9. In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1990)
A new decade, a new sound, a new guitarist: Jonathan Donahue. Another band hoping to make the leap into psych-pop grandiosity might have recorded on Timothy Leary's houseboat or a sunbaked Mojave ghost town or something. The Flaming Lips chose SUNY Fredonia, attracted to its Bell Labs vibe. Drozd and Coyne, in particular, were soaking up new influences, and Ambulance reveals a band attempting to translate their pet sounds into the songs they have in their heads, and mostly succeeding.
The key word is "mostly." "Take Meta Mars" is a burnout's recasting of Can's "Mushroom." The next track is "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain," wherein the band tries to disguise a "Sweet Melissa"/"Wild Horses" update with divebomb twang and postwar American disillusion. When the guys decide to kick up a racket, things improve considerably. "Mountain Side" is a propulsive highway ride on mescaline with some awesome ultralow frequency pan in the middle. The harmonic psych-punk of "Unconsciously Screaming" shows how far the band had come in managing tension and dynamics; reportedly one of their most worked-over tunes, the endless guitar snarl and McCartney-worthy basslines show no seams. "Rainin' Babies" is a supreme fuzz ballad, with Nathan Roberts (also making his Lips debut) judiciously injecting thunderous fills and Coyne singing from his heels about giving his gift to the world.
The album closes with a cover of "What a Wonderful World," which had re-charted on the pop charts in 1988 due to its inclusion in Good Morning, Vietnam. A long-time on-stage and PA staple, it was, despite its familiarity, the perfect vehicle for the band's endless grapple with wonder and despair. Coyne sings the melody straight against his and Donahue's backgrounded feedback and wrist-thick fuzz. The sounds of nature bookend the track; the ultimate takeaway is yours.
Which is more amazing: that 2013 marks 30 years of the Flaming Lips as a functioning concern, or that it heralds the 23rd year of their partnership with Warner Bros. Records? It’s difficult to judge. The first anniversary reflects the band’s perseverance; the second, their canniness. This happy, heady band of self-tabbed freaks has indulged nearly every creative whim in a career that has taken them from Oklahoma (state rock song: “Do You Realize??”) to the festival circuit, which they rule on the regular.
Of the Class of ’83, the Flaming Lips have outlasted Bathory, Killdozer, Poison, and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Unlike fellow ’83 alums Phish, Camper Van Beethoven, and My Bloody Valentine, who had their own reasons for pulling the plug, the Lips have never taken an extended hiatus, despite major lineup changes and personal struggles. And like Guided By Voices, Melvins, and Ozric Tentacles (and unlike the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who’ve had four between-album gaps of four-plus years) they’ve maintained a steady release schedule for decades.
All of this — the longstanding major-label relationship, the continued relevance, the tens of thousands of people gleefully becoming hamster-ball supports — is remarkable stuff for a one-time acid-punk band out of Oklahoma City. (Their wonderful origin story holds that the band heisted its instruments from a church. It connects whether your sympathies lie with punk, urbanity or secular humanism.) Of course, the Lips broke out of the Sooner State with one hell of a psychedelic crowbar: Wayne Coyne, a restless, boundlessly energetic musician and performer. For 30 years, he’s been the Flaming Lips’ own Paul McCartney, the man who keeps things moving by setting creative challenges, enlisting collaborators, and providing indefatigable enthusiasm.
The band has ebbed between periods of intense experimentation and relatively straightforward songcraft. They followed up the winningly daft alt-rock breakout hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” with Clouds Taste Metallic, an album of honed, buzzy guitar-pop tunes, then followed that with Zaireeka, a record designed to be heard on up to four CD players simultaneously. Zaireeka was recorded while they were piecing together the simplest, most anthemic record in their catalog: The Soft Bulletin, a permanent fixture in best-of-decade lists. And always, there would be the detours: collaborative EPs with Neon Indian and Lightning Bolt, parking-lot concerts consisting of dozens of audience members playing tapes in their cars, the long-gestating film Christmas On Mars.
The neo-psychedelic boomlet of the ’80s and ’90s produced acts (generally British) that focused on evoking the sounds, and acts that evoked the whole trip. Veterans of the anything-goes hardcore scene that gave us Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, et al., the Flaming Lips were always firmly in the second camp, first on a DIY level (bringing a motorcycle onstage for accompaniment, embellishing their stage setup with Christmas lights), and then on some proper major-label shit. All the extrasonic stuff — the giant hamster ball, the fans donning animal suits, the gummi skulls and fetuses housing flash drives — is absolutely integral to understanding the Flaming Lips. They are obsessed with spectacle.
Spectacle is a fantastic thing, of course: it jolts us into a new view of our surroundings, or simply affords us a distraction along our graveward path. “Death is the only thing worth singing about,” Coyne said in an interview last year, “but I don’t want it to be a bummer, so I embrace it by saying, ’We are going to die, motherfuckers, so let’s make sure we are alive.’” The Flaming Lips’ music is riddled with images of giant bugs, robots, and brains, nearly all of which are deployed as various metaphoric steps in coming to grips with a wonderful world that will see us all buried.
As reluctant residents of Earth, the Lips have had their brushes with tragedy. In 1996, bassist Michael Ivins had a tire crash through his windshield in a bizarre auto accident. Multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd grappled with drug addiction for years (allegedly costing the band the continued services of guitarist Ronald Jones), culminating in his shooting heroin on-camera for Brad Beasley’s 2005 documentary The Fearless Freaks.
Their fans may always debate the extent to which drug use informs the band’s creative process (for what it’s worth, Drozd says he got clean shortly after that harrowing scene, while Coyne remains coy about his own chemical regimen), but even if Wayne were currently gobbling E by the fistful, it’s far less noteworthy than his interest in other people’s trips. Even as the Lips continue to mount rolling freakshows in a city park near you, they’re not trading in the the wide-eyed acid evangelism of classic psychedelia, or the transgressive rave bliss of 20 years ago. At their heart, they’re an existentialist rock band in the Pink Floyd mold: fascinated with the implications and limits of escape. Only they’re, y’know … fun.
Considering how much the Flaming Lips have chucked against the wall in 30 years, their catalog is strong from stem to stern. There are those who grew up paying fealty to the beatific space-pop of the Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi years, and others who yearn for the six-string reigns of Jonathan Donahue or Ronald Jones. For some, Wayne Coyne has become a kind of alt-rock father figure, dispensing grace to thousands at a time and following his cracked muse into his fifth decade. Others view him as a meddling old-timer, picking fights with the likes of Win Butler and Erykah Badu in the press while unveiling an endless series of gimmicky releases. Still, it’s hard to argue against this: Three decades after their founding, he Flaming Lips remain one of the great American underground success stories. None of their albums sounds quite like another. They’re always moving, swallowing styles and studios whole, turning out records that sound like no one but the Flaming Lips.
These are the Flaming Lips’ full-lengths, with the exception of the Christmas on Mars soundtrack. (It’s best heard with the film.) Head for the comments to discuss your smiling deathporn immortality blues. Start the Countdown here.