Public Image Ltd. – The Flowers Of Romance
Released April 10th, 1981 on Virgin/Warner Bros. Records
Produced by PiL and Nick Launay
Peaked at #11 UK
“Flowers of Romance”
By 1981 John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols avant band Public Image Lrd. had released one classic album (1979’s Metal Box) but had lost their founding bassist, Jah Wobble. ‘Lost’ is an imprecise term; he had been caught stealing PiL backing tracks for his own solo material and they turfed him. Rather than replace Wobble, Lydon and guitarist Keith Levene figured out things to do that didn’t involve a full-time bassist. They shacked up in The Manor Studio in Oxfordshire and created a strange mixture of avant-garde percussion and musique concrete recordings. It’s experimental, to say the least; it’s unsettling and at time uncomfortable, eschewing pop sensibilities entirely to the point where it may be unlikely that a less commercial record has ever been submitted to a major label, let alone one that would go on to do well in the UK charts. There is a lot of weird stuff going on in this record. There are recordings of opera from the television, the amplified sound of a Mickey Mouse wristwatch on a tom tom drum, tape processed and reversed piano sounds. Lydon plays both violin and saxophone here, even though he had never been taught to play either. The relentless drumming is supplemented by alternative percussion, which Lydon at the time characterized as “banging on anything we could get our hands on.” The intense atmosphere is influenced strongly by the recording studio; Lydon claimed the place was haunted so intensely that he ended up sleeping in the coal shed rather than dealing with the ghosts of The Manor.
The drums are the key standout on this record and they were at the time, too. Phil Collins heard the record and immediately moved to snatch the producer. This is actually a bit of a circle. Peter Gabriel III featured a very rich drum sound; many of these were recorded by Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins. Nick Launay, brought in to produce on The Flowers Of Romance, was a big fan of the so-called ‘gated drum’ sounds on Peter Gabriel III and brought it into the production effort. In turn, Phil Collins was a big fan of the sound on The Flowers Of Romance and pinched Launay to produce his first solo effort, Face Value (including the legendary drum sound on “In The Air Tonight.”) It seems odd today to pair pop-rock radio head Phil Collins with a bizarre cutting-edge alt-noise album, but England in 1981 was a weird place.
The album would place inexplicably high on the UK charts and end up being something of a touchstone for a certain generation of artists. Kurt Cobain put it on his handwritten list of his fifty favourite albums; a member of L.A. noise-art provacateurs liars called it an inspiration on their own work, which is easy enough to see. I hesitate to call it punk as fuck, even though it is. The problem is that a lot of its punk nature lies in its very contrariness, which I have been avoiding calling punk lately. Just being contrarian isn’t punk, because a lot of dipshits use “being contrary about the rights people have and the way that society ought to be structured” as an excuse to call themselves punk. The dude from Prison Planet isn’t punk just because his stupid opinions are at odds with those of mainstream thought; otherwise any old asshole might come along and claim themselves to be punk while advocating eugenics, or looking to round up LGBT people. Lydon himself falls in this category from time to time, of course; just because most people found it rather shocking and indicative of the coarseness of one’s general nature didn’t make wearing a swastika punk in 1977 and it didn’t make wearing a MAGA shirt and going full-out in support of Trump in 2020 punk either. Sometimes you’re not contrarian, you’re just an asshole. Still, The Flowers Of Romance is fully punk. Public Image Ltd. was a functioning corporation, which flipped off the carnival that had been the Sex Pistols and the subsequent punk scene in 1977-1978. That scene had gotten Lydon ripped off; he was determined to keep control and make some money this time around.The Flowers Of Romance is a strictly anti-commerical record, though; at the time they warned people not to expect anything like the previous PiL record, and they weren’t kidding around. Even in the midst of trying to get paid, Lydon couldn’t help but try to piss people off.