View more photos in Timothy Norris' slideshow “Public Image Ltd. (PiL) @ Club Nokia.”
It's not that Club Nokia is an awful venue. It has its uses–an intimate Usher show, for example, or a Level 42 reunion (coming soon, for reals), or any act who has ever been on a Michael Mann soundtrack (Phil Collins with a surprise appearance by Jan Hammer would be a golden moment at Club Nokia).
As a setting for John Lydon's dress-rehearsal for Coachella and his upcoming tour with the bland aggregation of former bandmembers and studio cats who play his PiL material, however? Awful, really really awful.
The show was announced for 9:30, but was later moved ahead to 9, and the band went up at that time with British punctuality. Many in the audience (we too) started trickling in by the third song, which meant we missed openers “This is Not a Love Song” (from 1984's This is What You Want … This Is What You Get) and “Poptones” (from the legendary 1979 metal box).
We got frisked and carded (Club Nokia's got nothing on post 9-11airport security, adding to the inappropriate weirdness of the performer/venue match) to the strains of This is What You Want …'s “Tie Me to the Length of That” and as we entered the sterile, (rife with bored staff members and security goons) “club” inside the LA Live complex, we saw Lydon doing his famous Richard III dance, the hunchback moves he stole from Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean hamming.
He was wearing something that looked like black pajamas or something the Chinese Revolution would have forced a former aristocrat to wear after socializing his land. A shock of Tweety-bird-colored hair cut in the best “Picadilly Circus postcard punk rocker”-style topped his famous grimaces.
The band went into the metal box's shocking opener “Albatross” in a kind of strange slow motion that emphasized the track's kinship with (and perhaps influence on) Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones' “Billie Jean” beat and the cascading, metallic guitar lines that made U2's The Edge a very rich man.
And then the experience began to set in. Club Nokia was a completely ridiculous venue to be watching PiL, or even whatever aggregation of polished jobbers Lydon is calling PiL these days. Post-smoking ban, post-AEGization of downtown, post-the only people with good jobs are the financial jerks, PiL on that stage came off as a post-punk minstrel show for an audience trapped in a Michael Mann wet dream (the light design around the bar! the douchebags and their botoxed arm candy! the whole cokey vibe of the upstairs “VIP” lounge–one of many layers of VIP-ness, all requiring different armbands!).
This was the worst: the area where a mosh-pit or a Jah Wobble-dub-drenched dance orgy would have naturally developed in the early 80s was under the strict custody of some mean-looking toughs who shooed people away with derisive gestures while a few feet away the former Johnny Rotten ranted and raved against some vague form of oppression.
The goons were guarding the front of the stage area, according to instructions on this helpful sign:
“For entrance into the Pit, you MUST have the wristband designated by Club NOKIA Management. VIP Backstage/All Access wristbands do not give you access to Pit area.”
Lydon must have not seen this sign, because he ridiculously kept berating the folks with “the wristband designated by Club NOKIA Management” for not knowing his songs, his lyrics, or for not dancing. Meanwhile, the band's non-hits kept coming: “Death Disco” (aka Swan Lake) brought in the screaming, dissonance and the swearing, and cult favorite “Flowers of Romance” (the title-track from the 1981 album) featured a cool bowed banjo that pointed to John Cale.
We took a stroll to check out the merch (a $35 t-shirt with the PiL logo that would have gotten one laid in 1980), and when we came back, Lydon was introducing the crowd to “Psychopath,” from his obscure 1997 solo album Psycho's Path. “It's swing time!,” he declared, but not a whole lotta swingin' was going on among the 40something crowd. “It's fucking hot up here,” he complained. He made a vague joke about medicinal marijuana. And then, both ironic and sincere, he spat “Thank you for being here”
He played the would-be rousing “Warrior” (“this is my land and I will never surrender”) and did his little dance. No response. “Has America forgot how to dance,” he chided. “Feel the heat and fucking mean it–What a fucking audience, the only one spitting is me” (polite clapping). “You can always sing along,” Lydon implored.
After a short, unplanned bathroom break (“That's fucking old age for you–I should have worn my incontinent pants”) the most interesting part of the set actually materialized from nowhere.
A solid run through “Religion,” “Bags,” “Chant,” and “Memories,” occasionally dropping the bass to a nice, offending level, made you wish for Wobble's presence. This was PiL's real, long-lasting legacy, a strange form of white funk, and not even Lydon's always self-undermining clowning and schtick (corny Schwarzenegger jokes in 2010? Really?) could put a dent on it.
The main set closed with another crucial moment–a balls-out reading of “Public Image,” which was never really the first PiL song, but the last great Sex Pistols statement. And Lydon unleashed THE VOICE, that seminal punk sneer that is up there in rock mythology with Elvis' Sun singles, Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone” and, maybe, Cobain's “Smell Like Teen Spirit.” For a couple of minutes, there, the legend came out of the incontinent little body in the black pajamas.
The encore had Psycho Path's “Sun,” Lydon's contribution to rave culture “Open Up” (a Leftfield single from 1993) and his only real US hit, Album's “Rise.” The hit finally brought the singalong, with its hooliganish chorus and the mantra “Anger is an energy.” Except the club was still Nokia and this was an energy drink crowd.
One last time, Lydon started berating the “precious” people on the balcony to come down and be one of the people. Hard to be one of the people with the goons protecting the mosh pit. Remember? “For entrance into the Pit, you MUST have the wristband designated by Club NOKIA Management.” In a different universe it would make a kickass early PiL lyric, wouldn't it?