The speed with which John Lydon
moved past "punk rock icon" and into "post-punk iconoclast" was as impressively rapid as it was astoundingly complete. On January 14, 1978, Lydon delivered his infamous final set with the Sex Pistols, declaring "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated" after playing just one song (the Stooges' "No Fun"), then departing the Winterland Ballroom stage, effectively ending the band. Six months later, he was holed up in a studio, recording the first Public Image Ltd
song, "Public Image."
The first PiL album was released in December 1978, the second (Metal Box
) came out in November 1979, a live album filled the gap for 1980, and in April 1981, Flowers of Romance
was released. These three studio albums – the live album is a disaster – collectively represent a highwater mark for the more experimental and confrontational edge of the early '80s post-punk spectrum, and Flowers of Romance
is, without a doubt, the most impressive of the three.
While Public Image
and Metal Box
laid out the dubby, percussive template that defined this trilogy, they were anchored by the deep, rhythmic approach of bassist Jah Wobble
. By the time of Flowers,
Wobble had split from the band and the album would only contain two tracks that even featured a bass guitar ("Banging the Door" and "Track 8"), making his absence a notable one, but also giving PiL the opportunity to move beyond the restrictive sonic palette of "a rock band." The removal of Wobble's fluid bass lines from the mix freed (or forced) Lydon and co-conspirators Keith Levene
(guitars, mostly), Martin Atkins
(drums, mostly), and engineer Nick Launay
to explore the sonic stratosphere, and they did so with gleeful, fuck-you abandon.
The nine tracks on the album are dark, insistently percussive (but unapologetically arrhythmic), and completely lacking in the traditional melodic structures folks are used to hearing in Western pop music. It is a confrontational, probing, and angry record, built on musique concrete
techniques, substance abuse, endless studio experimentation, collagist composition, and drum sounds that Phil Collins
would covet so much that he stole Launay for an hour during the Flowers
sessions to help him get it for his own work. It's an incredibly punk record without adhering to any of the restrictive ideology that the genre had begun to demand in the early '80s, and 35 years later, no band – not even PiL – has come close to making a record like this.