Lydon, Jeannette Lee & Keith Levene:
Zigzag, April, 1981
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens,
with thanks to Tom Berglund
© 1981 Zigzag Magazine / Kris Needs
WATERING THE 'FLOWERS OF ROMANCE'
by Kris Needs
It's not like 'Metal Box'. It's not like anything they've done, let alone anyone else. Even when I'm not playing the records, PIL are there lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce, and make all the other headless chicken groups look redundant for another year.
There's over a year between 'Metal Box' and 'Flowers Of Romance'. It shows. Total difference in sound but could only be done by the same group. Out goes the domineering bass, hi-hat drumming and Keith Levene's sheeted sparking guitar-storms. In is what survived the tryout dubbing that worked – broken banjo, violin swathes, muted synth, noise incarnate. If before they were stretching the standard voice-bass-guitar-drums format outside and beyond its rock'n'roll framework, this album sees PIL discard that line-up completely and dive into a frightening new sound – acoustic and natural execution, but massively heavy in reproduction.
The rhythms are primitive and tribal foundations for the noise-embroiding and John's dismembered commentary, but please don't say they ripped off the Ant-Bow-Heads goo-goo drum exodus, 'cos this mighty surge makes 'Antmusic' sound like a room full of grannies knitting in time to 'Top Of The Pops'. Much effort went into creating a new drum sound which was boomy and crunching but down to resonance and harmonic overload rather than scratchy syndrum popping (everyone does that now).
The structure is simple, uncluttered but strong. How can you explain the fantastic gut-feeling of the opening 'Four Enclosed Walls', which is basically just an electronic niggle, whomping drum punctuation and John wailing from a mosque in the East. Brilliant and enormous. Apart from 'Track 8' – another brontosauric electrode of a pulse beat with a highly funny Lydon vocal taking the piss out of bunkups, all butterball turkeys, naked fat, the Blackwall Tunnel and pre-menstrual tension (boingg).
The startling 'Phenagen' which steps out on the beat from the snare of a knackered banjo – the resonating strings provided the Eastern-style drone, backwards guitar did the rest. Sounds a mess, but with the cathedral whine of John the effect is sinister and medieval. Side two kicks off with an instrumental, 'Hymie's Him'. It shimmers heavily on another mesmeric beat which is like an army of shining prisoners bashing out the wearcall in slow motion. The drums sound like they're ten foot wide and hit with sledgehammers! I love it! 'Banging The Doors' is the only track to boast plucked bass! But it's quickly submerged under a menacing synth-rumble slightly similar to that on 'Careering' and a repetitive front-door thrash, which give suitable emphasis to John's ode to neighbours and domestic paranoia. Like on all the album his voice is set far back but still cuts sharp – here he sounds like a cheeky gnat on the wall armed with a loudhailer. This nashy churning throb is the best thing I've heard for ages. While the New Romantics merely come over like 'Crackerjack' panto synthed-up Alvin Stardusts shouting "change" and "new!".
PIL have ignored it and quietly produced a genuinely fresh and accessible sound, but it can pin you to the wall with its atmosphere and feel. 'Go Back' oddly uses the slow stop-start drumming you might find on a live Humble Pie album, but it houses John's sneering putdown of the extreme politics in which he chants slogan-like. The only track to feature a smattering of the Levene guitar which convolutes and screams, tempered by a neat little keyboard motif. The album ends with the whooping frenetic 'Francis Massacre' – John manic and tortured back there, snapping drums going like the clappers and all sorts of noises. Vicious stuff this. The only other music which has ever got so open but magnificent as this is early Can. 'Flowers Of Romance' is miles ahead but not a closed shop. It haunts, niggles, rib-tickles and sometimes overwhelms, but makes you feel exhilirated and sucked in.
At Virgin one afternoon Keith Levene, Jeanette Lee and John Lydon – PIL – explained how it happened...
