John Lydon – 1981

Pretend you never heard of a band called The Sex Pistols. Pretend you’ve never heard of a man called Johnny Rotten. Let’s pretend his career started as this unique artist called John Lydon who founded this brilliant band called The Public Image Limited. Forget that you’ve even heard of Metal Box or any of his other post-punk oeuvre, or that you know how abrasive his personality can be. It can’t be done right? Trust me, he of all people, I imagine, knows how hard it is to forget or deny history; scrubbing one’s past from one’s memory serves no one. Its this history which can thoroughly explain what I’ll argue here onwards. Coming from where he came from, one wouldn’t think John would create a magnificent new rung in England’s neo-folk history. There’s just something so out of time about 1981’s Flower of Romance, its both a shout to England past and a scream unfurling towards its future.

Coming from the slums of London, John had gone through some tough shit to get to the point he got here. Born to Irish parents who barely had money to scrape by, getting by at home was tough to come by. Naturally shy, and nervous, his own rebellious attitude grew out of a need to stand up to teachers and students who bullied him for looking and appearing different. Back then he’d listen to Prog Rock groups like Van Der Graaf Generator, or outsider artists like Captain Beefheart, and Alice Cooper, stuff completely frowned upon by his peers. When he was expelled from school, he met one John Simon Ritchie (later Sid Vicious) and started to squat in flats to survive. What happens next is history of course, far too expounded upon by many others for me to inject anything new, but one that is headlined by Johnny’s exemplary way of owning all his quirks, and eccentricities by using them as an image that could help tool the rise of a new type of British rock music with the Sex Pistols.

That fledgling group may have for a brief period of time shaken the world with its fiery thrashing rock style, but its revolutionary brand was so far from what John wanted to do. When he abruptly ended his tenure with the Pistols, he did so knowing the full extent of what he started. He knew, a certain look and sound had been commodified into a certain something he totally did not want to be a part of. When he said “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, John rightfully knew his own role in all of this ruse. He had already contributed, through his own bullying, to the death of one of his dear friends, and the music he was making was increasingly becoming this albatross imposing itself on others and himself.

PiL, first edition with Jah Wobble (far left).

Seemingly, as if trying to rectify some wrongs he charted a new path to redemption. Openly stoking his admiration for dub and reggae music (something Malcolm McLaren hated him for admitting to) John travelled to Jamaica and helped Richard Branson scout for local reggae talent to sign to Virgin Records. Branson’s secret plan was to convince Devo to head to Jamaica and integrate John as their new lead singer…something they wisely avoided doing. John though came back refreshed and looking to start a new band. He hooked up with an old friend of his Jah Wobble, another bass player with little to no training on the instrument (just like their common friend Sid Vicious). In 1978, sharing the same tastes in music, reggae, world, and Prog, and in Wobble’s case a unique gift in getting mind blindingly drunk and aggressive, they convinced an ex-Clash member, Keith Levene to join them and start Public Image.

Public Image (now appended with LTD) was this new other thing. John owning up to being manipulated into this whole punk look and sound that scared moms/grandmas everywhere, aggressively started to react against it. Albums like their debut 1978’s First Issue and 1979’s Metal Box/Second Edition forecast this new direction. First Issue taps the music of Jamaica to present this new antagonistic form of rebellion. Oh, you rude boys hate reggae here’s a “Fodderstompf” and “Theme” so thoroughly more punk with dub, than whatever you’re doing. Oh, you jack booted wanks hate disco and funk too, well here’s an “Albatross”, “Swan Lake”, and “Careering”…Prog and art-rock, oh my? that too? well here’s a “No Birds”, “Radio 4” and “Socialist”. Entering his best phase, the I truly give a fuck about what I want to do phase, John’s post-punk sound now gave way to something truly more revolutionary.

The celebratory escape from punk album 1980’s Paris Au Printemps a tossed off live album (of previous cuts) meant to recoup monies paid to print their previous album in a metal canister. That canister symbolized the weight of the music inside which was far more progressive than many punk bands wished to go at that time. They originally kicked around the idea of a sandpaper cover to mess up all lesser minded albums next to it but settled on this vision. After bassist Jah Wobble left around this time, John became enthralled with a new sound he was hearing.

