigs at the Rainbow Theater in London. Their live debut had occurred just five days prior, in Brussels, Belgium.
Here’s a run-down of what happened by someone who was there at the Christmas show, as published on the PiL fansite, Fodderstompf:
When PiL announced the Christmas 1978 concerts I couldn’t get tickets fast enough. This was what it was all supposed to be about. The Pistols were over, punk was over, long live the new flesh. Who wanted to be associated with people with mohicans and ‘The Clash’ written on their biker jackets? Not me, strictly pegs and shirts, the new way…
A band playing a gig on Xmas day (and Boxing Day) was a big thing back then, no one ever played gigs at Xmas, there was never anything to do, I knew it was going to be special, the fact that it was PiL’s first UK gig and that Lydon hadn’t played London for so long added to the event as well. PiL, along with punk chancer (and later Pistols cash-in merchant) Jock McDonald, decided to promote the gig themselves which was another unusual step at the time. One thing was for sure, PiL were going to be different, this was the new way…
The Rainbow in Finsbury Park was normally seated, but if I remember rightly there had been trouble at a Clash gig a few weeks before so they decided to take the seats out and also brought in loads of extra security, in all I reckon it held about 1,000 people that night. There was no public transport , but me and my mate G-Man had sorted transport out. We loaded up with lager and copious amounts of illegal substances and off we went, leaving South London to travel to the wilds of Finsbury Park. By the time we got there we were half pissed. We polished the other half off, chatting to the various faces outside, then it was in…
Don Letts had a DJ box towards the back of the stalls and was belting out some earth moving Dub, so far so good… We sorted out a vantage point and waited. An early incarnation of Basement 5 without Dennis Morris were supporting, and I thought I remembered The Slits playing too, but apparently it was another all girl group called The Lous, I can’t remember them at all. Linton Johnstone also did some poetry, and all in all it was a good package, though I think it was lost on most of the senile animals who had turned up to see Johnny Rotten…
Eventually the place went black, Wobble’s bass shook the earth and the band launched into ‘Theme’ . They were on, and that’s when the shit really happened! Out strode Rotten/Lydon lagered up, fights started almost on cue. One side of the stage were Arsenal Skins, the other side West Ham, and in the middle the punks. Football chants were heard, the skins kicked fuck out of the punks, then each other. There were waves of people just steaming into each other. Rotten got involved verbally, then people started gobbing and canning stage.
All I can really remember was that the whole stage was decked out in green and black and that PiL looked fucking great. Wobble sitting on a chair throughout, dressed all in black with his bandit hat. Levene wired(?) for sound. Rotten in his checked suit strutting about the stage, slagging the punks off, but at the same time handing out beer. The band had to stop several times while all the mayhem erupted over and over again; it was getting scary.
They played fucking brilliant, I thought it was better than the album, which I loved anyway (and still do). They played the whole album, minus ‘Fodderstompf’. I remember that they never played any Sex Pistols songs, but that said, I know they played ‘Belsen’ the next night, so I could be wrong. I think not playing Pistols songs helped all the trouble erupt, lots of punks kept asking for them. Rotten slagged them for it, then they got battered by the thugs (Merry Xmas!).
One quote from Lydon I definitely remember while all the rucks were going off was, “You always use your fists in the wrong direction, you should take them down to Parliament”. I’m not sure if he meant the group or the place (only joking). We didn’t go back for the Boxing Day show, but I’ve heard the bootleg and I reckon it was basically the same set, though it certainly seemed a lot less eventful. Rotten eventually left the stage but the band still played on, he came back on and they encored with ‘Public Image’, then it was all over…
The fights continued on the way out and outside. I bumped into a mate who’d had his nose broken and was covered in blood. He wanted revenge, I just wanted to go home, he got his pals together and went off looking for vengeance. Me and my mate got a lift home from his big brother…
It was the best fucking Christmas I ever had!
Another fan has a somewhat different memory than George X, but having seen PiL live myself back in the day, I’m inclined to go with George’s account: it was one of the most violent (and utterly mind-blowing) shows that I have ever witnessed (When they played “Attack,” my nearly brand new shoes were destroyed, even as they were on my feet. It was at this same concert that I decided to to go to college).
Here’s the audio of the entire 1978 Boxing Day gig.
2 Low Life
3 Belsen Was A Gas
5 Public Image
8 Public Image II
A clip of the group doing “Careering” on the Old Grey Whistle Test about a year later: