John Lydon, AKA the Sex Pistols’ own foul-mouthed foghorn Johnny Rotten, was desperate to find success with his new band Public Image Limited. By 1981 though, not much had really taken off for the singer outside of the UK.
It meant that when the band were offered the opportunity to fill-in for Malcolm McLaren’s new wave creation Bow Wow on May 15th, 1981, they jumped at the chance. Little did they know, making their way to The Ritz that night, that it would end in a riot.
The Ritz was a new wave club and new to the scene. It was a bit flash, far nicer than the grimy CBGB and the Continental. The venue worked as a nice representation of how John Lydon was trying to take his career. No longer the aggressive mouthpiece of the anarchistic Pistols, now Lydon was plying his trade with dub-influenced post-punk pioneers PiL. Things had changed.
Well sort of. While Lydon was no longer the Pistols frontman, he was still securing the band’s major slots on TV and radio because of it. Despite Lydon’s denouncement of his previous band, everybody still wanted Johnny Rotten and it was part of what went wrong that night.
“Rock and roll is fucking dead. We’re not a band, we’re a company. We’re here to do performance art. This is going to be a show,” said guitarist Keith Levene when speaking to The Ritz’s promoters. But whether they understood him and didn’t care or simply mistook his sentiment as bluster, the club still pushed the show as ‘Johnny Rotten’s PiL’. Things didn’t get any better from there.
On his website, Leven revealed that the crowd were also made to wait for two to three hours in the pouring rain. To make matters worse, Lydon had gone AWOL, We got inside and got things ready but John is nowhere to be seen. There was an opening act that was weird — we just found them in a bar and hired them. The Ritz didn’t let the opening band go on or even let the audience in until John arrived.”
The club saw themselves at the sharp point of the cutting edge and with their new video screen they weren’t far wrong. The height of technology at the time the band decided to not perform a traditional rock show and instead provide a visual art exhibition. When a gang of wet punks walked in with the hope of catching Johnny Rotten singing Pistols songs and were then made to wait until 1am for his new band, the tension began to rise.
Lisa Yapp was set to open the show for the band, introducing them form a rubbish bin, but got jitters as she saw the menace in the crowd’s face. Luckily, a stagehand was at the ready to drag Yapp into place: “Hi, I’m Lisa Yapp! I’m here to talk about Public Image Ltd!” Yapp managed to get through her introduction while different objects began hitting the stage.
PiL stood behind the giant video screen with lights to create a silhouette of the group. Ulamo began thudding drums and then Lydon turned to put their latest record on. The crowd became incensed at the band’s perceived disrespect and unwillingness to face the crowd. As Lydon coerced the crowd, they began pelting the screen with bottles and chairs.
After being warned of the screen’s value and put in sole charge of its care in light of their unusual stage production, Leven began to worry. Like any good punk would, he decided to face and then threaten the crowd: “I go out in front of the screen to announce, ‘If you destroy that screen we have the power here to destroy you.’ I really meant it too.”
Thankfully, a technician eventually raised the screen preventing any damage hitting the band’s bank account. As the screen lifted the band realised they were vastly outnumbered and scarpered. They spent the rest of the evening laughing about the shambles of an event over some beers.
Lydon, though, was clearly not so happy with the gig as shortly afterwards he fired the band and hired a new one. PiL would never match the ferocity of the Sex Pistols but they would give Lydon another, badly needed, dimension.
Listen to the moment John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd were booed off stage in New York.