We’ve spent some time together over the last year or so. I’ve played you Japanese speed metal (Melt Banana), US Drone Doom (Sunn O)))) and distressed electronica (Liars), but let me tell you, I don’t own a record more alienating and challenging than ‘The Flowers of Romance’. When I say ‘alienating’ I mean it sounds like a direct transmission from another world and when I say ‘challenging’ i’m talking about a record that gets right up into your face and asks what you’re going to do about it.
The Flowers of Romance’ was recorded in late 1980, less than two years after John Lydon, then Rotten, had left the Sex Pistols for dead onstage at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. That two year period was the most productive of Lydon’s career and ‘The Flowers of Romance’ was the third of a hat-trick of radical, interruptive albums that PiL released in a rush of driven creativity.
By then Jah Wobble, Lydon’s foil since they met at school, had left, accused of stealing bass lines to use in his own solo work. This left Keith Levine and Lydon alone, corroding under a barrage of narcotics, locked together in a dread duet. They contrived a pulsating, corruscating blizzard of percussion augmented by whatever esoteric instruments they could get their hands on (a Violumpet anyone?). A gleeful gremlin’s way with the studio lead them to record backwards pianos, TV transmissions of opera and phased recordings of ticking Mickey Mouse watches. Amidst all this, the recording leaves a cavernous space at it’s black heart, big enough for Lydon’s satanic countertenor to rage around in.
It may not be structurally obtuse – it’s no ‘Trout Mask Replica’ – but the stark combination of tribal percussion and Lydon’s hellish holler is so aggressive that the temptation to turn away can become irresistible at times. The drums are startling, pounding, tumbling, booming. Perhaps most frightening of all they were said to have inspired the sound of Phil Collins’ later work. Lydon’s vocals are as stark and acidic as he ever managed. At times he defeats himself, losing his breath and failing to finish phrases, so swept up in the anger of the music that his own voice gurgles and seethes away into a bubbling, incoherent gas. At others his voice is a razor scimitar, unwavering and undeniable. Looking back it strikes me that this is the only record Lydon ever made where the music was the powerful equal of his vocals. Perhaps it’s this clashing collaboration that creates the flames.
The album is by turns repulsive and gripping, crazed and savage, devastating and ludicrous. Still after 30 years it’s like nothing i’ve ever heard. ‘The Flowers of Romance’ has a reputation as the least commercial album ever delivered to a major record label. I’m not sure about that (RCA released ‘Metal Machine Music’ six years earlier) but it’s bracing and almost baffling to reflect that this singular record reached number 11 in the UK album charts. It remains PiL’s highest charting long-player.
Public Image Limited, with their single ‘Rise’, changed the music I pursued fundamentally when I was 15. I bought this the year after that and it’s a key part of my musical hinterland. I’m fascinated to find out what the others think of it.
Tom Listened: Despite the fact that Rob’s offerings are often puzzling and perplexing, Flowers of Romance stood out for me as being particularly difficult to assess. I liked aspects of it – the drumming was great (reminiscent of Liars I thought), the lack of conventional verse chorus verse song structures, the risk taking. But I found the brutality of the sound, the harshness of the aesthetic (I’m acutely aware of the irony of using that word in this context) too much. And then there’s that voice. I just can’t stand it!
I think that, on the whole, Rob and I have pretty similar taste. On most occasions we are both very fond of the same awful singers – Will Oldham, Will Sheff, Bill Callahan…although, having listed the first three that came into my head, maybe we only like them if their first name is William! But every so often a voice will come along that we just can’t agree on. I gave Rob my free download of Future Islands’ In Evening Air a couple of years ago. He couldn’t listen to it as he found Sam Herring’s vocals indigestible. They’re not my favourite vocals either, but they don’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the record. For Rob, the record was a non-starter. Well, I feel the same way about John Lydon. Even his speaking voice sets my teeth on edge. Oddly, it’s something about the same phoney theatricality in John Lydon’s singing that Rob dislikes in Sam Herring’s vocals. I don’t think I’ll ever warm to it and unfortunately (and despite owning Metal Box, on vinyl, in its metal box) I don’t think I’ll be spending much more time with either PiL or The Sex Pistols. It’s probably my loss!
Nick listened: What a voice. Whether he’s hollering about her majesty or blathering about butter, Lydon’s tonsils are exceptional. Shorn of his squealing, The Sex Pitols are basically just a classic rock band with a dirty guitar sound. PiL, though, are something else. I bought Metal Box at uni and thought it was great and important, though I’ve not listened to it in years. I’ll dig it out soon. Flowers of Romance itself was fascinating on first listen – I know how much Rob loves it, and can see how his opinion on These New Puritans stems from his relationship with it. The percussion, the synths and sounds surrounding them, all compelling and exciting. But then there’s Lydon on top, snarling and skronking and sneering. He’s bloody horible, and a big stumbling block…
Graham listened: Showing my age, sometime in the past I’m sure I had a remix/12inch of the title track and single. Loved it at the time but was shocked by how stark and itense this album really was. I’ve never really investigated PiL to any degree, but there was something almost primeval about this that took hold of me and demands I dig deeper.