PUBLIC IMAGE LTD’S early stuff wasn’t all about the bassline. It wasn’t 100% about Wobble’s bossy, insistent, unstoppable low-end throb. No. I believe the band had a singer, a guitarist and an occasional drummer too.
Let’s have it right though: from the outset, from the very first moment of their very first single, it was Wobble’s bass that defined, bullied, pushed and pulled PiL’s sound forward.
Don’t get me wrong. Lydon’s whiney and increasingly obtuse voice style and Levene’s insane guitar had their moments, obviously. Anyone who had a hand in First Issue or Metal Box deserves our gratitude and admiration. And, while PiL had some absolutely fantastic drummers, either Lydon or Levene, individually, would have totally dominated the sound in any other band.
But how can you compete with Wobble?
When PiL first began, Lydon had expected Wobble, like Sid Vicious before him, to learn how to play the bass on the job. As we now know (and probably could’ve guessed at the time), that didn’t work out so great with/for Sid – but Wobble was an entirely different kettle of fish.
In fact, Wobble was your bona fide cockney fucking b-line genius, guv’nor, and no mistake.
Wobble wasn’t interested in regurgitating that boring old verse, chorus crap. He was aiming higher – or lower, depending on how you look at it. Wobble’s inspiration came from the deconstructed fragments of rhythm and melody in the wide open spaces created by people like Aston ‘Family Man’ Barratt, King Tubby and Scientist. He was on a mission.
“It isn’t just repetition,” he once told me. “You can have a lot of changes going on in modal stuff, but it’s this fixed block, it’s not scales, you haven’t got the major key, minor key thing – it’s a block of sound going on.”
Wobble’s simple, repetitive, enormous basslines made PiL what it was. Forget such meaningless, lazy categorisations as ‘post punk’ or ‘experimental rock’. On their albums First Issue and Metal Box, PiL invented jazz disco dub.
Contractually obliged to make a third album for Virgin, at the start of October 1980 they booked a lengthy session at the Manor Studio in leafy Oxfordshire where Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Gong’s Flying Teapot – and a few tracks for Metal Box – had previously been recorded.
By this point, and by any standards, PiL was fucked. Wobble, the lynchpin of the band, had been sacked. Lydon and Levene were still pretending PiL was some kind of non-hippy multi-media collective while being locked into an unhinged two-way passive-aggressive battle for control of the band.
They’d gone through five drummers – including Karl Burns of the Fall (who was, allegedly, set on fire by Wobble) – in a couple of years, and were currently drumerless.
“We had to make another record,” Levene told Perfect Sound Forever in 2001. “We hadn’t replaced Wobble. I was the only one left in the band that could really play anything. But I did have this habit of going around and finding these weird instruments, like these acoustic violins that have got these big horns as amplifiers and soprano saxophones.
“We’d turn up to there and go through the process of setting up the instruments. And nothing was happening. Nobody was doing anything.”
It seems that the impetus provided by Wobble’s untutored, unknowing bravado, spurring on Levene’s wayward musical virtuosity, had disappeared. At the same time, the guitarist had gone from dabbling with heroin to doing it “constantly”, while Lydon was just being a massive Lydon.
As a creative environment, it sounds fucking crackers.
Wobble, if the evidence of his debut album Betrayal is anything to go by, wasn’t in a much better state than his former bandmates. A largely joyless affair, most of the ‘fun’ with the album comes from spotting which Metal Box tracks Wobble appropriated for his own use (supposedly prompting his dismissal from PiL).
The sleeve features a fantastic and very evocative photo which, I suspect, tells its own story about Wobble’s mindset at the time.
Back at the Manor, remembers Levene, things were getting equally bananas: “I started getting really indulgent about… I started really over-focusing on the drum sound. Then I thought, this is interesting – maybe I’ll do everything but play guitar. Maybe I shouldn’t think about this and just get on with it.”
According to Martin Atkins, who had drummed on a few tracks on Metal Box and had been rehired for the album sessions, the real reason Levene didn’t play guitar was because his arms were bruised and swollen from regularly digging needles into them (he and Levine, it seems, despise each other to this day).
Levene himself has admitted he tried to time sessions to the part of the day where he’d have the least heroin in his system.
“By the fourth day, I set up this really fucking weird situation in the studio where we got these 36-channels in and I’m using 18 of them for the drums and this weird bamboo instrument in the drum booth.”
