Johnny Rotten was one of the few terrific antiheroes rock & roll has ever produced: a violent-voiced bantam of a boy who tried to make sense of popular culture by making it suffer the world outside — its moral horror, its self-impelled violation, its social homicide. By contrast, John Lydon — who rose from the ashes of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols to form the experimentalist postpunk band Public Image Ltd. — has impressed some erstwhile followers as just a plain antagonist: a tedious, ill-affected artiste who deserted his own dread visions for fear they might destroy him. In a way, that may be true. By dealing exclusively in abstract images and accidental sounds, Lydon no longer has to run the risk of caring — which also means he no longer needs to run the risk of meaning.
But it’s true, too, that Lydon rankles critics and punk die-hards alike because he’s repudiated his past. By his own admission, the music he makes with PiL aims to devastate classicist rock & roll — including punk rock — by blackening its themes and confounding its forms. It’s as if, after distancing himself from the merciless primitivism of the Sex Pistols, Lydon found a fatal flaw in rock & roll itself — namely, that it imparted the illusion of order and transcendence — and decided to remake the genre. Actually, Lydon and PiL merely rerouted the Pistols’ much-vaunted anarchism, applying it to song structure, and in the process, authored the first major attempt to transmogrify rock parlance since Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. (PiL also managed to give momentum and focus to the English postpunk avant-garde: a burgeoning movement of art theorists and futurist musicians, several of whom — Cabaret Voltaire, a Certain Ratio, the The, In Camera, This Heat, Dome, et al. — are trying to codify PiL’s inventiveness.)
Paris au Printemps (recorded live in France in January 1980) is the album on which PiL’s formlessness finally became formulated — which is to say that if they could reproduce their apparently inchoate, unpremeditated music letter-perfect live (and they could), then it wasn’t really orderless or even all that experimental. Yet it is visceral. Guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Martin Atkins play momentously throughout, interweaving deliberate rhythms and backhanded melodies into a taut webwork of crosscurrent designs and motions. Lydon offers a stunning, protean vocal performance: by turns gleeful, derisive, virulent and, during “Chant” and “Careering,” so terrifying — invoking images of mob rule one minute, murder the next — as to be almost unendurable.
But what we hear on Paris au Printemps is more than animated, frictional music: we hear the way that music can rub up against, even threaten, people who aren’t ready for it. By the LP’s second side, the crowd — a horde of recherché, loudmouthed, self-conscious gothics — have had about all the cacophony they can handle. They want pogo beats, block chords, primal thrums — in short, the familiar punk mannerisms they know how to react to. Not getting these, they start to taunt Lydon, spitting jeers, demands and audible gobs of phlegm at him. John Lydon returns the contempt, leaning lethally into his vocals, narrowing the distance between himself and the implied violence, turning the insensibility of the moment back into the faces of an audience he helped conceive but can no longer abide. “Shut up!” he barks at one point, his scorn echoing through the hall. “I’ll walk off this fucking stage if you keep spitting …Dog!” Minutes later, at the close of “Poptones,” that’s exactly what he does, dropping his microphone on the saliva-soaked floor and stomping into the wings. In that moment, you can hear Lydon further remove himself from any conceivable culture or subculture that might contain him. He kisses off the whole oppressive orthodoxy of punk mindlessness, just as he once decried the manifest hopelessness of British society.
Little wonder that Paris au Printemps also depicts an end of sorts for PiL. Following the group’s 1980 American tour, Martin Atkins (the finest drummer PiL’s ever had, he made the music pounce where others made it loiter) left to form a puerile and comedic postpunk band, Brian Brain. Then, a few weeks later, Lydon, Levene and hidden member Jeanette Lee (who handles much of PiL’s business) parted company with Jah Wobble after he released two solo albums in quick succession, charging that the bassist had used PiL backing tracks without permission.
The Flowers of Romance sounds as if it were recorded to scorn a myriad of losses. Only Lydon, Levene, Lee and, on a strictly work-for-hire basis, Atkins make the music this time, and it’s probably the most brutal, frightening music Lydon has lent his voice to since “Anarchy in the U.K.” (A bit too frightening for PiL’s British-based label, Virgin, which initially balked at issuing the new LP, claiming it was arrantly noncommercial. Meanwhile, Warner Bros., which declined to release either the first PiL album or Paris au Printemps in America, grudgingly agreed to a small pressing.)
