34 Years Ago: Public Image Ltd + A Riot at the Ritz
The year is 1981, and future "Where are they now?" outfit Bow Wow Wow just canceled an appearance at the new Ritz music venue on very short notice. What's a club owner and promoter to do?
Someone apparently thought, "Hey, doesn't Johnny Rotten have a new band? Maybe they'll play."
Johnny Rotten, known legally as John Lydon, had made a name for himself as the nasty frontman of punk pioneers Sex Pistols. But they'd broken up, and Lydon had moved on, forming Public Image Ltd, or PiL. He traded the abrasive musical trappings of the Sex Pistols for a less abrasive, reggae-influenced sound.
According to a 1997 account of events from video artist Ed Caraballo, PiL guitarist and former Clash member Keith Levene initially declined the offer to play the Ritz, but Caraballo encouraged him to say yes; Caraballo was eager to get access to the venue's brand new, giant video screen.
The Ritz was a relatively new club aimed at the New Wave scene. It was nicer than grubby dives like CBGB and the Continental. U2 had just made their U.S. debut at the Ritz in March, and it would become an important element within the New Wave scene that grew out of New York.
PiL decided to put on some video performance art rather than a traditional rock show. Caraballo said that he told the club to promote the show as performance art rather than a rock concert ... but they didn't.
He said Levene told the Ritz's promoters, "Rock and roll is f---ing dead. We're not a band, we're a company. We're here to do performance art. This is going to be a show."
Levene very recently published his own account of what happened that day on his website. He echoed the notion that the show was billed wrong, claiming the show promoters reached out to the "bridge and tunnel crowd" and promoted the show on the weight of Johnny Rotten and something akin to the Sex Pistols.
The crowd had to wait hours to see the show: First, they waited outside, in pouring rain, for two or three hours. According to Caraballo, the Ritz's management and Lydon's lack of punctuality made the situation worse.
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.
Once the doors finally opened, this large gang of soggy punks had to wait until around 1AM before PiL, a band most of them probably had never even heard of, started the show.
The fellow drumming with PiL that night was a session drummer named Sam Ulamo, whom Carballo said they'd met in a bar (Levene said he met Ulamo in a Sam Ash music store). Wherever they met Ulamo, Levene paid him up front in cash "on the spot."
Before the band started, member Lisa Yapp sat in a garbage can with the intention of introducing the band, but when it became apparent that the crowd was feeling rowdy, she decided she didn't want to face them. So, one of the stagehands, according to Caraballo, dragged the trash can, along with Yapp, onto the stage.
She popped out of the trash can, declaring, "Hi, I'm Lisa Yapp! I'm here to talk about Public Image Ltd!" She managed to get through the rest of her introduction, despite being pelted with all manner of garbage while doing so.
From behind the giant video screen, lights were set up to create a silhouette of the band. Then, video footage of the band playing was projected onto that. After Ulamo started hitting the drums, Lydon put on PiL's newest record.
The crowd was not amused. They began booing and demanding that they raise the screen. Lydon predictably began taunting the fans, asking them -- in his sneering cockney accent -- if they felt they were getting their money's worth.
Bottles began flying. According to Levene, they were breaking against the giant projection screen. First one bottle, then a few more, then a torrent of them began striking this precious white screen, along with chairs and presumably anything else that wasn't secured to the floor.
This giant white screen that seemed to invoke the crowd's fury was of special concern to Carabello and Levene. When planning for the show, someone Levene described as "a very scary certain someone" and "not the sort of individual to be toyed with" placed responsibility for the screen's safety squarely on his shoulders by saying:
Do whatever you like. BUT whatever happens...KEITH ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME? DON'T DAMAGE THE SCREEN. THE VIDEO SCREEN CANNOT BE DAMAGED.
When the bottles and chairs began hitting this screen, Levene faced the unruly mob and tried threatening them: "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."
This tactic, unsurprisingly, failed to quell the audience. The mob began pulling on a tarp, upon which all of the band's gear was sitting. At this point, Caraballo finally raises the giant screen. He'd been caught between the club manager, who demanded he raise the screen, and Levene, who demanded he not.
The band made a hasty retreat and, fortunately, laughed about the whole thing over beers.
Soon after that, Lydon hired a new band to perform as Public Image Ltd, and the rest, as they say, is history.
And here's an interesting post-script: There was no video shot of this event, which so hinged on video production. There are, however, many bootlegged audio recordings of the show floating around, such as this one: