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LIVE REPORT: Public Enemy
David Bennun , November 6th, 2012 15:29

Public Enemy show Brighton and David Bennun why they're still one of the mightiest rock & roll bands on the planet. Picture by Maria Jefferis of Shot2bits

"Do you know how hard it is to keep a band going for 25 years? Do you know how hard it is to keep one group of people together for 25 years? Do you know how hard it is to keep a group of black people together for 25 years? [We're] 52 and 53. This shit is Harder Than You Think."

Thus Chuck D introduces the eponymous belter, which served as Channel Four's Paralympics theme. It's only five years old, that one, and it underlines the difference between Public Enemy and most other bands of their vintage flogging their way around the nostalgia circuit: PE never had to come back, because they never stopped. Never lost their momentum. They are an irresistible force yet to meet an immovable object.

Yet they aren't quite the same group, which perhaps is Chuck's point. Of the original PE core, only he and Flavor Flav are here tonight. The Security Of The First World are, it appears, not immune to defence cuts. Now numbering two, they sport rather butch fatigues in place of the former, splendidly camp black paramilitary gear, and their trademark moves are given only the briefest display.

The thing is, even back when hip hop was a notoriously fallible live do, PE didn't just take beats and basslines from the R&B titans. They knew the value of putting on a show. They were determined, then as now, that, "You will get your money's worth." Between them, Chuck & Flav ensure exactly that. James Brown would salute both their work ethic and their stagecraft. (Well, who knows what James Brown would do. He often didn't seem to know himself. But you understand what I mean.)

For about four years straight, PE were the greatest rock & roll band on the planet, whether that planet was black or otherwise. They haven't forgotten a thing. The bulk of the numbers may come from the first four albums, but their show doesn't feel for a moment like nostalgia. This isn't Then, fitfully recaptured. It's Now, with all the immediacy of watching an astonishingly good band seize the moment and blow it to funky smithereens.

It's good to see Apocalypse '91... The Enemy Strikes Black given the exposure it deserves. (Oddly, Yo! Bum Rush The Show is under-represented.) Following as it did that extraordinary opening troika of LPs, as thrilling a run as any group has ever put together, Apocalypse '91 is in retrospect somewhat overlooked. But it is both a mighty work in its own right, and in its incorporation of heavy rock (reflected tonight in the use of live guitar and drums), a key stepping stone to the rap-rock sound that pounded its way through the 90s and has been shifting units by the articulated lorryload ever since. Pity PE didn't work on commission.

It's also a pity that, PE having worked us up over two hours into a boiling froth of head-banging, hip-shaking, fist-pumping humanity, that fervour should be dispelled at the end by a lengthy speech from Flav on the evils of racism and separatism. Not that you're wrong, Flav, but an overwhelmingly white crowd who have come out to see Public Enemy are unlikely to be in favour of either thing. ("I do like their music - it's their race I can't stand; and who let those blacks into the venue?")

Still. They may have been the world's greatest rock & roll band a quarter-century ago, but I'd like to be shown a better one right now. Truly, I would. Because that would be awesome - and so was this.

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