"It was just me, John and Jeanette in the studio, and Martin Atkins who went on tour with us. We were booked into the Manor for ten days, and it was like we knew we were doing a new album and we didn't do anything for days – we couldn't do anything. It was like this horrible mental block. After wasting seven days of being waited on hand and foot, just being real lazy cunts... we were really trying but nothing was happening. It was something to do with the Manor as well. We did get one track down – 'Hymie's Him' – that was the first definite solid thing we got laid down.
I remember at the Manor for two days painstakingly trying to redo a track which is now on the B-side of the single, called 'Home Is Where The Heart Is'. I was using a loop instead of Wobble which I recorded four notes on – which is the bassline Wobble used to do anyway. I was trying to get the drumbeat to it and it didn't fucking work. After that, I went into the studio and was just tapping on the tom-toms, then relaxed a lot, and we recorded what I did on the tom-toms. It was just this beat and then I put this instrument on it. It carried on and we ended up with this thing called 'Hymie's Him' which had a certain feel about it.
We always know what we don't want with the music. I dunno if that's a positively negative way of working or what, but it just seems to be the way we work – we know what we don't want. Therefore we can have no restrictions on what's gonna come out. If we don't want it we don't use it. If we do want it – great, we leave it on there.
I can't remember the order of things. All I remember is we went in there and we knew we were gonna concentrate on the drum sound. We set up the drums and spent ages getting sounds and ended up with sixteen tracks, and there were only five drums there, so there was a lot of sound variation. It all had the feel of the album, which is for want of a better explanation tribal. It's got a tribal feel to it. People call it ethnic tribal, but if you can think of a better term I'd like to hear it. I'd say a very very acoustic feel instead of all that compressed disco stuff. A very acoustic, human feel, but very fuckin' heavy, and we wanted that anyway. So most of the tracks started off with drum tracks."
"Rather than put the emphasis on electronic gadgetry, it's all natural sounds."
"Even if the natural sounds came from using electronic gadgetry. If we were using a synthesizer we weren't using fucking fillers and things like that to get electronic effects, we were using electronics to create acoustics."
"That's what they were originally designed for."
"'Metal Box' was really just a load of material we did. 'Metal Box' was really just me and John finding out how to use the studio. It certainly wasn't Wobble finding out how to use the studio. It was Wobble finding out how to nick songs that we'd discarded after."
"One of the annoying things about Wobble was he wouldn't take part in any of the mixes. He'd do a bassline and leave."
"He'd suggest a stupid idea and when he got ignored he chose to say that we never let him do anything. But it wasn't. His ideas were so off-the-wall and stupid you couldn't try'em. And the way it ended up, Wobble worked on his own and me and John worked together, and we never had a drummer for long enough for us to take notice whether he was there or not.
So Martin done some of the drumming and I done some, and John did
a fucking lot more instruments. He always does the singing, but there
was more instrumental contribution to this album than anything before – I
mean he was always there on the mixing, but he got a lot more involved
in the actual laying down of things – more involved than I did.
Hence the lack of guitar.
There was like a main two weeks we were doing this album at the Townhouse. We had this fucking great drum sound and we had all these tracks. I was racking my brains – 'What can I put on this? What can I put on that?' - and kept listening back to them. On the last day we knew we weren't gonnna have any more time for it, so we were finishing off. It was then I realised – fuck it, that's it! There's no room for anything. And that was a track that might only have had the drums, John's voice and that's all. There's no room for anything else, so there's like a very focussed sound coming out of what we were doing. I s'pose because Wobble wasn't there.
The way we used to work, because we're lazy cunts, was just playing with video machines while he was watching videos, and we'd think 'ah, we gotta do something', and Wobble would start with a bassline and we'd take it from there. Because that element wasn't there then, we were just going about things differently.
There is bass on one track. John bowed the bass on 'Flowers Of Romance', and apart from that there's bass on 'Banging The Doors' – I remember laying that track down, Martin played the drums and I played the bass. Then I added synth to that, but instead of being the normal process of laying down tracks it was just drums, then vocals and then a noise, or drums and then a noise, and then vocals. It ended up we got this album package of this completely different sound that we'd never done before, and nobody's done before."
