When I was a kid, more than any other group, Public Image Ltd. were my band. As a teenager, I was a major acidhead who hated religion and PiL suited that state of mind better than just about anything. They were demented dada geniuses, doing more to move music away from the three chord blues-based rock and roll that had dominated popular music since the days of Chuck Berry than anyone else. It wasn’t as if John Lydon’s previous outfit had done much to musically challenge the status quo. The Sex Pistols may have shown that the prevailing rock acts of the day were all “dinosaurs,” but their music really wasn’t anything all that “new” was it?
Who would say that about Public Image Ltd.? With their second album, Metal Box, they changed the state of modern music the way Picasso and Georges Braque had changed the act of perception itself with the advent of Cubism some seventy years earlier. After PiL, everything was different and nothing was too weird. A hundred years from now those first three PiL albums will still be revered the same way they are today, except that by then they’ll considered classical music or something…
I was lucky enough to see PiL in 1983. I’d run away from home and PiL were playing a few days later on Staten Island at the horrible, decrepit and just downright shitty Paramount Theater (a venue that should have required a tetanus shot to enter). Jah Wobble had already been kicked out of the band, but that didn’t bother me (I’m probably just slightly more partial to The Flowers of Romance than I am the first two albums) and this was a few months before Keith Levene and Lydon had their famous falling out.
Without Wobble you still had PiL, but as Lydon would soon prove beyond all argument, he was only as good (or as bad) as his collaborators. When Keith Levene fucked off, forget it, after that it was Public Image Ltd. in name only. Not that Levene did much of anything—for
years decades—without Lydon anyway, but Lydon without Levene was hopeless, a fucking joke from 1983 onwards if you ask most fans of the original group.
I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I have a pretty decent collection of PiL bootlegs on vinyl. Truly “oldschool” boots produced over thirty years ago, most of them pretty primitive pressings. When I got rid of most of my records ten years ago (keeping collectibles and signed pieces, plus my Jeannie C. Riley albums) I still retained them and as a percentage, they comprise a good bit of what’s left of a once ridiculously huge record collection. One of them is a boot of the actual show I saw called “Where Are We?” taped on March 26th, at the Paramount Theater.
The title comes from a song PiL had been playing in their sets around that time that was originally called “Lou Reed Part 2” and then later rechristened “Where Are You?” (the spiteful lyrics are about departed PiL video maker Jeanette Lee). It came out on both Lydon’s “official” This is What You Want, This is What You Get album and Levene’s less official version on the Commercial Zone bootleg.
This 1982 report from Canadian television about PiL’s first performance in the country, at Toronto’s Masonic Temple Concert Hall, features a short excerpted performance of “Lou Reed Part 2/Where Are You?” and during it someone spits right in Lydon’s face. He’s not happy. At the end of the piece there’s a bigger chunk of a live “Public Image.” With so little decent footage of PiL around—I’ve seen very little video of the post Wobble group—this is a real treat. Lydon’s sporting a hospital gown and looks, as he often did in his youth, like an escaped mental patient.
I don’t know exactly what he means by this, but if you click over to Keith Levene’s website, he’s trying to raise the funds to “finish” Commercial Zone 2014. For a guy who was so, er, quiet, throughout most of the past three decades, for the past few years, Levene seems intent on making up for lost time, recording and gigging with Jah Wobble, releasing solo material and writing his life story, the nicely titled, This is not an Autobiography: The Diary of a non-Punk Rocker, available soon as an e-book.