The Fire Station, Sunderland. Designed with superb acoustics a priority, a comfy bar area, friendly, helpful staff, security that know exactly what’s going on but who, like the other staff, are helpful and courteous. A venue with particularly comfy seating areas, all with a great view, surrounding a spacious standing area. Perfect for tonight’s audience who vary in age from those far too young to have witnessed first hand the early years of punk rock, or for that matter the later years, to those who were likely in their early 20’s when the Pistols Steve Jones uttered the words “What a fucking rotter” on prime-time TV in December 1976.
Tonight, if anyone quite literally performs under the mantra “Anger is an energy” it’s support act Meryl Streek. Debut album ‘796’ was a standout, quite possibly the best, long player of 2022 and hammered home the fact that punk isn’t a dress code or a certain type of sound. Punk is an attitude and attitude is something Meryl Streek isn’t short of. With just backing tracks that one moment pummel you with slicing guitars and full on raucous drums – ‘Full Of Grace’, or build slowly from haunting synth notes into a head splitting bass laden drone – ‘False Apologies,’ or the deceptively chirpy, danceable beats of ‘Death To The Landlord’ Meryl Streek spits disdain about everything from the Catholic church, corrupt political systems, the imbalance of power between the haves and the have nots, the housing crisis and the breakdown of communities.
Meryl Streek doesn’t sing. He yells, shouts and, occasionally, talks. And it’s all done with such conviction you know he understands and feels every emotion oozing from the stage tonight. He’s a photographer’s nightmare, the lights are dimmed, he shines a torch at his own face and he paces the stage continuously, just the occasional stop to stare out, eyes adorned with contacts straight out of your worst nightmare. But all this means you are gripped completely by Streek’s presence.
And when the stage isn’t big enough to contain the power of this performance he’s over the barrier and amongst the crowd. Yet at the heart of it all what Meryl Streek wants is what we should all want, a fair and just world where there is love and respect for each other, where people can feel they actually have a voice and where those in power cannot and do not abuse the positions they hold. In today’s world people like Meryl Streek are needed more than ever.
Regarded as one of the most innovative bands of all time Public Image Ltd pretty much rewrote the rule book of what music could be after punk. And since 1978 they’ve not stopped sounding like only PiL can sound. John Lydon might now be 67 years old but he still emits a completely captivating presence the moment he walks out on stage. Lydon doesn’t bounce around the stage. He doesn’t even wander. He remains behind his mic stand and book of lyrics, occasionally arms spread, often glaring from side to side, and every so often gargling his ‘medicinal brandy’ before spraying it into a black household bin. PiL’s line-up of Lydon, Lu Edmonds on guitar, Scott Firth on bass and Bruce Smith on drums is the longest lasting there’s been and they’ve evolved into an incredible musical whole. You don’t go to a PiL gig to leap around. You go to watch. And listen. Firth and Smith bind every song together with a bass so deep and drum beats so intense you can feel them, not just hear them. Edmonds guitar work is incredible. Scratchy, whiney, pitched like a constant background wail and the perfect complement to Lydon’s vocals.
Tonight Public Image Ltd are on form. A perfectly crafted noise of deep, dark bass rhythms, bristly guitar work and that unmistakeable voice. PiL do funk, dance, and punk perfectly. Past classics such as ‘Albatross’, ‘Poptones’, ‘This Is Not A Love Song’, ‘Memories’ and ‘Flowers Of Romance’ bring a constant reminder of just how innovative and ‘out there’ PiL were 40+ years ago. ‘Warrior’ is, as always, immense. Of the three songs played from new album ‘End Of World’ it’s the throbbing ‘Car Chase’ that stands out, coming close in sound to the brilliant Leftfield collaboration ‘Open Up’ with it’s irresistible dance grooves.
It’s been a hard year for John Lydon so when he starts saying “A lot of bad stuff happened recently…” first thoughts are he’s going to talk about the tragic loss of wife Nora. Instead it’s “The worst being Jones, Cook, Idol … and that band”. This direct reference to Generation Sex introduces ‘Shoom’ in typical Lydon style and closes the main set with it’s yells of “Fuck you! Fuck off! Fucking bollocks” Audience participation is encouraged and as the crowd yells “Fuck Off” back he asks, “And if you ever run into those three bores please pass the message on.”
There’s a roar of approval when PiL return after “a nice cup of tea”. ‘Public Image’ gets, predictably, the greatest crowd response of the evening together with a sudden upsurge in the number of mobile phones filming. ‘Open Up’ has lost none of it’s dance appeal. Finally, the phones are out again, there’s a huge cheer and a massive singalong for ‘Rise’. “Anger is an energy” is bellowed back at a frontman who, through the ups, downs and traumas of recent years, criticism of him selling out, anti-establishment, pro-establishment and mixed messages, still manages to have such presence.
No talking between songs (except to introduce the band). No pacing the stage. Just that Lydon stare and occasional shuffle. Just Public Image Ltd doing what they’ve been masters of for 45 years. A huge post-punk, funk-punk sound that is still, all this time later, unique to them.
Photos & words: Steve White
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