Flowers In The Dustbin

[I Am An Artist, Your Rules Don't Apply sleeve]"I Am An Artist, Your Rules Don't Apply" (Single, 2015)

Grow Your Own Records

I always really liked Flowers in the Dustbin; unabashedly political without falling into the sometimes doctrinaire limitations of the anarcho scene, with an idealistic, bruised romanticism that always made them a more galvanising prospect than the more straight-ahead ‘shouty’ bands, they occupied a position on the punk rock Venn Diagram where Goth, Anarcho, and Positive intersect, with the Bowie/Glam influences that lurk in all those genres well to the fore. 

This release (available on 10” red vinyl or CD), features a mixture of material that never made it to vinyl during the original lifetime of the band (Cowboys and Indians, Temples), some that were written between their dissolution and reformation (Wouldn't That Be Fine, Bridge Across Forever, Pagan Uprising) and a brand new song (Brixton Tube). 

This approach could easily have been problematic - What sounded like deathless insights into the human condition in 1983 can, 30 years of political and personal hard knocks later, sometimes seem like embarrassing exercises in sixth form naivety. To their credit, Flowers mostly avoid this difficulty, although there are few iffy moments on Wouldn’t That Be Fine (With lines like “We made it to another dole cheque”) and Temples (“Our bodies are the temples of our souls”). 

There are of course some minor stylistic differences between the tracks due to their differing vintages, but nothing really sounds out of place here. Pagan Uprising is a straight forward punk thrash leavened with Country & Western twang, which while I admire the outside the box approach, doesn’t really work. The lyrics are a typically obtuse call to arms (“We are the rainbow warriors fighting rainbow wars”), linking a multitude of tabloid clichés and folk devils from “Loving mothers” and “reader’s wives”, to drug users and hunt saboteurs in a kaleidoscopic array of the dispossessed. Brixton Tube is an almost despairing plea for unity from a character desperate to escape a reality where we are all “Herded like cattle, seething like wolves”. 

Wouldn’t That Be Fine is reminiscent of Bowie in his acoustic troubadour incarnation with a solo featuring some serious Duane Eddy twang (with a weird little detour into My Fair Lady), and manages to find solidarity and even hope in a shared poverty. Temples now has a Bauhaus feel to it (especially in the Lagartija Nick borrowing intro), rather than the Kings era Ants influence of the original version, and revels in rejection of the guilt too often associated with sensuality. 

Cowboys and Indians has been described by singer Gerard as probably the best song they ever recorded, and it has great (really great) lyrics, taking in the oppressive political situations (“It’s a desperate game, but it’s one worth winning”), negative body image (“Saw you once, you had no make-up on/ You looked beautiful to me”), and features their rallying cry of “It’s great to be dirty/ It’s OK to be ugly”. The final track, Bridge Across Forever is a love song; although whether it’s addressed to an individual or society in general is not entirely clear, and is as close to a straightforward punk rock structure as they come on this release, with a subdued feedback wail and almost D-Beat drumming. 

We now however, come to the most important point. Is it any good? 

The first thing to say is that it’s an ugly looking artefact. The front cover disappointingly recycles the artwork from the Freaks Run Wild In The Disco 12”, and features the ‘Stencil in a circle’ design used by Crass and their more clueless copyists, something Flowers never felt the need to do previously, and is an eye-watering shade of pinky-purple. The back cover? The back cover is just a mess. Rather than spend a considerable time carefully designing it so it gives the impression that it has been thrown together in five minutes, it appears to have actually been thrown together in five minutes. 

What makes it even harder to understand is that the accompanying lyric book is very nicely designed (although it could have done with some copy editing) and features some great images including a kimono clad photographer and a still from Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 experimental classic A Page of Madness, either of which would have done much better as a cover image for the record. 

Even though the recordings are more basic, I find the versions of the old songs that can be heard on the retrospective It’s OK To Be Ugly CD superior in terms of atmosphere and energy, but that’s just a matter of personal preference. The production is clean and bright, although lacking a bit of grit, and the drums are a bit low in the mix for my liking, but these a minor quibbles. 

Which brings us to the major quibble, and that major quibble takes the form of the vocals. Original singer Gerard Evans acquits himself well; the years have coarsened his voice slightly and he doesn’t reach for the difficult notes with quite the same gusto as he used to, but that’s to be expected. He was never anyone’s idea of a technically great singer, but the passion with which he delivers the lyrics make up for any vagaries of pitch, in much the same way that Marc Almond’s sometimes tangential relationship to the tune doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of Soft Cell’s material. 

The real problem is with new recruit Gail Thibert (ex Lost Cherees); whereas on the classic Freaks… 12”, you had a male lead vocalist who couldn’t really hold a tune with a female backing vocalist whose pure, pitch perfect voice worked as a counterpoint to the main vocal and made it ‘work’ somehow, now you have a male lead vocalist who can’t really hold a tune and a female backing vocalist who can’t really hold a tune either, but fatally thinks that she can. I don’t have a problem with ‘not great’ vocalists – punk is hardly awash with classically trained opera singers after all – but there are points whilst listening to this recording that I actually winced; particularly egregious examples being Brixton Tube and Bridge Across Forever

I don’t have any musical training, so it’s entirely possible she’s doing something really technical that I don’t have know enough to recognise (descant maybe?), but if I don’t know a lot about music, I do know what I like; and I don’t like this. 

One of the original pleasures of Flowers gigs (and all too rare records) was their artistic ambition and willingness to take risks. This sometimes resulted in painful, car crash moments, but in the main they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by pure force of conviction. Unfortunately on this record, the ratio of car-crashing to victory-snatching moments is rather too high for my liking. 

When all is said and done, the vocal eccentricities only partially detract from the ideas (and idealism) on show here, but overall, it’s a minor failure. Not a glorious Charge Of The Light Brigade failure; rather than reaching blindly for greatness and damn the consequences, this stops short of the precipice and settles for second best. 

And because they fail to aspire to greatness, they fail to achieve it, delivering neither heroic victory nor ignominious defeat. What we get instead is a better than good (genre defying) punk record, which is no mean feat and still puts them well ahead of 90% of their contemporaries. But in my heart I was hoping for more, so this only gets a (possibly slightly unfair) 5/10

Nick Hydra (January 2016)