The Flowers of Romance
Public Image Ltd
It was three years since the Sex Pistols had broken up, and frontman Johnny Rotten had changed his name back to plain old John Lydon. He was with his new band, Public Image Ltd (PiL for short), on stage at the New York rock club The Ritz just as a riot was unfolding.
This time, the vocalist's baleful taunts had little to do with the disquiet - the band were playing from behind a projection screen, hammering away at improvised tunes while their records were playing over the PA. For some reason, the crowd objected to the cacophony. They almost tore the place apart. They threw bottles at the stage and pulled a tarp out from under the group, scattering their equipment. The show was abruptly called off as promoters cleared the hall; the next day the local press tore into the band.
It was a fitting moment for this point in Lydon's colourful career. The band had just released their third record - The Flowers of Romance - and it was Lydon's most experimental work to date. PiL, he said, represented his more creative side, while the Sex Pistols showed off the rebellious part of his nature.
For that particular New York gig, the band recruited a 60-year-old saxophonist at a bar who apparently knew nothing about their music. It might not have been the Sex Pistols, but everything else about it screamed punk rock.
The Flowers of Romance became the least radio-friendly of PiL's eight albums. The Trouser Press Record Guide went so far as to say 'the music is so severe as to lend credence to a record executive's statement that The Flowers of Romance is one of the most uncommercial records ever made - at least within a 'pop' context'.
It was heavy with drums and percussion, woven in with experimental instruments and samples, such as amplified wristwatches, reversed piano, and televised opera. Lydon even picked up a violin and a saxophone, although there's little evidence he knew how to play either. On the track Phenagen, he apparently just banged on the face of a banjo.
Despite the inaccessibility of the sound, the record was a success, garnering critical acclaim and hitting No11 on the British charts. The title came from an early punk band that guitarist Keith Levene - formerly of The Clash - had been part of. It was also the title of an early Sex Pistols song. 'The romance referred to is not being romantic,' Lydon later explained, 'but alludes to people romanticising over past events with their memories.'
Instead of being trapped in a nostalgic past, he wanted to move on and keep creating new things.
Two years later, Lydon came out with This is Not a Love Song, PiL's most successful single, which poked fun at the band's critics who contended they were selling out. Ironically, the song shot to No5 on the British singles charts.
PiL broke up in 1993 when Lydon struck out on his own. In 2009, however, he brought the project back to life, and by 2010 they were sub-headlining at the Coachella Valley festival in California and Summer Sonic in Japan. They're due to release a vinyl-only EP this month to be followed by an LP in May - their first studio album in 20 years.