Is Johnny Rotten?
I wondered if John Lydon, a.k.a Johnny Rotten of the Sex pistols, the original icons of punk could have any relevance in the 21st century? Fronting his band P.I.L (Public Image Limited, founded shortly after the demise of the Sex Pistols), could this master media manipulator have anything to say, or was he just living on 3 years of hysteria in the 70s? Were we going to see Johnny the museum exhibit, the penny black of the punk era, exciting, but useless, no longer able to take us forward only backward, a 60 year old didn’t seem like a good place to start a journey.
On the dot of 9pm Johnny walked on stage, stout, bespectacled, clad in dark baggy trousers, check shirt straight out of Marks and Spencers, sobre striped tie and grey waistcoat. He had turned into my dad. The only inkling that this was the man of my memories was the trademark shock of blonde hair, handfuls jutting provocatively in all directions. His face now sported the first hints of jowels, no excess but not the angular cheek bones and sunken eyes.
He placed a battered A4 book on the music stand in front of him. He eyed the crowd and asked if they still taught students to protest? I wondered if this was a bad omen as even through his specs it should be obvious the vast majority of this crowd had ceased being students 40 years ago.
He ripped into the first part of his set, he shrieked, he bellowed he roared. He warbled and growled, grunted and snarled. Every note was accompanied by a dramatic stance or look, every word part of a story. Eyes rolled and swivelled the words were spat at the crowd with passion and belief. The media, governments, politicians and business were remorselessly savaged. Anger is an energy and he energised the crowd. I have never seen people in their 7th decade mosh, but mosh they did. Thirty minute tracks came and went. An electric double bass was wound up to throat trembling proportions and the crowd loved it, Johnny briefly sipped from tea, water and brandy between tracks but for an hour and half he was remorseless, every one a winner. In the tradition of trademark tracks ‘This is not a love song’ was barely recognisable but the crowd sang along. We danced for Johnny and he took delight. A five minute break before the half hour encore and he closed with ‘I could be right, I could be wrong’ to uproar.
The man had delivered, in spades, he had sweated, given his all through every moment of the gig. He might need a book for the lyrics but not for the meanings. He didn’t do a single Sex Pistols track, he was looking forward in the 0s and he still is now. He reprised PiL tracks through the decades, coming right up to date, ‘setting the sails and stoking the boiler’, with the haunting Deeper Water from the 2012 eponymous album. The only time he was Johnny Rotten was when he raised his glasses and flashed his eyes, otherwise he was John Lydon.
John took a bow at the end, specs removed, a broad smile and said thanks for your time, thanks for listening, and we thanked him loudly, and profoundly. An epic treat when it could have been another icon resting on their laurels, but Johnny isn’t resting.