Stripped down and Spartan in its instrumentation yet heavily engineered, the album can be seen as a progenitor of the post-rock subgenre.
Maybe it was Margaret Thatcher – the British prime minister and co-boogeyperson of ‘80s conservatism and cultural oppression along with our own Ronald Reagan – who was responsible for this act of rebellion. It might have been a music industry ushering in the solo careers of Phil Collins and Billy Idol or the imminent releases of ABBA’s Super Trouper and The Police’s Ghost in the Machine that caused it, but in 1981, music was released that so pervaded the public imagination that some of the songs still get radio play to this day. In an act of prescient defiance, Public Image Ltd. released The Flowers of Romance, an aggressive experiment in voice and percussion sans hooks or melody. Its label, Virgin Records, was not happy.
The band’s third album saw the return of front man John Lydon, guitarist Keith Levine, and drummer Martin Atkins. Bassist Jah Wobble exited the band, leaving a void in the dynamic that was filled with thumping percussion. The result is an uneven work of art that bears to be reckoned with. The only constant from track to track is defiance. Lydon and company amassed a concept album to disrupt the form when juxtaposed against the more polished acts of the time. Drum riffs that could be hooks are given partial attention before fading into the avant-garde or getting overwhelmed by the caterwauling of the former Johnny Rotten. These are anti-songs unfit for radio.
Opener “Four Enclosed Walls” sets the tone. A low metronomic grind sits below a beat that nearly catches you. The reasonable expectation of guitar or bass is met with Lydon’s wailing a barely coherent call to prayers to a nonexistent god in some alternate dimension. “Track 8” begins with a bass line laid down like a heartbeat, but it disappears behind the drumbeat and Lydon’s lyrics. An ode to horrible sex, the guitar (a rarity on this album) mimics the sounds of tepid congress. It is one of the quieter songs on the album.
The appropriation of Middle Eastern and Indian music in the percussion and Lydon’s cadences give some tracks a World Music, if not otherworld music, flavor. “Phenagen” grinds through synthesizers and sitars with Lydon demanding “From down in the dark/ Tell us a story/ From the room below.” It is a horror story of disjointed lines that barely cohere, a madman’s chant or prayer.
The title track raises expectations with the sort of pop beat that might begin any song about youth and romance. Given that the title comes from the name of a band Sid Vicious belonged to before the Sex Pistols, there is a sense that something personal or revealing might happen. You almost feel like you know the song that’s coming, but those sentiments are quickly dashed. The drum line and clappers are joined by ambient sounds and voices. The friends in Lydon’s lyrics could allude to Vicious, but it’s doubtful. Personal and revealing isn’t really Lydon’s style and PiL is going for something more forward-looking than a song about reminiscence and the settling of old grievances. It is indicative of the album as a whole that you’re never going to get the song you think you want.
The second half is an easier ride. Whether this is because the parameters of the experiment have been established or the will of the listener has been subsumed is a matter of debate, but the instrumental “Hymie’s Him” is a prelude to something more accessible. In fact, if the album had produced a single it would be “Banging the Door.” The track is most recognizably a song, one with a funky beat and lyrics about alienation you could actually sing. While the rest of the album feels serious and deliberate, “Banging the Door” has a sense of fun is its real high point.
This is not an unsuccessful album in terms of its apparent artistic intention. It is not as aggressively nihilistic an audio experiment as something like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. As pop raconteurs, Levine and Lydon attempted to push the form of the art beyond market constraints. In March of 1981, Lydon told Rolling Stone “We’ve had a lot of trouble with rock and roll merchants. They would only play get-down-and-boogie stuff. Some people found it hard to stretch their brains outside of that.”
The Flowers of Romance is an argument, a confrontation between artists and their audience where the boundaries of the pop music are being forcibly reconsidered. Stripped down and Spartan in its instrumentation yet heavily engineered, the album can be seen as a progenitor of the post-rock subgenre. Like the first Velvet Underground album, it may have been wildly unsuccessful, but those who heard it were inspired.