One of the most recognizable names in rock is Johnny Rotten, a phenomenon based entirely on the outrageous and revolutionary ride he took with the SEX PISTOLS, a band at the forefront of the UK punk movement that released a grand total of one studio album, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols". Though the recognition is well deserved for his contributions to that album, most famously for covered-to-death classics "Anarchy in the U.K". and "God Save the Queen", there was always far more to John Lydon than his stage name would suggest, not the least of which is a genuine contempt for the status quo and a deep intellect that was sometimes masked by his perpetual state of surly defiance. Those characteristics would serve Lydon well in a creative sense when he rose above the sensationalist punk rock fray and began making the music he wanted to make with the formation of PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED (hereinafter referred to as PIL).
A little punk, a little new wave, a little rock, and a whole lot of dark humor and fuck-it experimentalism would define the too often overlooked PIL. That always intriguing, sometimes confounding mix of elements is captured on "Live at Rockpalast 1983", a gig recorded for German television. Also captured is Lydon's unintentionally charismatic stage presence. Everything from Lydon's phrasing and pronunciation to his sardonic wit and an appearance that could never be mistaken for anyone else ensures all eyes remain on him for the duration. Surely it wasn't for his anti-choreographic English duck movements that some might define as "dance", and yet Lydon is the only one that manages to look cool doing it, much like Barney Greenway's (NAPALM DEATH) herky jerky gyrations.
Musically, if PIL's style of usually unpredictable and often unconventional song structuring was never your thing, then "Live at Rockpalast 1983" won't do a damn thing to change your mind. Aside from the comparatively conventional fare of songs like "Public Image" (played as opener and encore), SEX PISTOLS cover "Anarchy in the UK" (given a distinct PIL sheen), and "(This Is Not A) Love Song" (which would end up on the harder rocking and more melodically centered "That What is Not"), much of the material tends to rely more on groove and primal pulse than overt melodicism. It's not that "Annalisa", "Low Life", the hit 'n funky "Bad Life", or the snarky pointedness of "Religion" are atonal or unstructured by any means; only that it's more about the penetrating quality of the lines sung and strength of the thump felt than any kind of overt hook. But on "Under the House" it's all about the primal as guitarist Joseph Guida (who turns in some deceptively creative work throughout the gig) and bassist Louis Bernardi join drummer Martin Atkins as percussionists, as Lydon belts out the lyrics in what ends up one of the gig highlights. "Flowers of Romance" doesn't get stripped to the same bare essence, but the tones are felt in the gut and the dark wonderland of weirdness created gets the gray matter bubbling to a sensory boil.
The production qualities are surprisingly sharp on the DVD, considering the timeframe in which it was recording. The clarity is more than satisfactory and the time-period warmth endearing, while there is something about the meat 'n potatoes visual presentation that transports the listener back in time to Zeche in Bochum, Germany to attend the gig on October 31st. The brief bonus interview with Lydon is well worth watching and sees Lydon doing his best to seem interested in the interviewer's questions. The bonus rehearsal footage is ok as an extra, but hardly worth a second visit.
Bottom line? If you are at all interested in PIL or the John Lydon Experience in general, you'll watch "Live at Rockpalast 1983" with rapt attention. Then you'll shake your head and smile in thinking about how far ahead of most other bands PIL was in 1983. Finally, you'll laugh at just how good Lydon makes "not giving a shit" look.
- Scott Alisoglu