Public Image, Ltd: Live in Tokyo LP (1983, Elektra)
This week I priced a used copy of this record and realized I’d never heard it, so I threw it on. I remember flipping past this one in used bins all the time in the pre-vinyl resurgence era, but given that my interest in PiL more or less stops after Flowers of Romance, the 1983 date on it made me assume this wasn’t worth listening to. If I knew more about the album, I’d have been even more scared, as John Lydon is the only key member left from the group’s golden era, with guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble absent from this recording. My light research tells me that Rotten drafted some “rock guys” into the band in order to pull off this gig, and people seem to view Live in Tokyo as a weak and sloppy interpretation of the band’s classic material.
A few months ago I watched the film The Public Image Is Rotten, which was one of the best rock documentaries I’ve ever seen. Like the Radio Birdman documentary, it’s a “warts and all” affair in which no one comes off smelling of roses. I was in the dark about PiL’s history, and the film shed some light on the band’s tumultuous story, which is tied up with Rotten’s sense of alienation after the Sex Pistols’ messy breakup and strong senses of paranoia, alienation, and anger that seem to have been with him throughout his life. Those must have been at a high ebb around the time of this gig.
Coming to Live in Tokyo with very low expectations, I enjoyed it. As you might expect, the instrumentation differs vastly from the album versions of these tracks. Jah Wobble’s booming, dub-influenced bass is replaced with a plonky, Talking Heads-y tone that leaves more room for the other instruments. The guitarist keeps Keith Levene’s chiming sound, but makes his parts more conventional and legible. It’s also interesting to hear material from PiL’s fourth album mixed in with the classics, particularly “This Is Not a Love Song,” which sounds right at home alongside “Annalisa” and “Flowers of Romance.” It sounds like a PiL cover band, but given that production is such a big part of PiL’s studio albums, it’s interesting to hear these songs de-weirded. Maybe it’s because I’m puzzled by it, but I’ve returned to this record several times since I first thew it on.