Unconsciously Brilliant

Restless Records' Flaming Lips anthology recounts the early chapters of one of indie rock's finest

Retrospectives of bands are so de rigueur these days that no one even blinks when they walk into a store on new-release day to encounter a new four-disc boxed-set anthology of some rock superstar's collective wheezings, a handy-dandy greatest hits package (featuring, of course, two "new" compositions to enhance the sales potential) from a midlevel artist about to unleash a "new" direction, or one of those ubiquitous singles/rarities comps by some underground group that's already broken up -- not that anyone misses them except their roommates.

Call it the anal-retentive archival urge manifesting itself in consumerist society. However, in the case of Restless Records' Flaming Lips retrospective, 1984-1990, there's something deeper represented.

Yes, it does fall roughly into the rarities category and even more roughly into the greatest hits category, depending on how much of a collector you are and how highly you rate the original records from which some of the material is culled. And, hey, a boxed set would've been even cooler, if grossly premature. But as you'll read, this particular collection of tunes also serves as a soundtrack to a peculiar period in the life of the American rock underground. Hardly gratuitous in thrust or limited in scope, its resonance lies in how it chronicles a dual journey from innocence to adulthood.

This is gonna come as a big surprise to all the fanboys out there -- you know who you are, you work for peanuts at record stores, copy shops and java huts, spend hours on end composing pithy treatises to share with the other dorks on alt.music.rec.matchbox20, and are saying to yourself right now that you could do a much better job reviewing a Flaming Lips record -- but once upon a time, before what we optimistically called "alternative rock" became a euphemism for "sellouts," people who went about the business of making music did so with an unselfconscious sense of randomness. There were no chat rooms or Web sites from which to dispense and glean crucial, up-to-the-minute-of-last-night's-gig info, no guidelines or rule books by which to (as Maximum Rock 'n' Roll might put it) "book your own fuckin' life."

Like its counterpart some 20 years thence during the mid-'60s, the American rock 'n' roll underground of the mid-'80s was a mixture of inspired cluelessness, self-directed amateurism -- and a helluva lot of fun. Operating from outside the focused beam of the corporate magnifying glass did imply a measure of financial hardship (if not outright foolhardiness) for bands, but for the most part, they didn't have to worry too much about getting fried to a crisp like ants on a sidewalk by that beam, either.

In his exceedingly thoughtful liner notes to 1984-1990, which is accurately subtitled "A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording . . . by Amateurs," Flaming Lips guitarist/vocalist Wayne Coyne details all the above from his Oklahoma-based band's perspective, summing up the Lips' experience as "the accidental career." Writes Coyne, "We were amateurs at best, basically just messing around. Even if we had 'the skills,' we lived very normal, pleasant lives, there was really nothing in our lives worth writing songs about, so we just made up things that we thought sounded 'cool.' We found ourselves being accepted as a 'psychedelic, garage punk band' . . . impressing people by accident."

Coyne goes on to outline how the original lineup of the Lips -- himself, bassist Michael Ivins, drummer Richard English, and (for a spell) brother/guitarist Mark Coyne -- recorded an EP in the summer of '84, then hit the road, playing the same punk dives as did most of the American independent groups of the era. "To these bands, it didn't seem like playing music was a career . . . [but] a reason for living, having an identity, an excuse to dress up and go out . . . even if there was no audience to play for. So this was the scene that we thought we could best survive in."

1984-1990kicks off with the very first song the Lips ever committed to magnetic tape, the crudely compelling "Bag Full of Thoughts," which appeared on the group's self-titled debut. (Now quite rare, the 12-inch EP was issued in two editions, one red vinyl and one green, of 1,000 copies each. Consult eBay for further details. Bring your accountant.) So lo-fi it sounds like it was recorded in a broom closet with the janitor's mop pail subbing for the drumkit, the tune's fuzztone, creeped-out vibe seemed to signal the arrival of a new breed of American gothadelica wherein the ghosts of both Roky Erickson and Charlie Manson hovered approvingly in the wings.

Not the case. By the time 1987's Hear It Is full-length appeared on the Enigma Records subsidiary Pink Dust, the Lips' classic rock roots were showing: Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin. Which wasn't surprising, given the band's stomping ground; Norman, Oklahoma, reportedly has more Grand Funk Railroad tribute bands per capita than any other burg in America. No matter that, as Coyne asserts, the Lips played "long, out-of-tune songs about drugs" or that a Lips song title was typically a study in lobotomy ("Scratching the Door," "Staring at Sound," "Charlie Manson Blues," etc.). This group was clearly on to something, hindsight now informing us that the Lips formed a kind of bridge between the hirsute psych-rockers of yore and the buzz-coifed aggro-punks of the day. This is displayed no more vividly than on a pair of songs included here, "Jesus Shootin' Heroin" (from Hear) and "One Million, Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning" (from Oh My Gawd!), both extremely swell proto-skronkers whose skillful mining of the light/heavy soft/loud formula not only referenced Pete Townshend's earlier work but made it possible for Kurt Cobain to tighten/shorten it up a few years later and take Nirvana to the top of the heap.

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