It seems like you've tried to discard the conventional instruments.
"Yeah. We wanted to do that anyway. In the early PIL stuff I felt like I discarded conventional guitar – guitar was redundant, I hated it. PIL managed to use it and it came out differently, and that was good 'til the 'Metal Box'. That live album was just a live album of what we'd done in the past. I only use guitar on one track called 'Go Back', and it's a great little guitarline, it's turned out to be a funky track actually. It never occurred to me to use guitar. When I used it on that track it fucking worked great, and there's a bit of backwards guitar on a track called 'Phenagen', which is more use-of-sound than guitar.
I suppose the way we went about this album stems from the way we went
about 'Metal Box'. Somehow with 'Metal Box' we were in a position where
we were in there and all the tracks had been laid down already. What
I remember doing with 'Metal Box' was finding out what mixing was about.
It was like a crash course in production really, and not conventional
I think whoever listens to this album can't fail to fucking react to it in some way or another. It can't fail to do them some good, anyone."
"One thing I'm pleased about with this album is we used instruments not because they're instruments but because they have effects on ya. Sounds that make you feel certain things like they were perfectly in tune with the song. That I like."
"Yeah, like a banjo with three strings missing, and he was hitting it with something that was hanging off the banjo 'cos it made that noise, that was used on 'Phenagen'. It wasn't like we bring the studio to the fucking instrument, man, or anything like that. He was annoying me all the time making that noise, then he laid down a track making that noise, then the next thing I know is this fucking great track called 'Phenagen'. It's horrible really, but it's really good the way it comes out. It's more a use-of-sound album than any other album I know of.
There's 'Ambient 17' or whatever that's called, and that's all a load of bollocks to me. Those Eno albums and the people that are associated with all that crowd – Fripp, even Bowie. The way they talk about using sound and so on, and they go in their studio and do all these beautiful ambient things and so on – and I used to really like 'Heroes' and 'Low', still do – but I still think they went about it in a real old man's way, didn't break any barriers, there was a lot of restrictions there. Whereas the way we went about this album was like a couple of kids let loose in the studio. It was just all restrictions lifted. I had a hard time doing it at the time, but looking back on it... I think all these people doing their ambient albums should take a listen to this."
This 'tribal' thing has been done a bit recently (though never like THIS!)...
"That's coincided actually. When we did 'Hymie's Him', which was the first kind of thing we did with that feel, it was definitely right for the time, and it's definitely different to all this other stuff which has come up around it."
"They're misusing the word tribal. I dunno what they're up to, but if Adam and The Ants think they've got a tribal feel and they use two drummers for that feeble tin-can noise which is impossible to dance to, then I'm sorry, that's just not good enough. It might be for some but it isn't for me."
"We went in there and didn't have anything prepared at all. We just did it and as we got there, so we were using the walls and the piano legs to get the tunes, whatever. When people say 'What instruments did you use?' I dunno, but we get lots of sounds out of things you don't normally get sounds out of. Instead of new ways of using instruments we did something different. The emphasis is on new, not bollocks. A lot of bands create bollocks, use their synthesizers the same. Our emphasis is the same really, it's just developed. It's a very cut-and-dried album. It's like, this is PIL now, boomf. We're never gonna sound like this again."
"Exactly. It's just another project. It worked out that way."
"'Cos none of us wanted to make another album after we'd finished this. I just felt completely like sucked dry of anything."
"We didn't wanna make another 'Metal Box'. We've done that sound to death. Now it's up to the imitators to continue it, as they're doing. Reaping the praise for their efforts." (laughs)
Next, general interview/conversation. We could've gone on about John's trial, the death of rock, the Pistols, but it's done, and all pales really next to 'Flowers Of Romance' (yes, a name once bestowed by John on a conglomerate of musicians who included Sid, but before that the title of the Pistols' earliest set-opener...). During a toilet lull in our talk John mentioned the age-old "Are they taking the piss or deadly serious" chestnut as a matter of some concern.