“I remember two days painstakingly trying to redo a track called Home is Where the Heart Is,” Levene told Kris Needs in an interview for Zig Zag a few months later. “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.”
Ultimately, PiL’s three weeks in this very expensive studio produced precisely one useable track, Hymie’s Him, which ended up on the final album. It is, in my opinion, shite. Lydon went on a trip to Dublin and promptly got arrested and thrown in Mountjoy Prison for the weekend.
On his release, the band reconvened at the Townhouse Studio in London. They had another crack at Home is Where the Heart Is, an old outtake from Metal Box, with the studio’s in-house engineer Steve Lilywhite and a new assistant engineer – the tape op – named Nick Launay.
“They came in to work on a song, which I could have sworn had the working title Doom Sits in Gloom,” Launay told Fodderstompf. “John wanted a triplet delay on a particular vocal line, and the engineer didn’t seem to understand what he meant. I was really into dub reggae at the time, so I set it up and it worked well.
“The engineer eventually gave up and disappeared, so me and John spent the rest of the day messing around with every effect imaginable.”
Another version of this story has Lydon simply locking the control room door when Lilywhite nipped out and refusing to let him in when he returned, telling him to fuck off. In the event, as much as anything else, it seems the novice Launay got the job of engineering PiL because nobody else at the studio was prepared to work with the notoriously difficult singer.
“I told him that I wanted him to co-produce it with us because he was really cool and I liked him,” remembers Levene. “Also, he was amazing with John and he made it a lot easier for me.
“I was really into helping people that were good if I could. I probably saved him five years of political game-playing. He came out of that project a done-and-dusted producer and then he got production gigs immediately. I, or PiL, produced it as much as he did – he was invaluable for a number of things. So he became another member of PiL for the record.”
Nick Launay’s recollection of putting together Home is Where the Heart Is differs slightly to that of Levene. The way Launay remembers it:
“No one turned up for hours, so I started mixing. After a while I got something that I thought sounded good. Still no one had turned up, so I thought what the hell, I’ll just do my own personal mix and keep it as a souvenir. And two hours later I was done. Just as I’m packing things up, in walks Keith Levene.
“Nervously I told him I’d done a mix, but wasn’t sure if he’d like it? The song had a reggae feel so I had used lots of delays and made it very dub. I played it, and Keith listened very intensely. I was sure he was going to say it was crap.
“The song finished and he said, that’s fucking great, let’s hear it again! He listened on other speakers and said, I like it, can you do me a copy and send another to Virgin tomorrow? And that was it.”
Home is Where the Heart Is sounds exactly like what it is – a rather crude facsimile of the band’s former glories spruced up with the strictly by-the-numbers dub stylings of a sympathetic engineer/producer/remixer (delete as appropriate, depending on whose story you believe). It is not PiL’s finest moment.
According to Levene, the Flowers of Romance album as a whole is “almost like a documentation of me finding out about other instruments and having someone (John) who can’t play any instruments being recorded in a state-of-the-art situation. My outlook was that a child’s painting can be as far-out as a Van Gogh.”
“That was where I was coming from, that I could use John’s total ineptitude to an artistic advantage”.
This ‘non-linear’ approach to production reached its zenith on the album’s title track and lead single, Flowers of Romance (named after the short-lived unrecorded band who never played live but counted Sid Vicious,Viv Albertine, Palmolive, Marco Perroni and Keith Levine among its members).
Characterised by an almost wilful primitivism, Flowers of Romance seems to be propelled by a desire to get back to basics, to the primal sound of raw acoustic drums – but doing all this in a hi-tech studio in the middle of London.
“We’d put the backing track together and we were getting into computer mixes, which was keeping John interested,” says Levine. “He did a sax solo on it – he didn’t know how to play but that’s what came out. I said, it’s okay, we can use it. It was very experimental like that.”
“Listening to that again reminded me of coming out of jail,” said Lydon of the single in 1990. “That’s when I recorded it. I left Dublin and went straight into the studio for two weeks solid. Slept there, did everything myself, practically.
“No band, couldn’t find Keith, more or less had to engineer the bloody thing myself cos the engineer there ran out going, that’s impossible – you can’t do that. I did it. That particular song, I timed how long it would take me to turn the tape on, run into the studio and turn it all off. I had to rehearse that about 20 bloody times before I got it right.”
However it was created, Flowers of Romance is an extraordinary piece of music. It is built around the lop-sided groove of the hum produced by Lydon dragging a bow across a bass, and some particularly primal, skeletal and arid percussion.
