I step into the black Audi Quattro, unable to repress the obvious lines from the TV series Ashes to Ashes. The perfect car to be going to see two pioneering, hardworking and, at times, acerbic bands whose glory days were the fag-end of the 1970s and early 1980s. This could be a flaccid nostalgia trip, a rueful remembrance of things past, a happy recollection of teenage kicks or an invigorating blast of radical rock.
The weather is how I remember the years of Thatcher’s tyranny – perennially grey, wind-whipped and lowering. The city centre is bent on hedonism; portable urinals crouched on street corners like post-modernist monuments to the decadence of doomed youth. In the queue to the O2 Academy there is a glow of punks decked out in full ripped and pinned regalia, fluorescent spiked mohicans pointing heavenwards, their pot bellies and grizzled skin an unforgiving reminder that punk might not be dead but is well on its way to needing a zimmer frame. The Selecter and Public Image Limited, two bands who built their reputations on relentless energy – what could they offer this predominately white, middle-aged, middle-class crowd other than a rosy rip through the greatest hits?
Ah, but that’s not how Pauline Black does life. The Selecter jump the stage with a rush that kick starts the gig into immediate intensity. Black still has a youthful vigour which coupled with her experience and passion makes her a natural focus for the music. She has presence – but so does the rest of the band in their teamwork; an amorphous collection of 7 to 9 musicians shape-shifting across the stage with a fierce dedication that has the sweat soaking through their shirts and their jackets by the end of the second song. The hits are here – ‘Three Minute Hero’, ‘On My Radio’, ‘Too Much Pressure’ (seguing into ‘Pressure Drop’ and back again), ‘Last Train to Skaville’, ‘Bristol and Miami’, ‘James Bond’, ‘Missing Words’ and they are great and soaring and infectious. But there is also material from the new album String Theory which, if not exactly mellow, has a deeper edge to the music and sometimes swims in darker currents. The audience reacts slowly – only really waking up when Black tells them that they have just got off the last train and are now in Skaville and that most of the folk there are black. When she asks if we are OK with that, then we modestly roar an affirmative response. They have a rhythm that clicks inside my head and it feels like this is a band in their prime, still with the vigour and the passion and the idealism of the young, not greyed into world-weariness by maturity, but with wiser heads dancing light into the dark corners of prejudice and inequality. This was an urgent, engaging and memorable performance – how was PiL going to up the intensity?
By being fronted by John Lydon. As grizzled and thick around the waist as many of the old grey wizened punks in the auditorium, but with the charisma of an ark full of prophets, a tongue-in-cheek view of himself, an awareness that he could easily slip into shambling parody and above all with an irreverent passion for teasing and pulling us out of complacency. The band are tight, the sound fierce, angry, relentless, hypnotic, metronomic, danceable and dangerous. Lydon struts and pounces across the stage growling out lyrics with more than a touch of violence. His language is as bright and splenetic as ever, his mind sharp, twisting out profanities and prophecies in equal measure. When it comes to PiL, other than Album (CD or Cassette if you preferred) I’m a Greatest Hits sort of a person. There are lyrics that Lydon reads from a music stand, if they are new tracks then they are as hard and as mesmeric as the old stuff, flicking across dance and rock genres with infinite ease. The hits are potent, sulky, sensuous and bold – ‘This is not a love song’ rides upon waves of caustic irony, ‘Flowers of Romance’ sticks a stiletto into gothic introspection, ‘Death Disco’ spins barbed wire across a familiarly bucolic riff, ‘Public Image’ holds out a tangled promise that the Pistols might be reborn and ‘Rise’ has us barking out in unison, over and over both the refrain ‘may the moon rise with you’ and the fearsome mantra ‘anger is an energy’. A slight song, ‘This is what you want, this is what you get’, grows with Lydon’s skilful sloganeering into a piercing critique of our own materialism. The sound is relentless, still, no let up, the band pushing the beat to the limit, the guitarist, who looks like a refugee from ZZ Top and plays with the casual virtuosity of one of the Bad Seeds, switches between a selection of fascinatingly exotic instruments with practised ease and there is Lydon pacing, racing, emoting, twitching and stitching his politics to his sleeves and waving them around the hall.
Watching, listening, you feel that here is the man Keith Flint could never quite be. Lydon – a punk icon, whose image graced many a ripped T shirt – is not on stage to be worshipped, and yet there is a kind of reverence in the room. Perhaps, as someone said to me, he is one of those artists who you have to see at some time in your gig going career. He certainly knows that he is here to entertain, but equally he has come to provoke, to stir-up, to push and shove our consciousnesses into action. This is a fearsome gig, memorable for all the right reasons – and with the added ingredient of the complementarity between The Selecter and Public Image. But it doesn’t reach the heights of Swans earlier in the year. Both Public Image and Swans maintained a constantly heightened level of intensity throughout, but with Swans it was the utterly visceral nature of the music that mesmerised. Swans didn’t rely on old hits to excite the crowd and they were simply far, far louder and far more innovative, daring. Perhaps the key difference was between the two frontmen. Swans’ Michael Gira was a magus, John Lydon a showman prophet. Yet in the gnarled nature of their presence, the maturity of their sound, the fierceness of their vision and their status as statesmen of the avant-garde they both commanded the respect and attention of their audiences.
Gig over and it was back to the Quattro, where a tape of Cassette was jammed in the player and the memories lived on as Lydon snarled his pulsing anger through the speakers, while underneath we could still feel the ska beat of The Selecter jumping through our veins. A great evening – nostalgia never felt so relevant as under the slick grey light of Cameron’s polarised, pole-axed and pole-dancing England.