Though his demeanor has seemingly lost some of its thorniness as he has aged, John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) has remained ever the spitfire entertainer, if not so much the provocateur. As such, the opportunity to witness Lydon and his Public Image Ltd. perform should never be passed over—even if it means wading through tourists in Times Square to do so.
To be fair, despite its locale and corporate moniker, the PlayStation Theater, as it was recently renamed after being called the Best Buy Theater (and before that the Nokia Theater), is actually a pretty great place to see a band, with a good sound system and a near-perfect layout. On this night, though, its 2,100-person capacity was far from filled and those in attendance would prove to be a pretty lackluster audience. In general, there didn’t seem to be the level of excitement that the two PiL shows from three years ago elicited.
Whatever the case, Lydon didn’t seem to notice or care. Bouncing about the stage and cleaning his pipes with cognac between songs, he was in fine form throughout the night, even if the horizontal stripes on the prison pajamas he wore for the evening weren’t exactly complimentary to his figure. Still, the show—like PiL’s new album, What the World Needs Now—was not without its flaws. For one, it began with “Double Trouble,” a wretched song that for some reason was chosen as the album’s lead single. Beginning with a rant against being nagged about a broken toilet, it is far and away one of the worst things that Lydon has ever recorded. I mean, the man who penned “Pretty Vacant” is now whining about plumbing issues?
Fortunately, the new album gets better, and so did the show. They proceeded in order with “Know Now,” a song whose searing guitar line cuts through the seeming simplicity of the cut. A few more tracks from the record were sprinkled throughout the set—“Bettie Page,” “Corporate,” and “Shoom,” which was spliced with Lydon’s Leftfield collaboration, “Open Up,” to close the set—but they neglected to play some of the best cuts from the record,“Spice of Choice,” in particular. They did play “The One,” though, a folkish number that is perhaps What’s strongest cut and is certainly the most natural meshing of Lydon’s talents and Lu Edmonds’ mulit-culturally flecked guitar playing.
But of course, most had come to hear the work that first made PiL the brilliantly artful successor to the Sex Pistols’ smashing nihilism. The choices were fairly obvious, with “(This Is Not a) Love Song” early on in the set, a block of late-80s alterna-hits (“Disappointed,” “The Body,” and “Warrior”) two-thirds through, and “Rise” for the grand finale. While those are admittedly some great songs—and Lydon and company gave them new life by emphasizing different elements than on the recorded versions—the really interesting stuff from the band’s earliest albums was in short shrift. Nothing from Flowers of Romance (PiL’s best, in my humble opinion) and only a lukewarm rendition of “Death Disco” from Metal Box. The first album was represented by “Religion,” which was blunted by the soundman’s horrible treatment and lack of response to Lydon’s commands to turn up the bass, and the obvious first encore of “Public Image.” Nothing was truly lacking about this show, except perhaps enthusiasm from the aging audience, who barely applauded when the band left the stage before the encore and generally couldn’t be bothered to participate when Lydon prodded them to sing along. The performance was a little short on length, song selection, and vitriol, but otherwise there was nothing worth complaining about. However, it came off as unmemorable, and that is an adjective that should never be associated with Mr. Lydon.