Public Image Limited were playing here in San Francisco on their way back from the Coachella festival, which takes place in the desert in Southern California. I’d never seen them live and to be honest I find their catalog spotty: while their many ‘hits’ are top-notch, their ‘misses’ can be downright unlistenable. Not to mention, tickets were $60. No opening band or anything. I’ve never paid that much for a show in my life. I’ve come to regret that though. If I look back at the times in my life where I’ve passed on a show because the ticket price was too high, am I actually richer now because I didn’t see them? Or would I be richer for having seen The Pixies even though it was eight quid (which was more than double the price of a DIY punk gig at the time)? Or Johnny Cash, James Brown, or The Stooges? Who knows? Anyway, as luck would have it, just as I was discussing the pros and cons of splurging on a ticket with Mr. P. Rooney, I get a call from one Sean Dougan, or (SD) of this very rag, and he’s phoning to offer me two free tickets to the Public Image Ltd concert that he scored off some beer rep in the pub, but can’t use. Back of the net.
We get to the gig and the venue is only three-quarters full, if that. Price you pay if you set the price that high Johnny. Once the lights go down it looks a bit more full. I buy my first and last $7 Stella at the bar and note that the T-shirts are $35. What’s the percentage markup on that? A ticket, a t-shirt, and a couple of drinks and you’re well over a ton in! What is this, arena rock? The show commences and the band is in good form. Lydon seems to be in a cheerful mood: something about playing in PiL agrees with him. He’s not the catty, sneering lout we’ve come to expect from his public persona. Just as well, considering how much most of these folk have paid to be here. They play most of the songs I’d expect (or want) to hear, and a lot more besides. The set lasted about two hours, which is an hour and a half more than I want from pretty much any band. They lost me, the momentum wasn’t there, but the bulk of the crowd (predominantly late 30s and up) was chuffed and loving every minute, so fair play. Still, I’m glad I didn’t pay for my ticket. I wonder if coming to San Francisco is weird for John Lydon, considering the Pistols broke up here?
The past couple of weeks have seen a number of Banksy pieces pop up around San Francisco. Banksy is famous for his distinctive style of graffiti, or ‘street art’. He was apparently in town to coincide with the premiere of his film. When I first caught wind of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” I was pretty excited. Banksy is one of the few street artists that I feel is actually saying something important with his work. The art itself, the way he goes about it, and his anonymity have combined to generate unprecedented interest in the work of someone society at large still considers a vandal. Not to mention the unprecedented sums of money the sale of his work has generated. I wasn’t sure what form a Banksy film would take: he goes at great pains to protect his real identity from the media, although he no doubt has a circle of friends, family, and co-conspirators (many of whom appear in the film) who know who he really is. I’ve read that his own mother denied having a son when confronted by a reporter from the Daily Mail.
As it turns out, there is footage of Banksy in the film, but with his features masked or blurred, and his voice distorted. The scenes of him and other artists working nocturnally in the streets are the best parts of the film. The story is less about Banksy, however, than it is about Thierry Guetta, the filmmaker who captured all of this footage, and his unusually fast rise to the top of the graffiti art world. Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA, is a street art hanger-on who happens to constantly carry a video camera with him. Eventually he starts dabbling in art himself, and if the storyline of the film is to be believed, Banksy suggested that he should have a little art show in order to get him out of the way while the film could be finished. At this point the film started to remind me of a very different movie.
In “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle”, Malcolm McLaren attempts to deliver a how-to of sorts, a guide to ripping off the music industry for as much money as possible. McLaren was a genius at marketing, promotion, and hype. “Find yourself a group. Make sure they can’t play.” The Pistols obviously could play, but it certainly worked for Malcolm to market them as inept thugs. As “Exit Through The Gift Shop” plays on, it’s easy to imagine Banksy as a McLaren-type svengali. Thierry Guetta’s ‘art’ is shit: almost a pastiche of the work of the likes of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, etc. However, with the help of some promotional blurbs from the likes of the aforementioned artists, interest in Guetta’s (now Mr. Brainwash) art show reaches Beatlemania levels in LA. He’s on the front page of the paper, people are queuing up for days before the opening to get first look at this brilliant new artist on the scene. He ends up bringing in over a million dollars from his first ever art show.
It’s hard to believe, but it really happened, and the film definitely feels like a commentary on how easily something genuine can quickly become co-opted, hyped, and sold to an eager public. The question is, how much of this was engineered by Banksy, and how much of it is just an interesting coincidence that just happened to end up getting filmed?
Once I’d made the connection with Malcolm McLaren in my mind, it was hard to not see clues throughout the film. Banksy’s stencil work isn’t a million miles removed from the cut’n’paste detournement of Jamie Reid’s work for the Pistols, and Shepard Fairey has routinely used ’77 era punk iconography in his own work. Still, McLaren was a master manipulator whose own artistic output didn’t live up to his ego. Banksy is an accomplished artist in his own right already; if he did create Mr Brainwash, it’s hard to see how it would really benefit him.
YouTube: PiL Press Conference in San Francisco, 1980