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Three Decades Old, Still Ahead Of Its Time: PiL’s The Flowers Of Romance

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I suppose my favourite Public Image Ltd. album is 1981’s The Flowers of Romance.  That’s largely because it was the first PiL album I heard, but I also think it straddles the line between experimental and accessible better than most of the band’s other albums.

It’s true that this album is missing Jah Wobble, the bassist who played such a huge part in the creation of the early PiL sound.  It’s also true that the album is very, very heavy on percussion in a way that other PiL albums aren’t.  But there’s Lydon’s amazing (I won’t say inimitable, since it’s been too often imitated, particularly by third-rate would-be punk singers) voice holding it all together, making it a true PiL album.

What About Keith?

Keith Levene had originally played in an early version of The Clash and in a band called (hey!) The Flowers of Romance – a band that also featured Sid Vicious.  He went on to play on the first several PiL albums, The Flowers of Romance being his last before he left.  And, oddly enough, although he’s a guitarist, he can’t be heard much on guitar on this record.  He was mostly experimenting with synthesizers – successfully, I’d say – but his guitar, I’ll admit, is missed. 

What’s It Sound Like?

It’s a bit scary, a bit intimidating.  While it often seems to me incredible how far The Clash progressed in the two- or three-year gap between their first album and London Calling, I think Lydon’s development from (highly effective) punk sneerer to, well, auteur in the few years separating the breakup of The Sex Pistols from the inception of PiL is just as incredible.  Even more, Lydon was genuinely breaking new ground with this band.  What that means is that the songs are often, I guess I’d say, un-song-like.  Check out the title track as a good example.   It’s got a prominent, repetitive drum pattern; Levene’s synthesizers swirl and moan; and Lydon wails almost atonally over it all (singing such lines as “We’re in a mess/Whatever I intended/I sent you chocolates/You wanted flowers instead/The flowers of romance”), his delivery making clear that this is NOT a love song.

It’s Just So Good

PiL is one of those bands you just want to make people sit and listen to – but, at the same time, you understand if they don’t want to.  They’re not to all tastes, and I certainly don’t play their records every day.  This stuff needs attentive listening, so when you’re in the mood for a challenge (and, I’ll argue, a treat), turn out the lights and put on The Flowers of Romance.  It’ll scare the cat, but you’ll love it.


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