This Day in Music History: Public Image Limited starts a Riot at The Ritz

     It was on this day all the way back in 1981 that Public Image Limited (PiL) was brought ritzin to play a last minute gig at New York’s Ritz nightclub (the band Bow Wow Wow were supposed to play but had bowed out). With no time to rehearse PiL said they would do a “Video Performance”…well you can just imagine what would happen if you appear at a show expecting to see live music and you get a screen in front of you with the band behind it….maybe a riot?.

    The following story was told by Ed Caraballo who was the “video guy” for PiL at the time of the incident and was there for the whole thing. The article originally appears in the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever; you can read the full article there.

    The evening of the show, we hired a limosine, maybe to impress or allude the press. There was a bunch of music press running around getting hyped about this show because this was their first show in a while. A guy from Rolling Stone was chasing Keith around. Even though no one knew me, I felt cool being the secret member of the band. We went around town, picking up supplies for the show. Meanwhile, John was back at the hotel doing his own thing. There was absolutely no rehearsal for the show- it was just going to be John singing, Keith playing guitar, Jeanette playing tambourine and other rhythm things and the drummer.

    We get to the Ritz and it was pouring rain. There was a crowd a people lined up. They were getting soggy and Keith got out, looked at them and laughed. They started yelling and calling out to him and he ignored them. He wasn’t disrespectful and didn’t taunt anyone like John would. 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 crowd was standing out there in the rain but Keith didn’t seem too concerned about the crowd or John so I just tested the video while Keith did a sound check.

   John finally showed up so the crowd was let in and the opening act came on. This was a full one hour later than when it was supposed to start. So the audience is wet, soggy and pissed. This opening band had a totally different sound from PIL. It was almost like a folk band. The audience was thinking ‘what the hell’ and the band eventually got booed off.piljriotcrowdlightsmall

    So now it was PIL’s turn to go on. The crowd was really cranky and pissed by then, chanting ‘PIL, PIL, PIL!’ I was in the control booth with my headphones, nice and snug in there in the back of the club with a beautiful view of the audience and the stage: I felt like I was manning the Starship Enterprise. We felt that it would be appropriate to have a video of Lisa Yipp interviewing Keith and John in the trashcan she used for the show. Lisa gets on the headphones and says ‘I’m not going out there- they’re rowdy, they’re screaming!’ I told her ‘you’re a professional, go out there and do it.’ So one of the stage crew drags out the trash can she used for her show with her inside and with the lid on top. The audience looked at it like ‘what the hell’ and she pops out like Oscar the Grouch and says ‘HI, I’M LISA YAPP! I’M HERE TO TALK ABOUT PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED!’ So now the crowd’s really pissed and they start chanting louder. She starts to give an introduction about the band and we play this interview she did with Keith. In the interview, he’s saying ‘Rock and roll is dead. This is a new age of performance.’ The crowd had it by then. They turned on Lisa for everything that happened. They pelted her with beer bottles but Lisa was such a trooper that she kept going with her introduction. She fended off the bottles with the lid of the trash can like a gladiator shield. Then she says ‘AND HERE’S PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED!’

    The whole band’s behind the screen and Keith starts playing and the drummer’s playing this celtic rhythm to start the show. Then Keith starts playing the record ‘Flowers of Romance.’ He cranked it up and took all the equalization out of it- it sounded so cacaphonous. I started pulsating the parcan lights. It was really eerie and screechy. The crowd just loved it- they fell silent. You just saw the glow and the lights flashing. Keith’s guitar was feeding back, playing off the record that was on and John was just silent throughout this whole thing. He just stood next to Keith. You could only see the silhouettes of them and the projections of them on the screen. The crowd is just loving this, thinking ‘what a great introduction.’

    The first song ends and John starts to talk to the audience for the first time. He says ‘sil-ly fuck-ing aud-ience, sil-ly fuck-ing aud-i-ence…’ He’s slowly taunting the audience. Now the crowd’s not quiet anymore. They start chanting ‘raise the screen, raise the screen, raise the screen!’ John’s never been one who likes to be told what to do so he’s chiding the audience. He says what fuckers they were to pay 12 dollars to see this, just taunting the audience. The more they say ‘raise the screen,’ he says ‘we’re not going to raise the fucking screen!’

