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The Sound Of Freedom: PiL's The Flowers Of Romance 40 Years On
Richard Hirst , April 6th, 2021 08:51

Richard V. Hirst relishes in an album that's the equivalent of bare concrete, the glare of the mortuary slab, the brightly lit hospital ward...

Now in the summer
I could be happy or in distress
Depending on the company.
On the veranda,
Talk of the future or reminisce.
Behind the dialogue
We're in a mess.

There’s a future essay to be written about COVID-19 culture – the artefacts that emerged from our plague year and what they say about where we were as a society: celebrities Zoom duets, the veneration of Sir Tom, our weekly clap for the NHS. These things were born of an instinct to find a unifying sense of positivity. Now, with a few months’ distance, it looks more like escapism, all of it masking a terror writhing beneath.

At the time there seemed to be little alternative, culturally speaking. But last year, amid what we would come to know as the UK’s first wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself instead listening obsessively to an album which seemed to capture the public mood perfectly. That album was The Flowers Of Romance, the third studio album by Public Image Ltd. Its music, released 40 years ago this week, seemed to me a true and unflinching soundtrack of the abyss.

PiL had been hastily formed in 1978 by John Lydon amid the implosion of the Sex Pistols. The following year PiL entered the studio to record Metal Box, a far more avant-garde offering than their poorly received debut First Issue. Their second album release was well regarded but the record represented more than just a success for Lydon, it was a vindication. For most he was Johnny Rotten AKA Mr Punk, with a career built not on artistry but media performance, with music just happening to be the platform selected by former manager Malcolm McLaren to connect his snotty, sarcastic persona with a youth audience. Metal Box not only demonstrated that PiL in fact had a clear design for where to take post punk, but that this blueprint was one of the most distinct and beguiling on the musical landscape.

The band on that record had effectively been a trio – Lydon, guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble – with a rolling cast of drummers. The strength of this PiL line-up lies in their particular sound – Wobble’s dub basslines, Levene’s broken-glass guitars, Lydon’s graffiti-spray vocals – but also in a nigh-telepathic sense of musical accord they seemed to share, the songs following their own sprawling anti-logic.

By late 1980 however PiL was barely a ‘they’ to speak of. Wobble had released a solo record which audibly re-purposed material from Metal Box, deepening a rift which had begun to form between himself and Lydon, and parted ways with the group. Wobble’s incessant, clubby style had become the heartbeat of the band, with Levene’s guitar and Lydon’s voice erupting, billowing and retreating around the grooves he created. His absence was to shadow the group over the coming months – and not just in the instances of Lydon badmouthing Wobble to seemingly every interviewer he encountered.

In October 1980 Lydon and Levene entered The Manor, a stately pile in the Oxfordshire countryside converted by Richard Branson into a residential recording studio. Immediately they were struck by a rather obvious problem: how does a band which found its creative locus in its basslines move forward without a bass player? A fortnight’s stay of near total inactivity elapsed with only one useable track being recorded, the instrumental percussion sketch ‘Hymie’s Him’.

A few weeks later they decamped to The Townhouse in London for a second stab at inspiration. It was here that PiL took on three figures who would prove crucial in transforming the band’s sound from Metal Box’s grinding dub-punk into something stranger.

The first was Jeannette Lee, immortalised on The Flowers Of Romance’s cover art but also instrumental in guiding the band further away from punk’s blokey trappings and into an art pop direction. Following the album’s release, she was considered a member of the band despite not performing on any tracks or being directly involved in its composition.

The second was Nick Launay, a newly employed tape operative at the Townhouse. In his own phrase he was ‘the office tea-boy’, one who found unexpectedly himself upgraded to the role of engineer as none of the more senior technicians wanted to work with Lydon. But the band still had few ideas – they certainly didn’t have any songs. Lydon, in many ways the patron saint of professional non-musicians, has always relied on others to spark his creativity. With Wobble gone, however, this meant he only had Levene.

Keith Levene is one of the undeniable architects of the post punk sound, with his guitar style occupying a space between angular abrasion and pop opulence. But by 1980 he was entering an uneasy period. His committed anti-rock & roll sensibility combined with increasingly routine heroin use made any spontaneous inspiration unrealistic. When I speak to Lydon he describes Levene as ‘upstairs with his Space Invader game’ for much of the sessions (this is no euphemism – although the history of rock music is richly seamed with odes to narcotics, heroin appears to have inspired in Levene an unyielding compulsion to play the arcade game). Perhaps the key creative decision Levene made before entering the Townhouse to begin recording was to get in touch with the third figure, drummer Martin Atkins.

Atkins, having previously played on Metal Box’s ‘Bad Baby’ and toured with the group, had a sense he knew what he was letting himself in for. When he first arrived at the Townhouse he asked to hear what the band had done in the weeks preceding his arrival.