Flowers of Romance-era PiL: Keith Levene, John Lydon, and videographer/cover artist/cover model Jeanette Lee.

The iconic percussion sounds he heard on Peter Gabriel’s III (Scratch album) and to some extent Kate Bush’s Never for Ever intrigued him mightily. What you heard there, especially on tracks like “Games Without Frontiers” or “Babooshka” were live drums, compounded with highly processed and affected electronic drum machines, and on top of that, these other bits of found sound rolled into a massive beat heavy sound. 1981’s Flowers of Romance just burns with something from ageless.

Flowers of Romance album cover.

Reduced with to a new three piece, John and Keith were joined by future Killing Joke drummer Martin Adkins. Recording and performing more like a group of percussionists, they’d venture further with a near bass-less sound. Keith, famously, rejecting almost all of his trademark liquid, aluminum guitar tone for synthesizers. John, likewise taking queues from all the traditional English music he had recently been hearing, used all of this knowledge to inform his newfound way of singing and writing. You wouldn’t realize it but now they were using violumpets, banjos, bowed bass, and all other sorts of traditional instruments (run through oddball effects) to create this monstrously new dangerous folk sound.

Flowers of Romance back cover.

“Four Enclosed Walls” which kicks off the album, presents this new direction spiritedly. Sounding as if John is trapped in a church organ trying to get out (notably a swooshing sound created by the violumpet), you hear his chanting joined by twinkling synths, and this massive bass drums. As John starts to warn about Crusades, of all religious sorts, and pleads for a return to the pagan place of yore, you start to realize how this belongs to the sound of the likes of Comus, Spirogyra, or the Jan Dukes Grey, more than the Pere Ubus, or Talking Heads of the day.

The lock groove of “Track 8” created by an early digital sampler sounding more like a wolf folk stomp than anything one can dance to leads to the most outwardly folk track of them all, “Phenagem”. “Phenagem” is this bit of dark Renaissance-like music, created by the sounds of a banging drum meeting the almost harp like sound of struck banjos. As all sorts of tape trickery try to wipe the Baroque sound from its base, you’re left with the haunting hymnlike warning intoned by John rising above it all to warn you of something. The warning is “Flowers of Romance” by far the most sinister and moving of all tracks.

In “Flowers of Romance”, John tries to dispel this whole notion of romanticising the past. For him, whatever is great about the past needs to be taking in and absorbed with the idea of pushing forward. When he bows that bass, a drowning sound that sounds like a cello, and joins it with a trance-like Stroh violin, you forget he’s using all sorts of new techniques to get that mystical sound of tradition. Then you hear the booming pagan drums mark time in rhythm to his almost Comus-like bleating vocals, that’s when you start to feel the spectral quality of this recording. Goth groups could get away with all sorts of superficial darkness by looks and gloomy sounds, but PiL truly sounded like a shadowy something you couldn’t ignore or pigeonhole. “Under the House” collapsing Rococo sound more than owns up to this, itself a track written about a time he saw a ghost, uses obscene harmonizing effects and delay to create another shadowy sonic environment.

Nearing the end of the album as “Go Back” marks the first (and only introduction) of a guitar to the whole album, something shocking happens. That most modern of “instruments” seems the most arcane of all, alongside these other sounds. All these other sounds, sounds lived in for centuries, have something truly powerful that can be molded. In essence the decaying music box melody sets the tone for what seems to be the brilliant theme of this whole album. This whole tedium of “modern” conservative “punk” music/style and politics was introducing the worst kind of conformity. Those who refused to take stock of some of the past and use it to foment new, better ideas were dooming everyone to living a dire future.

Its the most tragicomic of things to see that out of all the people who absorbed this knowledge would be Phil Collins (who’s “In the Air Tonight” has PiL’s influence imprinted all over it), and many of John’s younger peers willfully ignored it (with something called digital reverb). For all the sturm und drang of this new generation, many appeared to be oblivious to how dated they were becoming. No matter, Flowers of Romance, lingers on for good reason, and neo-folk itself has ways of staying alive in manners you wouldn’t imagine, more of that soon though…

Listen to:
First Issue (1978)
Metal Box/Second Edition (1979)
**Flowers of Romance** (1981)

all at Spotify.