words Sam Jacob
Oklahoma’s all-conquering Flaming Lips are like a Muppet Velvet Underground.
It ends with White Christmas, sung through a megaphone. It sounds a hundred years away, from the loneliest place on earth. It looks like a Muppet Velvet Underground singing the hits of Bing Crosby splattered with blood and punching the air while clutching a flapping mechanical bird. That cheesy seasonal standard has never sounded quite so beautifully strange.
The Flaming Lips’ live show is all confetti, mirrorballs and rabbit suits. The stage is a collage of corny moments and phoney props, the band lined up in a flat hierarchy flanked by troupes of animal-suited dancers. Giant coloured balloons bounce off the audience and around the Apollo in slo-mo. A screen behind shows mini-films and close-ups of front man Wayne Coyne from a mic-mounted camera as he waggles puppets, cracks blood pellets and puts himself through the mangle of entertainment.
None of this would look out of place on Top of the Pops circa 1979, but there’s an intensity that transforms it, like John Donne backed by Legs & Co. Most art is made by excluding everything else in the hope that such severe editing will bestow some kind of concentrated power. The Lips’ music is made in the opposite way: out of piles of other stuff. It’s a fermenting hooch of American folk music – country schmaltz, hip-hop beats, Detroit techno squelches, blues guitars, acid rock, all giving off a hazy fume, distorting sound like an aural mirage.
The Lips make songs that sound like they have fallen apart and have been carefully reconstructed – so that they are also lumps of sound stuck to each other. Their 1997 album Zaireeka explored this idea of music as sound assemblage – they were released as four CDs designed to be heard simultaneously by lining up four CD players. The band’s recordings were an approximation of what the listener would hear. The amateurish/provisional, not-quite-resolvedness is part of their unique sound. It amplifies emotion.
The Lips make skewed pop music. Their view is slanted in a way which reclaims kitsch and pop from those who dismiss it as a dead end. They show that a magic realist pop can be deep, tragic and optimistic. It is an aesthetic at once emotionally raw and warmly cuddly – brutalism draped in fairy lights. An avant garde that wants us to love each other.
This is what pop architecture could have become if Robert Venturi had blown his Yale prof dollars on heroin and acid in a Las Vegas motel. Or if Madelon Vriesendorp was the architectural guru her ex-husband became. Her Delirious New York pictures (for example, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings sprawled post-coitally with a limp Goodyear blimp condom discarded on a Manhattan grid rug) share an atmosphere with Wayne Coyne’s own paintings – a spooky kind of naive, allegorical fantasy.
The Americana that clutters the Venturis’ home (drive-in McDonald’s signs in the hall, papier mâché orange cactus, giant sized ketchup bottle…) is just the kind of thing that the Lips sing about on Thank You Jack White (For The Fibre Optic Jesus You Gave Me). The song is a tribute to the mystery and poetry of novelty plastic products, a secular tribute to the metaphysical properties of pound-store artifice, and that the whole universe is an illusion, that beauty can (and should) be found anywhere in it – especially in things that somebody has tried so hard to make beautiful.
Coyne’s end of show, each-day-at-a-time self-help-esque soliloquy is about the individual’s responsibility to make themselves happy. And I think that is why all these lovely things are arranged haphazardly over the stage. They prompt our own efforts to be happy.
It is a victory of poetry over taste, of not wanting to be cool, but trying to be human. It makes taste-makers like Radiohead, Conran or Adjaye look like petty-minded parochialists. The best way to overcome the oppression of taste is to love more. The Flaming Lips pluralistically incorporate the incompatible by refusing to believe in opposites. By making lateral connections between distant things they generate a magnetic-like force that holds it all together and vibrates with possibility.