"Somebody pressed play on the tape," he tells me, "and it was immediately recognisable as 'Twist And Shout' by the Beatles but with John caterwauling over it. It was the original recording with John’s vocals over the top. I thought, 'What the fuck are these people doing in a professional studio?’"

Where the percussive ‘Hymie’s Him’ would set something of a template for the record’s direction, Atkins would be the element that determined its signature sound, with his heavy, proto-industrial drumming taking up the vast space that Wobble’s bass had left unoccupied. And with Levene in no state to jumpstart the songwriting, it instead fell to Launay and Atkins himself, neither of whom were technically members of PiL at this stage, to assemble the foundations for the band’s third album.

The Flowers Of Romance is an experimental record not just in its unconventional sound: it was created via full-throttle Nutty Professor-esque studio experimentation. As well as the usual punk instruments – guitar, bass and drums – violins, saxophones and cellos were also utilised. As was simply whatever else came to hand – a spray can, a broken banjo, an opera recorded off the television, a toy trumpet. Launay’s presence meant that sampling and tape manipulation were also a part of the mix. "What you can hear on that record," according to Atkins, "is people exploding with creativity."

They quickly discovered they were on fertile ground with ‘Four Enclosed Walls’, the first piece recorded during these sessions. "I had a Mickey Mouse watch that I’d bought at Disneyland," Atkins says. "I would fall asleep listening to it while I was trying to come down. So I went into the studio and said, 'I can hear a rhythm inside this watch!' Somebody else might have said, 'Fuck off!' but Nick said, 'Fuck yes!'” Launay rigged the watch up to various drums, mics and a harmoniser, creating the tickly insectoid metronome which opens The Flowers Of Romance.

"And then," Atkins says, "I played the beat."

The beat is a faintly absurd term for a bludgeoning drum pattern which prowls the song’s perimeter before kicking in 48 seconds into the song and then builds in intensity. It’s a style which dominates the album – reaching its pulverising apotheosis in the ‘Under The House’ – and sounds an era away from the tinny synths and compressed hi-hats of which Metal Box, much of it also recorded at Townhouse, had made a virtue only months earlier. "The Townhouse Studios were building this new pit underneath the drum area," Lydon tells me. "It gave off a wonderful churchlike echo."

Launay tells me he remembers Lydon showing up at the studio in the afternoon to hear what he and Atkins had put together and immediately shook the cigarettes out of his fag packet and tore it apart so he had something on which to write lyrics. He then sang over the top. His first take is what is heard on the track. When he first heard Atkins’ enormous drum sound Lydon was reminded of his Catholic childhood: "In the back of my mind were the church organs, the discordancy when they played those huge wind-piped organs, just notes flying all over the place – it’s fantastic, it’s horrific, it’s frightening."

Opening with a muezzin-like wail of "Allah!", there’s an arrogated Middle Eastern feel to the record, accentuated here but present throughout.

Joan of Arc was a sorcerer
The trilogy - the desert sand
Scriptures in the tower of Babble

The majority of The Flowers Of Romance came into being via this process, with the two band members ceding the music-making to their supposed hired hands. Lydon and Levene would then show up to direct, modify and reshape what they heard. "We’re not a band, we’re a company," remains one of Lydon’s favoured responses when asked about PiL. It sounds like a sarcastic non-answer but in this instance it was true, with Lydon acting as CEO, steering the operation towards his vision without getting bogged down by the administrative minutiae.

This isn’t to downplay Lydon’s aptitude for taking the sounds created by Atkins and Launay and transmuting them into "pop songs" (an unexpected description but one used by all the personnel I speak to). It was also Lydon who ensured that this music could be recorded and that there would be an audience for it. "Without John using his legacy as a cattle-prod to keep the record label away we couldn’t have made that album," Atkins tells me.

The Flowers Of Romance also showcases Lydon as singer. That Middle Eastern touch is often present in his vocals: rather than journeying through a sequence of notes, his voice instead tends to occupy a spot near the top of his register and vary around that single note, reaching chromatically above and lilting below, but always rooted to its base.

It may seem curious to talk of Lydon a vocalist in this way, someone who uses his voice as an instrument as opposed to simply caterwauling. As well as the distinctive high-pitched style, Lydon’s is a voice which is unmistakably Lydon, sounding here much like his appearance at the time: tatty, needle-thin, sneering, but blazing with a furious energy, as though singing itself is his galvanising lifeforce. Two tracks on The Flowers Of Romance demonstrate his ability as a performer to ‘popify’ a song – that is bestow a semblance of form on otherwise chaotic music – while also imbuing it with a spectacular drama.