    So the band goes into another song that was this kind of improvisational kind of thing. It seemed to be directed by the drummer! John and Keith were just doing their thing. John made those sounds with his voice, almost like a yodelling type of thing. Keith is doing this screechy, primal sounding thing with his guitar, almost like a jazz number. They go through this and it’s a ten minute number. The crowd is kind of liking it but you could hear them add their two cents by syncopating the rhythm with ‘raise the screen! raise the screen!’ At the end of this, John is really being abusive. So the audience starts pelting the screen with beer bottles. Even in the balconies, they were throwing bottles and some of it was hitting the audience down below. The more that they threw bottles, the more that John would chide them.pilbackstagemay81small

   The manager of the Ritz comes to me then as I’m the only member of the band that was accessible- everyone else is behind the screen. Jerry says ‘you gotta raise the screen! There’s a riot happening right before our eyes!’ I felt like Nero watching Rome burn, seeing these bottles all over and I never realized how abusive John was to his audience. So I tell Jerry ‘No, I’m not raising it. You should have advertised and said that this wasn’t a concert. It’s a performance art show. That is what it is, that’s what they paid for and that’s what we’re putting on.’ I was guarding the remote control switch, not letting anyone touch it. Jerry kept yelling at me to raise it and I’d yell at him that I wasn’t going to do it.

    Then Jerry turns to the crowd and sees something going on as they let out a collective ‘aaah.’ The front of the crowd started pulling on the tarp and I start getting scared because the instruments and amplifier were moving forward like they were going to go into the audience. So Jerry says ‘Are you crazy? Look at that!’ I said ‘you’re probably right.’ So I raised the screen just a little bit, enough to put on the parcans full blast so that we’re blinding the audience with light. For a minute, they shrink back from this huge flash of light. It looked like the screen from ‘Wizard of Oz’ where everyone sees the magical workings of the Wizard, like ‘pay no attention to the PIL behind the screen!’

   The stage hands started scrambling to get the equipment off the tarp as the audience was still pulling at it. The poor drummer was freaking out as his kit was moving. One of the stage hands grabs the mike out of John’s hand and starts screaming ‘THE SHOW’S OVER! THE SHOW’S OVER!’ They bring the house lights on but the audience is still pulling the tarp towards them. It was like ‘we want our money’s worth no matter how we get it out of you!’ The stage hands rushed John and Keith off the stage for safety’s reasons. My camera people got out of there. The management of the Ritz took over, saying ‘the show’s over. That was the show. Thanks for coming.’ It was kind of funny because the crowd just slowly said ‘oh…OK.’

   For me, I was in 7th heaven. From the back of the auditorium, it was a beautiful site. It was a sick feeling because part of me said ‘wow, I’m responsible for this carnage’ and part of me said ‘wow, I’m fucking cool!’ The manager of the Ritz was freaking out still, wondering how many people were hurt because there were bottles all over the place. As it turns out, there was only one guy hit by the bottle. I made my way backstage to make sure the group was OK. On the way, I meet this producer friend of mine who I invited to the show and who I wanted to impress for a possible job in the future. He called out to me and I thought ‘I’ll never get a job now.’ ‘Ed, that was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen in my life!’ he told me. I was like ‘What? Oh yeah, that was great.’ I couldn’t believe it.

   I finally got backstage and there was John, Keith and Jeanette, drinking beers and laughing. Right next to them was this punk kid with his head bleeding profusely. Jeanette got him an ice pack and they gave him a beer and he was hanging out with them. He couldn’t have been happier- he was bleeding and he was with his heros. He was the only person that got hurt and not only wasn’t he interested in suing us, he was happier than he could be. Actually 50 people asked for their money back and the Ritz actually gave it to them. Basically, it was a big fiasco and the next night of the show was cancelled.

Below is the actual audio from the “show”

Joe Cornelisse-SMM

Photo Credit: Laura Levine

* Inspiration for this piece came from Dangerous Minds and Perfect Sound Forever

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This entry was posted in Ed Caraballo, John Lydon, Keith Levene, Music, PIL, public image limited, Punk, Rock, The Sex Pistols and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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