It’s not that he’s mellowing with age exactly, but John Lydon seems in a relatively content mood tonight in Shepherd’s Bush. His antichrist-anarchist youth is a faded memory and even the tartan-trousered larrikin of recent times is toned down as he addresses us as “friends”, bounces around in a beanie hat and has the good courtesy to direct his gob into an onstage dustbin.
That trademark glare remains full of menace though, lasering across the room, softened only by his cartoon gurning and campy posturing, whilst the blistering ferocity of the full PiL experience begins to kick in. “Wot! You nagging again?” he barks on opener ‘Double Trouble’, before cackling and shrieking about blocked toilets and domestic angst in a ratchety, spikey, detuned funk rant.
Never fully appreciated for their pioneering role in tearing down the 4/4 rock orthodoxy and melding primitive dance rhythms with punk fury and dubby atmospherics, Lydon has been on a mission to cement the PiL legacy since re-forming the group in 2009. The embarrassing butter ads and his time spent in the jungle eating kangaroo knackers were ways of funding the comeback, and he looks proud and vindicated by it all as they tear into old favourites ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ and ‘Death Disco’.
It’s met with the longing adoration you’d expect from crowds of greying, portly punks, now resembling darts players and dinner ladies more than art-school tearaways, but tracks from the impressive new album What The World Needs Now prove it’s not all about wallowing in nostalgia. ‘Know Now’ in particular is a jabbing shot of grunt-and-scowl punk belligerence that slips nicely into the armoury.
Lydon too is no museum piece. His voice pierces through the chaotic, drilling, storm of sonic confusion and he’s in his element rolling his R’s, punching his pronunciation and skulking around the stage. It’s a fantastic sight, and pleasing to see him neither riddled with contempt and scorn, nor over-egging the eccentric, bratty, buffoonery.
As the angular riffs jerk and clunk away, the Krautrock, grimey disco drone becomes increasingly hypnotic and unsettling until Lydon gets lost in a 14 minute version of ‘Religion’, during which the ringleader turns manic dictator and starts incessantly screaming “TURN UP THE BASS! TURN UP THE BASS!” His orders are met by a dutiful sound man, and the booming reverberations increase until you can feel the floor vibrating and your innards throbbing. It’s more of a Guantanamo-style torture experiment than pop song and the twisted grin on Lydon’s face shows that he knows it.
A scorching rendition of ‘Public Image’ and a big, mass singalong to their only real unifying anthem ‘Rise’ rounds it all off, with Lydon looking uncharacteristically humble standing alongside his “best mates.” Scores have long been settled and the old punk warrior may even slipping into the realm of national treasure (when he’s not being a complete arse), but the fire still burns and PiL still do the business.