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I was previewing this gig on Pure 107.8FM with Mudkiss Editor Andy Barnes, "I'm going to make a controversial statement" he said, "I think PiL are actually a better band than the Sex Pistols". Well I don't think it is an easy comparison to make. The Pistols were the catalyst that sparked the punk revolution (well at least on this side of the Atlantic - with a tilted hat to The Ramones, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground). They were the brightest stars on the musical landscape whilst it lasted and they inspired a generation including The Clash and the fabled audience at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June 1976 only half a mile up the road. But after only one studio album and less than two years the Pistols disintegrated amongst recriminations and real human tragedy. Public Image Limited or PiL, was the phoenix that rose from the flames. Johnny Rotten reinvented himself as John Lydon and recruited the best guitarist on the punk scene Keith Levene and his old sixth form college friend - the eccentric but marvellously creative Jah Wobble on bass. Through all the fall outs and change in line ups, PiL was always Lydon's band and they pushed the envelope over the next 14 years. Even after a very messy split with Levene in 1983, PiL continued to release songs of the quality of Home, Rise, The Body, Warrior. So who was the better band Pistols or PiL? Open to debate but in terms of having the better back catalogue for a 90 minute live set, it's got to be PiL.

The Ritz is a wonderful venue. Famous for it's springy dance-floor, Northern Soul all nights, grab a granny club nights and hosting the first gig ever for a certain Manchester band formed by Stephen Patrick Morrissey who was one of the few there the night the Pistols played Manchester in 1976. Recently refurbished, it's an intimate venue with a horseshoe balcony. The only thing the Ritz is missing a raised area with easy wheelchair access. However, don't get caught out by the early start and curfew times. After a sweep by security and a quick turnout The Ritz transforms from gig venue back into a nightclub. This means tonight's support band are taking to the stage as early as 7.15pm

"Do you know who is supporting tonight?" "No" - you could have hours of fun with that one. Yes, support came from six piece LA based alternative rockers with the most un-google friendly name; No (although they have secured @NO address on Twitter). They are currently putting in the miles on a whirlwind European tour, collecting some arty snaps that would be the envy of most backpackers for their social media sites. Despite the early kick off time the audience slowly builds during No's set. They undeniably sound remarkably similar to The National, maybe with just a hint of Interpol sprinkled into the mix for good measure. But if you are going to be compared to two US Indie bands then I'd say those are the ones you'd want to pick. Frontman Bradley Hanan Carter certainly has stage presence - smartly sporting a skinny black tie, grey shirt and shiny red Dr Marten's boots.  He moves forward and works the front of the stage well, as if an attempt to engage personally with the audience. They might not be the most obvious choice to support PiL but it is testament to the influence that John Lydon has passed down to following generations. Their Twitter feed includes a respectful and proud group shot with the Guvnor of Punk, you can tell they rightly feel honoured to be on the bill. This is their video for the single, Stay With Me. The slightly unnerving love sick crash test dummy reminds me of Interpol's Evil video.

So onto the main event - show time is advertised as 8:30pm. You can feel the anticipation building, it's already looking close to a full house although there are a few tickets on the door. With a curfew time of 10pm, there are a few glances at watches as the time approaches 8.45pm. Then the wait is over as John Lydon dressed in a beige trench coat leads PiL on to the stage launching and straight into the epic opener from their seminal Metal Box album. We are treated to a full length ten minutes of 'Albatross', Lydon standing behind a music stand delivers a heartfelt vocal performance. He is after all one of popular music's most instantly recognisable frontmen - as Johnny Rotten his trade mark sneering on stage persona was revolutionary. As John Lydon, he built on it - still uncompromising and prickly but multi-dimensional and the years haven't diminished his craft on stage neither vocally or visually. Scott Firth nails Jah Wobble's iconic bass lines - he was the only newcomer drafted into the reformed PiL in 2009 after their 17 year hiatus, he has worked with musicians as diverse as Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls. The quirky Lu Edmonds looks like he would be more at home in a folk band with his hippy hair, bushy beard and collection of electric ouds and sazs.  He left PiL in 1988 suffering from tinnitus just before they recorded the album he'd help to write, 9; which included Warrior and Disappointed. Bruce Smith completes the line up on drums, he also played with PiL in the late 80's. Lydon was mocked by some for his cringe worthy butter ads - let's be honest they are not particularly rock n roll.  But how many of you have to do elements of your job you'd rather not? And they are kind of captivating in a sort of looking at a car crash sort of way. But at least he doesn't take himself too seriously. And it John's defence, he used the cash to re-form PiL, not just as a retrospective touring outfit but a recording band.

Last year Public Image Limited released their first album in twenty years, 'This Is PiL'.  Two tracks from the new album form a club sandwiched in between classics from 'Metal Box' as 'Deeper Water' and 'Reggie Song' bookend 'Memories'. John's trench coat has been ditched and now the set turns it's attention to highlights from the later years of PiL's original incarnation. The band do a decent job with backing vocals on 'Disappointed', but I'd love to hear it sang live with a gospel choir live. Another track from the album 9 follows, 'Warrior'. "Is this the famous Manchester dancing?" asks Lydon somewhere in the middle of 'Flowers Of Romance'; "... It's OK, I appreciate the subtleties." If John was trying to goad the audience, he need not have bothered as the big guns were about to come out with a trio of tunes that raised the roof.  Starting with the hypnotic bass line of 'Death Disco' followed by 'This Is Not A Love Song' and 'Public Image'. As Lydon bids the Ritz crowd "goodbye" as 'Public Image' comes to a close the place explodes.  It's a well judged set that has come to the boil nicely.

Returning for the encore, a third and final track from 'This Is PiL' gets an outing, 'Out Of The Woods'.  We've passed the advertised curfew time but thankfully nobody is pulling the plug. Lydon introduces the band using just over dramatic first names and hand gestures as if talking to a toddler. "Luuu, Bruce, Scott....and you can call me" he turns his mic stand out to the audience for a mixture of responses, mostly either John, wanker or fat bastard, (well it is a punk gig not a panto). 'Rise' is another highlight of the set, "Anger is an energy" is chanted back with gusto. It's also one final warm up for a Glastonbury performance two days later.

The gig is finally comes to a close a good 15 minutes after curfew, with 'Open Up', on which John sang guest vocals on Leftfield's 1995 Leftism album, which begs a question, what's to stop Lydon throwing in a couple of Pistol numbers into his set? PiL are after all his band and while fans might fondly look back at the genius interplay of Levene and Wobble on the first two albums, PiL had been Lydon's creative vehicle for nearly 15 years, and it's taken us off on some wonderfully diverse directions. Now the show is back on the road and John's at the wheel - where will he take us next? Wherever he bloody wants to go - This Is PiL.'

Review by Paul Holloway

(Paul presents The Guest List (Tuesdays & Wednesday 7pm) & Fuzzbox (Fridays 10pm) on Stockport’s radio station Pure 107.8FM)
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