World Premier: The Public image is Rotten

My buddy Rael was going to be in town on Friday, and the Tribeca Film Festival was premiering a new movie about PiL and Johnny Rotten. Neither of us were big PiL fans, but this seemed like a fun date. I bought tickets.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Rael is sick. He can’t come into town. So I call my musically adventurous friend Julie. I know she is not a PiL fan, not a Sex Pistols fan, but I’ll have fun with her in any case. Plus, it turns out, there will be a discussion with Lydon/Rotten after the screening. More show biz!

We both order fish and chips at the venerable Tribeca institution, Walkers, and the fish is great, the cole slaw is fine, and the chips are very tasty. That’s a win.

Here’s the deal on the movie, in a few short bites:

If you love PiL you will chew this movie up with delight. It not only fetishises each version of the band, it exalts the Rotten process. Your taste is reified.

If you come from a more historical perspective, the movie does a pretty fine tick tock of the whys wheres and wayfores of the band over a long career.

If you enjoy watching John Lydon sing PiL songs, there’s lots here for you.

If you enjoy watching John Lydon talk about his life, there’s a good amount of that for you.

If you were an observer of PiL, and not a fan of the music, I think you might find a lot of fun in the music. More than you might expect. Less in Lydon’s memorable vocals than Wobble’s bass, Levene’s skronky guitar, and the similarly discordant and yet powerful music all the iterations of this band made.

So, there’s lots to like about the movie, but when you think about it as a movie, it starts to pale. This is a movie that seems to get Johnny Rotten talking emotionally and revealingly about his life. It’s a movie that chronicles many internecine wars among the various configurations of PiL. And it is, most tellingly, a movie that buys John Lydon’s version of the story.

Lydon’s version is a good story, but all the other voices in the film have other stories. And they’re allowed to tell them up to a point. That’s the point where Lydon/Rotten decides to drown them out.

What I’m describing is not an indictment. Rotten/Lydon, in the post-screening chat, talks about how he aspires to be a valued songwriter. He is saying he doesn’t think he’s there yet. He’s right about that, and wonderfully honest to admit it.

But the history of PiL the film describes is the arc of moving from talented and disorganized non-professionals to, over 20 years, the hiring of professional musicians who can actually play. And then marvelling at how everything got better.

And in many ways it did, but what seems to me most revealing is how all the aesthetic challenges disappeared once the band was competent. And this idea of competent musicians versus energetic amateurs is an invigorating discussion for everyone, but the movie glides over the issues.

It’s easy to see why, but without a discussion about talent, expression, experience, professionalism, talent and creativity, plus other stuff, I’m not sure how much what they produced matters.

I love PiL, I went to the screening tonight, because of this appearance I saw one morning in 1980 on American Bandstand:

Nuff said.



Chuck Berry Is On Top

By Source, Fair use,

Dick Clark introduces an appearance by Berry promoting this album and stumbles over the title, with the audience tittering at the double entendre. Really?

It is 1959, and, as Clark mentions, this is an album that has on it Carol, Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven, Little Queenie and many more.

Those were the days of album oriented rock. Not.

It’s an incredible trove, not a greatest hits album, that the Rolling Stones particularly mined for their early (and later) setlists.

Berry, of course, looks right at home playing along to this other cut, Back in the USA, that is also on Chuck Berry is on Top, with the totally white and polite audience clapping along.



Afternoon Snack: PiL, “Cruel”

I was sitting in the Jacuzzi (a middle of the night ritual, since I have retired), smoking a joint, with a Daily Mix from Spotify playing and the psychedelic lights in our bathroom moving through the spectrum, sipping fizzy water when this song from Johnny Rotten’s second band came on.

I really dug this tune at the time, though I felt the rest of the disc spotty at best, but I sort of forgot about Cruel till the other day, and my, it holds up pretty well.

The thing that also got me about this song was for some reason, the cover of the disc was just freaky in some sort of erotic/exotic/perverted/”I don’t want to go there” way, but I have no clue why.

As for the song, I not only found this video (it actually starts at 7:36) but this TV show has some very weird shit going on, like a magician escaping from a washing machine into which he has been placed, and bound, with water and soap and such going full tilt boogie.

Weird, but fun, I think? And, the song still rules.

Joan Jett turns a world on with her smile.

I posted here about a Husker Du cover the Mary Tyler Moore show theme song a few years ago. Not sure why, at that point.

This week, Mary Tyler Moore died. Which is a reason think about her. That is why we die, right? We hope someone thinks about us.

In my life I thought a lot about Mary Tyler Moore. I loved the Dick Van Dyke show, I loved the Mary Tyler Moore Show, I liked that she made an issue of Pale Male. MTM ranks in my pantheon of cultural gods, a list I should probably inscribe on the surface of excellent knishes. Or something.

Enjoy the clip, which I think shows just how essential Joan Jett is and how unfortunately that didn’t change the world.

Whipping Post, Covered

The former music biz guy turned newsletter ranter, Bob Lefsetz, has a piece today about something called Skyville Live. Skyville Live is a video show that appears to be a small club in which mostly old musicians play with a crackin’ house band, reeling off classic tunes quite wonderfully. Lefsetz hinges his piece on this cover of the Allman Brothers Whipping Post by country star Chris Stapleton.

Stapleton is a rising star, maybe a rised star. He’s written more than a handful of No. 1 hits, and since becoming a recording performer (in 2015) has been nominated for just about every major award and won some of them, too. So, he’s living the dream.

Skyville Live, it turns out, is a video show out of Nashville that is shown on some weird Verizon channel, and has clips on Vimeo.

Here’s my gripe. Whipping Post is a great song. It’s also a great song because the Allman Brothers recorded it twice brilliantly. And those performances are a part of what makes Whipping Post one of the great classic rock songs of all time.

In contrast, this cover, which seems to be conferring cannon status on the song, is kind of small. I was going to get into a whole argument about organic versus copies, about virtuosity versus chops, about the magic of the moment versus the nod toward nostalgia, about the weak slide guitar, but then I found this clip of the Allman Brothers playing the song in 1970.

I can’t help but think that Stapleton and band, no matter how well intentioned, aren’t paying tribute to the song. It feels like they’re speaking to their own glory by covering a transcendent performance—in a professional manner.

Whipping Post is a great song, but part of the thing that made it as great as it is is the arrangement and musicianship of the Allman Brothers. Stapleton and his session guys are excellent, but they chose the wrong song. They act like they’re playing a song from the cannon, a tune that a proficient rendering will justify. But it doesn’t. The great classic rock songs are usually tied not only to the excellence of the song, but also the moment (and excellence) of the performance. If you don’t live up to that, why bother?

This isn’t to say that great songs and performances can’t be covered, they can, but the artist has to bring something else to the table besides the cover. Think about the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, one of the great tunes of all time:

Devo, of course, raised their profile by their brilliant cover, which totally resets the song. Way to go, Devo.