For any creative personality, the tenuous border between art and confrontation is the hardest to cross. Forget conflicts of commerciality versus noncommerciality, or entertainment versus catharsis; the ultimate test has to do with exchanging ideas, communicating alternative values, providing new insights, thus effecting change. In its 25th year, rock music finds itself challenging basic ideas, basic structures and traditional values. Two of the allegedly major voices in this late-adolescent movement, Public Image Ltd. and the Gang of Four, have released new albums that suggest something Duke Ellington might have said: "It don't mean a thing if it don't mean a thing."
Public Image Ltd., the consequence of the Sex Pistols since its center is the darkly charismatic Johnny Lydon (a.k.a. Rotten), has released its third album, "Flowers of Romance" (Warner Bros. BSK3536). It's doubtful that PIL would have gotten an iota of attention without Lydon's past association with the Pistols, and those either adventurous or foolhardy enough to go with "Flowers" will find it imminently disposable -- which, oddly enough, may be just what the group wants.
PIL is anti. Like Marlon Brandon in "the Wild Ones," its targets are either obvious or undefined. The "what have you got to rebel against" philosophy apparently justifies the brutal dynamics of PIL's sound, distinguished by a total absence of musical and lyrical values. What one gets is a turgid wall of noise generally identifiable as either Lydon's maddened vocals or Martin Atkins' apocalypse drums; blown out of all proportion, these two "instruments" overwhelm the album. Somewhere or other there are guitar and synthesizer lines from Keith Levene, but they hardly figure in PIL's atonal sheets of noise. Beyond even this, the "communications company" (as PIL defines itself) has altered the tapes and the studio mix so that the album's tone is deliberately intimidating. If this music is meant to provoke, it succeeds on the wrong level, coming across as the work of spoiled children whose grinding ax happens to be electric.
Essentially, PIL stands defiant and spits in your ear; it's unlike anything you're likely to hear (or what to hear), though there are esthetic connections to the most "outside" playing in the jazz avant-garde. Cuts such as "Four Enclosed Walls," "Phenagen" and "Banging the Door" feed on their inconsequentiality, as reflections of the shallowness of the times, they offer neither new insights nor new directions.
It's nonacademic digging in the avant-garden, with no intention of letting anything grow. PIL taunts its listeners with a rock dadaism as banal as the sludgiest hevy-metal riff. That irony is probably as wasted as the time spent listening to this album.
Gang of Four, on the other hand, suffers from utterly clumsy dogma. Its approach is a classically Marxist attempt to deal with the nature of art in relation to its social context. But there is little confidence in the technique the Gang of Four employs, and so it is difficult to accept the polemics and sloganeering beyond that.
What they describe on "Solid Gold" (Warner Bros. BSK3656) as "radical dance music" is a one-sided dance floor dialect made of inflexible and somewhat pale funk structures. Built on Hugo Burnham's rock-steady drumming and Dave Allen's fat-back bass, songs such as "Paralyzed," "What We All Want," "In the Ditch" and "A Hole in the Wallet" are nonetheless one-dimensional thematically and repetitious musically, as if the group's reach exceeds its grasp.
"Paralyzed," the best cut on the album, is at least abrasively interesting in examining the effects of unemployment through a series of debilitating catch phrases: "Everman is for himself . . . I'm washed up . . . I can't make out what went wrong . . . I was good at what I did." Andy Gill's taut guitar lines and Jon King's manic vocalizing catch a mood but don't advance it.
Gang of Four's concern with fascism and economic oppression evoke a theory that hints at questions without ever moving into the answer column. Spasmodic variations in tempo and unsubstantiated profundities create a heavy-mental approach that reflects shallowness without suggesting any honest solutions. That the band chooses a coldly dogmatic, ascetic stance doesn't gibe with their alleged intentions either. Like PIL, the Gang of Four's posturing is conceited and invalidated by its paucity of ideas. An ironic contradiction finds both albums coming out courtesy of a major conglomarate; these two bands may want to burn their own house down, but it's doubtful there will be any Phoenix rising from these ashes.