In contrast to the group’s earlier records — on which Levene and Lydon piled thick, splayed layers of guitars and synthesizers on top of thunderous, bass-heavy rhythm tracks until chance melodies and imperative tempos seemed to take perverse shape and then pull apart again — The Flowers of Romance pares PiL music down to a minimalist, primordial-sounding mix of mostly vocals and percussion. In the first cut, “Four Enclosed Walls,” Atkins’ drum shot cracks the air like rifle fire, and Lydon answers it with a quavering howl. From there, the track turns into an awesome drum-and-vocal dialogue, with Atkins pounding out an aberrant martial pattern and Lydon ululating through the clatter, chanting an obscure, dreamlike conjuration about Western dread and Islamic vengeance.
Later, in “Under the House” — in which John Lydon and Martin Atkins carry their colloquy to a harrowing peak — Lydon can’t seem to separate the nightmares from wakeful terror. Something’s after him: maybe a cadaver, maybe a mercenary, maybe even a bad memory — it’s hard to say exactly what. Specters of fear, death and flight stack up so fast that words and meanings cease to matter much. All that counts is the way the singer gives in to the momentum of his tale, letting animistic horror possess and propel him, as if he might fend off doom with its own likeness.
Almost everything on The Flowers of Romance pulls back, shrinks into shielding self-interest. The title tune has already been described by certain critics as John Lydon’s belated farewell to Sid Vicious (who, before joining the Sex Pistols, once belonged to a band called Flowers of Romance — named by none other than Johnny Rotten). And indeed, the song, with its disdainful references to failed friendships and its resigned air of parting, sounds like some sort of remembrance. But it could just as easily be about what the lyrics purport: a ruined romance that Lydon has no difficulty leaving. For that matter, the singer manages to denigrate or refuse so many possible alliances over the course of this LP — sexual commitment (“Track 8”), punk fandom (“Banging the Door”) and notions of musical accord in general — that sometimes the only ground he seems left with is the narrow path of his own hubris.
Suddenly, in the album’s final compositions, “Go Back” and “Francis Massacre,” the world closes in. “Go Back,” which features Keith Levene’s only flaring guitar part on the record, is a methodical, mocking sketch of life in Tory Britain, where the future has been banked on recycled mottos (“Improvements on the domestic front,” gibes Lydon. “Have a cup of tea — good days ahead/Don’t look back — good days ahead”).
“Francis Massacre,” on the other hand, is about a future sealed off forever. It’s a scanty, discordant account of Francis Moran, who’s presently serving a life sentence in Ireland’s Mountjoy Prison for murder. Nobody — including Irish penal officials and Lydon’s own representatives — cares to disclose any specifics about either Moran or his crime, and it’s hard to tell from the lyrics alone (a yowling litany of “Go down for life/Go down for life”) how Lydon feels. But the sheer desolating force of the music he and Levene make — a blaring, claustrophobic, rapacious tumult of atonal piano, metallic drums and furious singing — seems to act out the passions of murder while simultaneously seeking to annihilate those passions, which is as jolting a deed of protest as music can perform.
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It’s something like those incandescent moments in “Bodies” or “Holidays in the Sun” when the singer sought to illuminate terror by embodying it. In “Francis Massacre,” though, John Lydon means to turn the terror outward — to level it against a world that contains so much pain and so many nightmares that the most reaffirming recourse available is a brutal, racking cry of unwavering outrage.
The music of Joy Division — an art-minded English postpunk band that initially struck reviewers as a tuneful version of PiL — sets forth an even more indelible vision of gloom. In fact, it’s a vision so steeped in deathly fixations that it proved fatal: on May 18th, 1980, the group’s lead singer and lyricist, Ian Curtis — a shy, reticent man who’d written some of the most powerfully authentic accounts of dissolution and despair since Lou Reed — hung himself at his home in Macclesfield, England, at the age of twenty-three. According to journalistic accounts, he’d been depressed over failed love. According to his songs, he’d looked upon the horror of mortal futility and understood the gravity