"They can't handle the decision of having to say, this is one of this or the other. They're frightened it's a big joke if they say that, and it'll backfire and everyone'll go hee-hee-hee! (laughs behind hand) It's so ridiculous, what a waste of time!"
"Well it's good that it shows them up for the cunts they are. The absolute lack of faith in their own fucking decisions-making is immaculate."
You've pruned your operation by half since we done our last interview (November '79 on the eve of the release of 'Metal Box'). Would you add more people to PIL at this stage?
"We're not recruiting."
"On a temporary level in future, with auxiliary units, but not as a whole anymore, like taking on other people permanently. It's just not worth it. It's a waste of time and money."
"Put it this way – if there was anyone else who was going to be in PIL, they'd be here now. If they are gonna be it won't be much to do with us."
Was the last year's States trip the deciding factor in whittling down PIL?
KEITH uncoils a succint fart.
"That's what I thought of the States." (guffaws)
"Certain people's attitude made themselves very clear. Before then it was all hidden, and that was that really."
It appeared to be the one time you delved into the standard procedure of touring to promote product.
"Oh yeah, but we went and did eight or nine gigs in a month. Most people do thirty gigs in a month. Some people can do thirty gigs in February! We went to America on holiday and did some gigs, but we were in a touring situation – we had to get up every other day and get on the plane."
Didn't you have to go through the American music biz product-push routine too?
"We went through that load of bollocks and it confirms what we thought. It is a load of bollocks. Warners wanted us to do their fucking tour jackets, satin epics with PIL on the back. Jesus! Another thing America taught me, it's all very nice, groups playing to audiences or just your general rock'n'roll band going out and doing gigs and all that. If we do ever go onstage again, in whatever configuration we go on in, I'm not going to take one bit of notice of the audience. I don't mind if the audience is there, but I'm not there for them."
"That isn't said from pure arrogance, it's that when bands merely perform songs note for note night after night, it's an insult to an audience."
"You're more honest putting on a video or sending a video round to do thirty dates, rather than sending a band round to do it."
"It's a condescension. 'Oh look at us, we're so great.'"
"When you're standing up there and saying 'After you've bought my album for so many pounds and heard how great we are, you can now stand in front of us and see how great we are. C'mon audience, clap, scream, stick your arm out', it's all bollocks."
"There's the encores where you get up and dance. It's very bad theatre."
"It was great when The Who came out, but that was their idea. It ain't my idea of... I don't go through what Pete Townshend went through in the '60s. I wanna go through something new, you know. It's bound to be worse, whatever it is, but it's stupid trying to create that all the time. The gig is dead as far as I'm concerned. I'm sure good things can occur, but they shouldn't be flogged to death."
However you put on a gig, however different, people will still go for the old purpose of wanting to hear the hits.
"If Public Image were doing a show somewhere, the fact that we're doing a show doesn't mean that we're gonna do the album anyway. It did because we chose to do it that way, 'cos otherwise it would've been stupid. Just to keep any kind of communication going with the American record company we did that. They wanted us to do thirty gigs in thirty days, but we weren't gonna do more than a gig every two days.
All they can understand in America is rock'n'roll anyway, but if we do a show again it doesn't mean we'll do anything off the records. We might be playing records, it doesn't even have to be our records. If people want to see PIL they're welcome to come and see us, but it doesn't mean we're gonna be doing the latest album. Definitely not. I don't want anybody to be fooled if they hear about a PIL concert."
How come you put out a live album then?
"Various reasons. We had the tape, we had the music, there's a lot of bootlegs about that were just rubbish, twenty quid a go. Apart from the fact we don't get no money from the bootlegs, we ain't gonna get any money from the live album 'cos it never sold enough. At least you can get a PIL album made by us with a much better quality sound. The time was right for a live album."
