When Open House Festival announced that Public Image Ltd were coming to play in Bangor I was shocked and impressed at such a coup. This was the first time ever that PiL would play in Northern Ireland and boasting an impressive line-up of supporting bands I just knew I had to get the chance to see them live.
Walking into the gig to the sound of The Outcasts ‘Justa Nother Teenage Rebel’ made me smile as I look around the crowd as majority of it is far from teenage, myself included. The punk and ska fans are here in their droves, decked out in the customary black leather jackets, studded and graffiti emblazoned, mohawks of varying heights and colours and plenty of Sex Pistols tee-shirts are seen too. The Outcasts were one of the early signings to Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in the 1970s and gained a fan in John Peel who gave them significant airplay. With songs like ‘Self-Conscious Over You,’ it’s easy to see why as their songs are catchy and melodic and stand the test of time.
Next onstage are XSLF, Henry Cluney and Jim Reilly formerly of Stiff Little Fingers fame. Forming in 2013 after running into each other, the band are accompanied on bass guitar by Ave Tsarion and play Stiff Little Fingers songs from the first three albums they were involved in. Fresh from a heart op, Reilly is battering on the drums with youthful exuberance and no sign of illness or tiredness, now that is punk! On ‘Gotta Getaway’ the crowd find their voices and sing along over the killer bassline. There is a sea of arms and hands in the air and some folks are po-go-ing along happy to hear old favourites on a Saturday afternoon in the open air.
‘Alternative Ulster’ is a punk anthem for Northern Ireland and it is still as relevant today given the political impasse we are at here. We certainly do need an alternative ulster and everyone sings along in agreement. ‘Suspect Device’ gets an airing and Cluney is on fine form, both vocally and on guitar, and although the same energy is not there from the original recordings the message still stands up and the passion is evident in his delivery. On ‘Barbed Wire Love’ they welcome to the stage Steven Marriot from Black Market Clash who takes lead vocals and adds more fire to the set with his throaty delivery. XSLF prove to be a crowd favourite are well received with shouts and cheers from the congregation.
The Undertones have a hard act to follow in XSLF but are well up to the job with their back catalogue of feel good hits. Jokingly admonishing some people on the balcony of the Marine Court Hotel that they ‘wouldn’t even cross the road to see The Undertones,’ they kick off their set with ‘My Perfect Cousin’ from 1980s Hypnotised album. It’s the perfect opener and gets us all in the mood for dancing along to the rest of the set. Paul McLoone is a great frontman and his vocals quite similar to past frontman Fearghal Sharkey and so fits well with the songs.
‘Here Comes The Summer’ is as anthemic and upbeat as ever and being in a seaside town hearing it played only adds to the summer vibes (plus it’s not raining!). ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ shimmers with Damien O’Neills guitar sound and Michael Bradley’s driving bass. On ‘Jump Boys’ Billy Doherty’s drumming takes centre stage and once again everyone is dancing around to the beat. The highlight of The Undertones set is of course ‘Teenage Kicks’, still retaining its charm after all these years with it’s 60s style melody overlying the punk guitar sound, even if you aren’t a punk fan you can’t help but be seduced by this song and the Undertones infectious music.
Waiting around to see the main headliner and the tension builds, with people unsure what to expect. John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten is still as outspoken as ever but people are wondering if he can still cut it and there’s certainly the worry that you shouldn’t revisit your past icons as they age as you may be disappointed. As the PiL logo is displayed on a stage backdrop and lit in red the excitement is palpable and when Public Image Ltd stride out onto the stage and open with ‘Warrior,’ all worries are forgotten. Anyone who hasn’t heard Public Image Ltd and expects it to be an extension of Lydon’s Sex Pistol career would be very disappointed but that is looking at it with a narrow view. Lydon took a totally different angle with PiL and it’s more of an experimental post punk band so has many diverse songs and sounds from dance, dub and reggae to name a few. ‘Warrior’ from the 1989 album 9 sets out this stall with it’s melodic guitar riff and the tribal sounding drums, it is a sonic swirl with Lydon’s unique voice vibrating over the top. ‘Memories’ has more of a hardcore punk sound with a prominent bass song, akin to the sound of The Dead Kennedys.
With little to no crowd interaction, Lydon is uncharacteristicly quiet and dressed head to toe in black. ‘The Body’ is a surprise to hear, but perhaps it is motivated in part by the referendum earlier this year in the Republic of Ireland on abortion. The song with it’s insistent guitar refrain deals with the difficult subject matter and is said to be in part a follow up to the Sex Pistols song ‘Bodies’. ‘Death Disco’ is up next with it’s guitar line a direct lift from Tchaikosvky’s ‘Swan Lake’ and the pulsating bass line.
Lydon is still able to cut the mustard with his trademark caterwauling. There are definite shades of a reggae beat about the song and its easy rhythm is at odds with Lydon’s impassioned delivery creating a great contrast. On ‘Not Satisfied’ Scott Firth swaps his electric bass guitar for a double bass to give a heavier sound which reverberates around the outside venue.
‘Flowers Of Romance’ is next and where we get to see some shades of Johnny Rotten with the sneering vocals and vibrato voice, and it’s two minutes of discordant sound. It’s not a favourite of mine so I’m glad when it reaches it’s conclusion and I hear the opening bars of ‘This Is Not A Love Song’, which was what the band retorted with when asked by their label to write something radio friendly. It certainly has pop sensibilities and yet still combines the deep bass sound and Lydon’s abrasive yet addictive vocal stylings.
The highlight of the night is ‘Rise’ with its famous line ‘Anger is an energy’ and we all sing along furiously with the frontman beckoning us to be louder and whipping us into a frenzy.
Leaving the stage PiL are met with choruses of ‘one more tune’ and return onstage with Lydon addressing us as ‘gluttons for punishment’ but who can blame us, it’s their first ever show here and we want it to keep going. Shouting ‘hello, hello, Bangor I said hello’ we dive headfirst into ‘Public Image,’ Lydon’s lambast at Malcolm McLaren and perhaps society at large with lines like ‘You only seen me from the clothes I wear’. At this point
it’s dark and everyone is dancing around and singing including the festival volunteers behind us as the beat is infectious and the guitar sound so melodic.
The surprise of the setlist is ‘Open Up,’ the 1993 Leftfield song that Lydon guested on. Even more surprisingly it slots into the setlist perfectly with its dance beat and apocalyptic feel. And lyrically it is on point with it’s lyrics ‘Burn Hollywood burn’ in light of the recent revelations of sexual abuse and dodgy dealings in Tinseltown. Somewhat prophetic from Mr Lydon.
Keeping it in the dance vein PiL end on ‘Shoom’ from What The World Needs Now and in it’s 6 minutes 30 seconds he says the word ‘bollocks’ approximately 50 times (I’m estimating) and it is a rant of epic proportions against modern culture with mentions of botox, contracts and humans all being ‘bollocks’. It’s an appropriate way to end the (albeit) short set and leave us all wanting more. Johnny Rotten may not be the venom filled rage monger he used to but John Lydon is still an anti-hero in the often bland culture of today’s music scene, and to quote the man himself, sometimes ‘what the world needs now is another fuck off’.