One minute you think you’re hearing the atonal squeal of detuned bagpipes before some squeezebox harmonium wooziness kicks in and you’re hit by Lydon’s insane freeform jazz sax solo live and direct from the casbah.
It also features much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the singer, with “binoculars, on the top of Box Hill” surveys the psychic landscape of Surrey and finds it wanting.
Not really. I’ve no idea what it’s about. It could be about Sid Vicious. Or Wobble. Or both of them. Or neither. Your guess is as good as mine.
What I do know is that Lydon, whining and wailing like a delinquent tone-deaf Sinatra, by turns outraged and resentful and yet also regretful and even fragile, turns in a bravura performance.
“The song Flowers of Romance is absolutely not a love song,” said Lydon, unnecessarily, on the sleevnotes for some compilation in 1999. “It’s more about the attitude that still seemed prevalent. I don’t want anything different. Which is where the line ‘I gave you flowers you wanted chocolates instead’ comes from. The romance referred to is not being romantic but alludes to people romancing over past events.”
Whatever it’s about, Flowers of Romance conjures up a truly unsettling, intense, apocalyptic atmosphere that seems to come from an entirely different time and place – and not merely because it was recorded the best part of 40 years ago. Flowers of Romance still sounds fucking really odd and strange and out of kilter, even now.
Hilariously, its sound is not a million miles away from that of the Burundi drummers of Nigeria which was ‘co-opted’ by Adam Ant at more or less the same time. The single introduced a methodology and a philosophy that would go on to influence everyone from Liars and Nine Inch Nails to Massive Attack and Radiohead – and even Phil Collins, who hired Nick Launay to beef up the drums on Face Value on the strength of his work with PiL.
Incredibly, the single got to number 20 in the charts, and so would have got daytime airplay on Radio 1. Imagine hearing this coming out of cars and kid’s bedrooms and transistors on building sites. I think I got turned onto it by either Doug or Paul, and it was always a mainstay of Steve Bird’s alternative discos at the Priory and the Baths Hall.
As for the album, I did not care for it at the time, didn’t buy it and have no desire to revisit it. For me, Flowers of Romance is one of PiL’s best songs from one of their weakest albums – or at least the ones I’ve heard. I stopped listening after This Is Not a Love Song, which I bought, resentfully, liking the tune but not being particularly impressed by the conspicuously commercial direction they were trying to take.
Of course, I have been 100 per cent vindicated by what has transpired since. Lydon can still come up with the goods occasionally, as he did with Timezone and Leftfield (and my old friend Paul swears their latest album finds Lydon being “believable again” with no sign of “cartoon Johnny” and “a satisfying balance between experimental and a mature mellowness”), but he appears to be largely spent as a creative force.
Meanwhile, Wobble is still doing the business, and teamed up with a seemingly revitalised Levene for the Metal Box in Dub tour. They even did some recording together.
I’ve no idea where or when my original copy of the Flowers of Romance seven-inch went west. Perhaps it is in the potentially-mythical vinyl hoard my parents allege is in their attic, having laid undisturbed under Miss Haversham-style dustsheets for so long that I actually have no recollection of its very existence. Perhaps they have made it into a clock or a place mat or something.
I took the opportunity to buy it once again when I spotted it in a treasure trove of punk rock records that someone had unloaded on King Bee, my principal local purveyor of secondhand vinyl grooviness.
While it was great to pick up stuff like the Cravats in Toytown, In God We Trust by the Dead Kennedys, and the seminal Wargasm compilation album for (I suppose) reasonable prices, it always makes me a little sad that someone somewhere feels they have to rid of their records, for whatever reason.
No matter what the question is, getting rid of your records is never the answer, believe me. I ended up having to self-therapise by writing a stupid blog about trying to buy them all back again. Don’t do it, kids.You will regret it, I promise.
Anyway, while the sleeve of the single has seen better days, the front cover image, a vivid Polaroid taken by PiL secretary / filmmaker Jeannette Lee, is still intact and still fantastic.
This beautiful little piece of art alone is worth the paltry two quid Les is asking, never mind that it contains a copy of what is, quite simply, one of the best records ever made.
Who has ever come up with a better last line than ‘I’ll take the furniture and start all over again’?
As Lydon said at the time Flowers of Romance was released, “it ain’t rock n roll, that’s for sure”.
He’s not wrong.