"It was never released with the intention of selling huge amounts."
"This new album I'd like as many people as possible to hear and buy. 'Cos the more people that buy it, the more we can do. I'd like loads of people to buy it, then go out and buy the previous albums, because I don't think you get a good album once every three months, so there's another reason, you can go in a record shop and buy something interesting. I can say that unbiasedly.
I know it is."
JOHN (soft American commercial accent):
"Boys and girls, a record that isn't just pure fashion fodder... None of those movements are long-term anyway. They're just small farts."
"I've seen people zero in on thoughts, but I can't believe how people have zeroed in on Steve Strange. Everywhere you look. Jeanette knows him as Steve Harrington."
A bootleg tape of 'Flowers Of Romance' was in the 'Sounds' Futurist charts (sick).
"We're the only band that deserves that title. All the rest are electric teapots. Spandau Ballet! Have you heard this album? Ah, they're great, worse than the Bay City Rollers could ever hope to be! Amateur hour! Stuff like jamming at rehearsals which you'd chuck out and wouldn't consider putting it onto plastic – to them it's a tour de force. That's fine if people want substandard crap."
What about these other projects you've mentioned, like films?
"Really we're sick to death of talking about these other projects. We just want to do them. But the problem with that is time, money and people. If you wanna make films you need a film crew, money, setting up scenes... everyone knows you normally have something like MGM sponsoring you. We're trying to do it without Virgin sponsoring us." (Keith goes onto explain a long and complicated process by which Virgin are apparently trying to cut the amount of money they dish out to PIL, recouping advances, etc.) "Fuck, it's terrible. We wanna make films and do really interesting things and they wanna cut our album advance, let alone the film. Just because they're going down the pan. Stupid really. Thing is if they gave us the money in a lump sum we could do something with it, do all these things, we could work together better than we do. But they're so busy worrying about their cross-collateral or whatever. We never built our studio we wanted, and we could've done. The reason we didn't is a lot to do with things like this letter Jeanette got this morning. A royalty statement – 'this money is recoupable'. No money."
"What it amounts to is, they're claiming we owe so much that it covers the advance."
"I'd like to get an album injunction. Like a prat I sent the album off to America in advance. They wanted to release it, so I sent it off so they'd get it before Virgin. Now we get this royalty statement saying we get no royalties... we have to deal with all this crap, and people say 'Why don't you get someone else to do it?' Hence the manager syndrome. But it would still amount to the same thing for us – we can't fucking move. It's nothing but a bureaucratic spider's web."
"If we are a bunch of pranksters, it's a very expensive joke we're running here. Trouble is with this kind of stuff, it's very boring for your average reader."
Yeah, but the average reader is pretty ignorant to all this going on.
"That's what I mean. They don't want to know. It's not a glorious world of having your picture taken, fantastic interviews and alcoholic binges around the universe. It's not like that at all."
The gist of this bit of talk was obvious: PIL have big plans, largely centering around films. This takes cash. They have a hard time acquiring it other than in dribs and drabs, due to various bureaucratic twists, thus the project is stifled. John mentions meetings with Virgin supremo Richard Branson where the pursestrings remained closed. John is incredulous that the pound notes only become visible when Mr. B puts forward the ludicrous suggestion that he be reunited with two former colleagues.
"I want some money, but I'm not prepared to join the fucking Professionals to make it. Begging me to join Steve 'n' Paul! Fucking true."
"Then we're talking about a different project – money, cars, Las Vegas, everything we want."
"And boredom. Two steps backwards. I want my fortune on my own terms, thankyouverymuch!"
And on that we wound up. PIL turning down a Daily Mirror interview for obvious reasons. It's obvious their dreams lie beyond bits of vinyl, but until the maggots of financial frustration are shaken off, gems like 'Flowers Of Romance' will do fine.
Next to this, everything else is just feeble wash-shit. Dive in, you disbelievers.
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