Polish exploration of the avant garde...

Łódź is a city in the downsurge of the current global depression, girdled by punctured turret-slabs of the Communist era, formerly a manufacturing behemoth, “a Manchester of Poland” – and currently destroying its comparative’s claim as owner of the avant-garde.

October’s Soundedit line-up was small yet huge: Public Image Limited, Bill Laswell, Marc Almond, Steve Osborne, Dan Austin and Six by Seven were all visiting. It takes the form of a venue-festival set in Toya Studios, a series of dark concert halls which is also the largest Polish centre for music production. Previous artists at the festival have been Adrian Sherwood, Flood, The Divine Comedy, Peter Hook, Mad Professor, Tim Simenon, Tackhead (Adrian Sherwood and Gary Clail’s industrial hip hop group) and Robin Guthrie.

Backstage John Steven, aka Rambo, PiL’s manager, keep watch at the dressing room door – shouts erupt if people tried to make contact with Lydon. Also in PiL are Lu Edmonds (The Damned) on guitar, Bruce Smith (The Pop Group, The Slits) on drums, and Scott Firth (Elvis Costello) on bass.

One roadie comments before the gig: “No one knows he’s gone from speed freak to looking like he works on a building site”.  Lydon poses himself stage-centre like a bull; his voice skating in and out of the ribbon of the note; caged in metal. His shoulder blades tense; his elbows up, swaying; arms rocking then ripped back in, self-conscious; swigging cognac vicelessly, spat back into a bucket; Marciano, 13 rounds and an encore. Rambo watching keenly from the side, Edmonds changing from electric to a huge lute, a long narrow face, beard and damp long hair. 

The crowd are fairly normal, not the skinhead elbow-murderers you would imagine when you add Poland + Public Image Limited, or the po-faced avant-garde of Manhattan’s Palladium, where Iggy Pop and Scorsese saw them in 1980. It all descends into chaos slightly at ‘Death Disco’ and Edmonds’ Tchaikovsky guitar sample; Lydon’s vocals evoke a delicious empathy, which is increased by his lack of intimacy with himself, and his choice of subject matter (the track is about his anger at his mother being refused the Last Rites) – we all long to feel it with him, to invade his shell, but we are refused – a weird, nostalgic, fraught experience.        

Other songs include ‘Metal Box’ classic ‘Poptones’, with its famous Wobble, disco-inflected bass line, and Lydon’s slightly softer vocals (penned in his roadie Joe’s “Japanese car” with Wobble and Ari Up’s mother Nora Forster as passengers on a speed comedown). Polish heads begin to exert hydro-pneumatic spring-rate at the ska of ‘One Drop’, from their 2012 album ‘This is PiL’. Lydon’s riposte to Malcolm McLaren, ‘Public Image’ then slit across the room like an acid contrail. The overall experience is of duress, not entertainment, but it’s known around the world that PiL want your soul. 

Six By Seven also play that night, exerting a downer strain upon the crowd – this iconic group presaged the style of acts like Elbow, hitting home particularly with tracks like ‘Sympathy’ and the excellent ‘Standing in the Light’. A Łódź local, Lukas Klaus, on the drums, accompanies Chris Olley’s potent, dis-enfranchised energy. Lukas replaces Steve Hewitt, who has injured his arm; in the event, the Polish drummer brilliantly replaces the ex-Placebo Hewitt, so much so that Clash wondered how Hewitt looks 10 years younger and has a – markedly less dodgy – Polish undercut.

Bill Laswell follows, with an ambitious offering. Laswell is a bass guitarist and producer who has in the past worked with figures as diverse as Sly & Robbie, Afrika Bambaata, William Burroughs and Brian Eno. Fittingly for someone so ‘world’, he decides to score ‘Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out Of Balance’, the silent film about the natural world and industrialisation, famously put to music by Philip Glass. The film depicts scenes from nature – the Grand Canyon, beautiful waterfalls – the emerald colour of water just about to descend the cataract; then we begin to hear the helicopter sounds over the gorgeous glide shots, an atomic bomb mushrooms uncontrollably over the desert. Laswell, playing a huge bass from a chair and at the helm of a sound desk, included only a few plucked bass notes – his light touch seemed a little misplaced here – as the apocalyptic images grow relentlessly.

Elsewhere, producer-genius Dan Austin (Massive Attack, Doves, Surfer Blood, Six By Seven, Maximo Park) receives the ‘The Man With The Golden Ear’ award, presented to him by his friend and co-producer, Steve Osborne, (Happy Mondays, New Order, U2) the incumbent from 2012. The other ‘The Man With The Golden Ear’ Awards went to Bill Laswell, Haydn Bendall (Abbey Road, Pet Shop Boys) and local legend Władysław Komendarek.

All very civilized. But the night doesn’t not end there; Clash ends up in one of those Communist-era ‘monstrosity’ tower blocks, with a rowdy group of Mexican expat workers, munching vodka jelly babies and singing under-amplified Dominican reggaeton with a Tunisian bloke who had drunk too much to drive 12 kilometres back to his wife and children. Needless to say various concelebrants end up with their heads jammed in the cistern, Na zdrowie!

Words: Miguel Cullen
Photography: Joanna Frota Kurkowska



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