Bugger me, this is one bizarre place to attend a gig.
I haven’t set foot within the grounds of Warwick University (where the 900-capacity Copper Rooms, just opposite the considerably larger Butterworth Hall, is located) since the mid-90s: somehow or other, back then, I ended up dating three girls from nearby Leamington Spa in an 18-month period (talk about unfortunate luck) and thereby spent a lot more time in the vicinity than planned.
In the ensuing years, it’s grown from a modest-sized campus with its social life centred around one sprawling pub (still there) to a giant suburban media village: “like Milton Keynes crossed with Toytown” is the first phrase that immediately enters my head upon arrival, and with its unearthly juxtaposition of granite precincts, post-brutalist Italian (as in Tenebrae) stairways, green central reservations, fountains, bars, restaurants and nightclubs (all clearly centred on more than just the city’s stude population and linked to the city centre via a network of frequent late-running buses) it resembles just that. Which, on the one hand, should make it precisely the sort of place John Lydon and his current cohorts should find abominable: yet on the other, its faux-newtown atmos (matched perfectly by the club’s industrial-meets-art deco interiors) could just as easily strike the man behind such disjointed masterpieces as Metal Box, Album and First Edition as strangely beautiful (as indeed it does me) And, judging by the cheerful, albeit sarcastic, glare on his fizzog as he strides onstage, it does…
Unbelievably for a bloke who’s made the best part of a 45-year career out of being obnoxious, hateful and, er, rotten, Finsbury Park’s best-known enfant terrible appears not only extremely chirpy, positive and amiable this evening (“allo Coventry…I guess we’ll just ‘ave to try the best we can, eh?”) but also rather dapper: in pinstripes, specs and ruffled sleeves, reciting his free-associative lyrics from a lectern like a crazed Oxford don (rather apt given tonight’s location) he now resembles ‘Professor Johnny’ rather than the mad sneering punker of yore, and carries an air of relaxed respectability one would never have imagined all those snotty, gobby decades ago. Furthermore, it works. Always unwilling to ‘play the game’ (well, be fair, he did invent half the rules) and (despite retaining the hairstyle) ever-eager to quell the bullshit punk myth by admitting his personal predilection for Hawkwind, Van Der Graaf Generator, The Deviants, Joni Mitchell, Weather Report and The Bee Gees, he’s now reached the stage where he can literally do what the fuck he likes- and if that includes immediately following opener Warrior with veteran deep cut Memories before moving almost immediately on to several lesser-known numbers from the last two releases in rapid succession, so fucking be it.
Besides, they’re the albums with which this lineup, not least of all wizard-like guitarist/ bozoukist/ banjoist/ purveyor of all things pointy and string-based Lu Edmonds, are most familiar: they played on the bloody things, after all, so it makes a certain degree of sense to perform some of them. Nevertheless, both they and Lydon also know full well that even for such an unconventional band (who by nature have always stretched the definitions of so-called ‘rock music’ to its furthest limits) there will still be certain widely-held, unavoidable expectations- and, thusly, once the slow-dissolve of the aggressive Corporate eventually morphs (via the frankly terrifying Room I Am In) into a punishing, ten-minute thrud through Death Disco, it’s accordingly greeted by a unanimously favourable response.
Given his latterday illness, Lydon’s vocal broadside, ever-cheeky arm movements and leering stare are all in surprisingly strong fettle, backed amply by the scraping percussion of Bruce Smith and the prodding bass and keys of Scott Firth: the latter may admittedly be no Jah Wobble, but, blessed with equal dexterity on conventional bass guitar, widdling keyboards and full-on ‘Eberhard Weber’-style upright within one song, he doesn’t need to be. Not that tonight is all avant-garde experimentalism either: Johnny clearly derives just as much impish delight from dropping the Bolan- inflected The One into the show’s early throes, and the quartet also make mincemeat of the rarely-aired Cruel (my personal fave, as luck would have it, from 1992’s underrated That What Is Not opus) and Fishing, reminding us just what an effective commercial hard rock unit they can be when so inclined. Lest we forget, they did have Steve Vai on guitar once…
In retrospect, perhaps the only weak aspect of the show is its slight predictability: it’s fairly obvious, following the slowly preceding build-up of ‘obscurities’, that the sudden arrival of Flowers Of Romance heralds the impending ‘greatest hits’ section, and sure enough, This Is Not A Love Song, a monumental Rise, a pogo-inducing Open Up and the evergreen Public Image itself (mondegreen of choice: “I want a wasp to be stuck up my ear…”) all soon file through the door marked ‘classic industrial punk’ in steady processions of arm-waving bonhomie. Yet I can’t really complain, as they’re all iconic songs: one day, hilarious finale number Shoom (which despite its lyrical preoccupation, is far from ‘fahkin’ bollocks’) will also acquire that status, with future generations of unconventional parents teaching their uppity offspring to bellow it boisterously at well-heeled twats in designer suits. Or possibly not.
Perhaps handily for anyone (i.e. me) who’s got a 20-mile journey home, they’re off well before 10.20: one disgruntled punter mutters afterwards that “he’d have come back on if he’d felt more love”, and there are, naturellement, probably several among the 500-strong crowd (not to mention a fair few others conspicuous by their absence) who have on principle taken ideological issue with the ginger Norf Lahndahner’s recent statements on Palestine and Brexit (not to mention his alleged ‘sell-out’ to butter commercials and reality TV) However, yet again, and I’ll say this until people get it- this is John fucking Lydon we’re watching here, and as far as I’m concerned, the day he has to answer to any meely-mouthed social justice warrior will be the day I know rock’n’roll is truly dead.
For fucks sakes, this is the bloke who wrote Annelisa and Careering (not that he plays either tonight, mind you) – to say nothing of his contributions to Never Mind The Bollocks, which alone accords him the right to poo on my head should he so desire. And, to be frank, I’m rather glad that in a decade when we’ve already lost way too many heroes, he’s still out there treading his idiosyncratic path- and if it means I get to see him play far-flung, quirky venues such as this, then all the better. Sure, his own lyrics may emphatically state that “what the world needs now is another fuck off”, but I personally believe that in 2018, we need him more than ever before. Rock on, Johnny, and here’s to the next 40 years.