06 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #6

Public Image Limited, The Flowers of Romance (Virgin/Warner Bros, 1981)

Public Image Limited was in a state of protracted disintegration during 1980 and 1981. Never the stablest or most productive band in the world to begin with, original power-drummer Jim Walker had left soon after First Issue, which was completed in a rush only after most of the album's budget had run out. The group then recorded their best album, the astounding and alien Metal Box, with a succession of hired drummers, finally settling on Martin Atkins before shortly touring in order to make money. Tensions between Atkins and guitarist/synthesist Keith Levene came to a very quick head and Atkins was sacked. Then bassist Jah Wobble, whose overwhelmingly foreboding playing and sound had defined PiL's records from the start, was fired. This left the band in a near-tailspin musically. In addition to all of this, Levene and John Lydon were completely out of their minds on drugs and alcohol half the time anyway, at almost total loggerheads the other half of the time, and Lydon was still trying to cope with the recent death of his mother and a short prison stay in Ireland that would keep him out of the country for the next 20-plus years.

I go into this tedious potted history not only out of masochism, but to illustrate the kind of chaos this band was in when they made this record. Most bands would have tried to continue streamlining the previous sound they had, or at least would get a substitute bassist in the band as quickly as possible. (Honestly, after all of that most bands would have broken up.) A B-side recorded around the same time, "Home Is Where The Heart Is," shows that PiL could have continued the Metal Box sound to surprising, subtle, frightening and brilliant effect. And I sometimes wish that's what they had done instead, at least for one more album. But what PiL came up in the sessions for the follow-up to Metal Box was a record that broke with the previous record's sound in the most drastic manner possible, while greatly furthering the adventurous, paranoid spirit of that record. Keith Levene has described The Flowers of Romance as the least commercial album ever delivered to a major label record company, and it's not hyperbole. Indeed, I have quite a lot of trouble thinking of a major label album that is less commercial than this one is. It is mind-boggling to consider that this album reached No. 11 on the British album charts when it was first released.

The entire album is predicated upon the idea that percussion - and nearly nothing else - can be capable of just as much sonic overkill as a wall of distorted guitars. Drums are front, center, sideways and backwards on this album: melody or, more often, some horrid, processed snakelike noise vaguely resembling it cycles around slightly underneath monolithic, crushing, often deliberately primitive drum rhythms. Levene and sometimes Atkins layered, sampled, processed and/or overdubbed drums and percussion to the extent that the rhythms are by far the main focus of the album. The unorthodox, insanely pounding rhythms hammer the listener into submission on every track. The enormity of low end and trancelike melody that Jah Wobble's bass supplied is completely done away with on this album, as are any traces of disco and dance music, however mutated they were in the first place. Levene almost never touches a bass, barely plays any guitar on the album, and doesn't even concentrate that hard on synthesizers either. Instead, most melody and texture featured here comes from increasingly unlikely places: an old piano, a cello, a processed soprano saxophone, a Stroh violin, bongolated broken instruments used for percussion, a randomly taped television set playing opera, a Mickey Mouse pocket watch. (I should note that it is impossible to overstate engineer and producer Nick Launay's contributions to the music here as well - he was practically the fourth member of the band during this time.) Perhaps the best comment on the album's inaccessibility is that the main source of melody throughout is John Lydon's voice.

Lydon's performance on The Flowers of Romance is really astonishing. He is, more than ever on this album, the focal point of PiL. There's no one else on earth who could have sung these songs like he did. An enormous amount of the album really has to rely on Lydon's singing to work. Even at its' catchiest, there are only rudiments of melody; "Go Back," the song with the greatest amount of instrumental melody on the album, is essentially one seasick nursery rhyme keyboard line played over and over again with one melodically deformed and extremely ugly guitar part screeching over it. The album's most memorable song, the title track, is at heart nothing more than a bowed one-note cello drone underneath an obsessive tom-tom rhythm (played by Atkins, who was uncredited for this particular performance on the album). His vocal style is taken to the extreme here: many songs are sung in an unbelievably hectoring, strained, sneering, faux-Arabic wail. He often sounds like a deranged, tortured, spiteful, paranoid wraith, barely even able to function. That kind of vocal quality can't be faked. His scattered, hallucinatory lyrics - often composed minutes before recording - evoke ceaseless horror, anguish and rage, and occasionally an indescribably caustic sarcasm. To say he's miles beyond the kind of actually quite funny and entertaining anger he expressed in the Sex Pistols is to state the obvious. His singing is a big part of what makes The Flowers of Romance as forbidding as it is.

After this album, PiL started making overtures toward making much more standard pop. A bassist was hired and the band made an album with more conventional material called Commercial Zone, which was never released after Keith Levene acrimoniously left the band. Soon after that, PiL had become a completely different entity - essentially catchy dance pop and corporate rock headed by a singer whose previously thrilling idiosyncrasy had hardened into mannered and self-satisfied schtick. For many people, it's hard to accept PiL's work after 1981; I know that I didn't, for a long time, and still mostly don't. But the thing I realized tonight, after years of listening to The Flowers of Romance, is that there was really no way Lydon and Levene could have ever continued in this direction. They clearly didn't want to repeat Metal Box, and accident as much as anything else played a fairly large role in the creation of Flowers. How much farther could they have gone with this music? The only vaguely rock-oriented album I can currently think of that's even more inhospitable than this is Scott Walker's The Drift, which is the exact opposite of Flowers in terms of sonic maximalism. If PiL had reduced their music any further they'd have ended up with silence, occasionally interrupted with Lydon's screams.

I don't know if any line on the album can really sum it up as a whole, but one that comes to mind is: "Empty promises help you to forget." It doesn't have to be mentioned that empty promises always catch up in the end, and the recrimination from them always gets worse with every one. Maybe The Flowers of Romance was the empty promise of punk catching up to Lydon and Levene. Who knows? (After all, Levene and Sid Vicious had been in a pre-Sex Pistols band called The Flowers of Romance.) What I do know is that the whole album is like a really bad dream that you can't shake off - and that if the Sex Pistols had really wanted to destroy rock and roll, they would have made this album instead of Never Mind The Bollocks. And they might have succeeded. The essence of PiL was on display for the world to see in The Flowers of Romance: even more so than Metal Box, Flowers is as disturbing and true an examination and exploration of unbalanced despair and chaos as there has ever been in pop music. It is the last great PiL album.

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