The first of these is ‘Track 8’. The layers of drum, guitar, bass and vocal on this track seem out of rhythm with one another, occasionally locking into place only to then decouple and once again reconfigure. The off-beat drums heard on this song were created when Atkins played a regular 4/4 beat which Launay attempted to loop using an already antiquated digital sampler which cut off a section of the original rhythm. Over this Launay added a loop of some of Levene’s previously recorded guitar noodling and then Lydon performed his sing-song vocals:

Spread her body, naked and silly
A bulbous heap batting her eyelids
The lights go down
Erupting in fat

It’s a combination of elements which make for an unsettling song, but central to its atmosphere is Lydon, his bored-sounding voice matching the lyrics with their childlike-childish eye on sex.

Another song, ‘Phenagen’, was created after Atkins had left the studio to tour with his band Brian Brain. This track was created using the broken banjo, Lydon using it as a drum to create its odd snare-like sound. "I was fearful of taking on instruments," Lydon tells me, something he’d never attempted before, "but I was very enthralled with myself." Once again there’s a streak of religious fervour at play with Lydon’s clamorous refrain of "Amen! Amen!"

It’s a track where the record’s particular uncanniness is at its strongest: the plague-cart plod of the drums and Lydon’s serf-priest wailing sway beneath a volley of reversed electric guitars and feedback. This juxtaposition can also be heard in ‘Under The House’ and the album’s title track, with their ritual-like drumming seeming to draw spectral sounds from the aether. It’s as though a séance is being performed, with presences from the past and the future finding an unholy egress into the present. Perhaps, one almost suspects, the young men gathered in the studio are not merely experimenting with sound but in doing so touching on some larger, darker force beyond their understanding. The song’s title appears to be a misspelling of Phenergan, a brand of sleeping pill. Alongside religion, the lyrics also appear to be concerned with The Flowers Of Romance’s founding premise: inactivity.

Down in the dark
Tell us a story From the room below
You are an Ostrich
Bury your head
Personal Auschwitz
Fermenting in bed
Empty promises help to forget

Perhaps it’s no great surprise to find this album struck a note with me during the past year. The grand theme here is not so much inertia as it is the pain and the terror such a state often conceals. Last year, as I listened to this album, I would be in the supermarket, the drums insistent in my earphones as I wandered past the bare shelves; I would be making lunch for my children with it playing in the background; I would listen while we did crafts, making cardboard puppets of our friends or drawing pictures of the party we planned to have when all of this was over; it was there pulsing in the back of my mind during our daily walks around the park; I would tap out its rhythms while I watched the news late into the night; it was there throbbing in my mind as I struggled to sleep.

At the start of this piece I called The Flowers Of Romance the soundtrack of the abyss. Abyss isn’t quite the word though, implying as it does an unplumbable darkness, almost luxurious in its despair. Think Joy Division, think The Cure at their most baroque, think goth. The Flowers Of Romance has moments where it attires itself handsomely in the gothic, but it feels markedly un-camp, always circling back to its aggressively stripped-down base, the sound of starkness itself. The musical terrain here is the audio equivalent of bare concrete, the glare of the mortuary slab, or perhaps of the brightly lit hospital ward. Listening to The Flowers Of Romance in our present times – and listening to it over and over – is to be brought face to face with the denuded lives we have become accustomed to living, shorn of almost all ornamentation, reduced to their bare, repeated elements, coloured only by glimpses of some inconceivable cosmic horror controlling things from beyond.

The album closes with ‘Francis Massacre’, a clattering pots-and-pans cacophony. The solemn religious ceremony glimpsed on ‘Four Enclosed Walls’ and ‘Phenagen’ has reached its ecstatic, almost cartoonish pitch. The song took its inspiration from Lydon’s brief spell in a Dublin prison, an experience which hangs over the whole of record. "My sense was that John was so focussed on what we were doing," Launay tells me, "because he thought this might be his final recording." The chaos of ‘Francis Massacre’ may be intended to replicate a prison riot but, following on from the preceding eight tracks of oppression, it feels like utter release. "It’s the sound of freedom," says Lydon. "For me it’s one of the most soothing songs."

A curious sentiment for such an ungodly din, but one with which I agree. Last year, it was a song which felt like a strange out-of-time inversion of the Thursday clapping for the NHS. Here those genteel doorstep applauses are transformed, or so it seemed to me, by the panic and desperation which always lay beneath them, the message no longer one of comforting positivity but one of honesty.

One year on, we are all of us due a soothing shriek to confirm our existence, to say: despite all of this, I’m alive.

John Lydon’s limited edition hardback, I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right is available now. Martin Atkins will discuss the making of The Flowers Of Romance at a Zoom event on April 9/10