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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : A Night of Rock 'n' Roll Mavericks : Johnny's Only Partly Rotten With Public Image Limited

December 05, 1987|RICHARD CROMELIN

Johnny Rotten? More like Johnny Cotton .

There's no doubt that rock 'n' roll could use a good shot of anarchy these days, but if Public Image Limited's concert Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre was anything to go by, we won't be getting it from John Lydon.

The singer (who recently re-assumed his more famous stage name from the Sex Pistols days after failing to make Lydon a household word) did more than his share a decade ago when he embodied all the rage of the punk revolution. He might owe his fame to that period, but his audience has no right to demand that he continue to walk the brink of the abyss for them.

The lessons are plain enough--those who fill that role of absorbing a culture's fantasies of mayhem and insanity and danger either die (Sid Vicious, Keith Moon) or somehow mellow into a different mode (Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Lou Reed).

So how is Johnny Rotten as a softie?

Well, at Thursday's concert he did a lot of the things he evinced utter contempt for when he was turning the music world upside down in '77. Skipping around the stage and waving his arms, he bore an unfortunate resemblance to the bubble-headed Howard Jones, and his musicians dressed funny and raced around the stage like some wind-up novelty New Wave group.

And Rotten's preoccupation with the fans' response recalled the crowd-stroking that's endemic to cliched mainstream rock bands. Though he did give it his distinctively obnoxious, baiting bent, it was still quite a shock to see from someone whose relationship with his audience has always pivoted on contempt and abuse; by the end of Thursday's show, he was even blowing kisses and bowing deeply.

This transformation is a radical change--as recently as a couple of years ago, Public Image (a. k. a. PiL) remained a fairly avant-garde enterprise, testing the sonic limits and maintaining a harsh, forbidding stance.

But it's not a total surprise. There always was a jester latent in the old saboteur, and in his satiny green and orange outfit, and with outlandish, multi-hued dread locks making him look like Stan Laurel disguised as a maid, he was like the clownish host of some warped kiddie show--Mr. Rotten's world, a maze-like set of crazily tilted, gaudily colored panels and murals of skyscrapers and countryside, accompanied by a ringing, droning, wailing, sound track.

That music is now nearly exclusively guitar-oriented, with occasional synthesizer and pre-taped touches, and it's definitely softer than PiL's old electro-metallic experimentation. Similarly, despite Rotten's mocking digs at religion and courtship and other facts of life, the overall message was somewhat blunted by the fairly merry goings-on. Despite all the brightly-lit bopping, Rotten seemed to keep the old loyalists excited--and significantly, he did it without exhuming one Sex Pistols song.

In any case, the sheer force of his personality kept swatting down whatever reservations occured--the guy simply remains an irresistible character up there. Shakespearean flourishes issue from this improbable, Dickensian figure, and that mad gleam in his eye is as piercing as always.

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