Unconsciously Brilliant

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

Some of the material on 1984-1990 charts a steady progression away from ineptitude and long jams and toward actual pop songcraft. "Chrome Plated Suicide" is straightforward hard rock, but boasts a guitar hook that even Paul McCartney would be jealous of; "Unconsciously Screamin'," with its drum-corps-like rhythms and massed vocal overdubs, prefigures Coyne's wall-of-sound, Brian Wilson-inspired musical arrangements that would begin to turn up with regularity in the mid-'90s. (Of note: The hellish video for "Screamin'" is included on the CD as a bonus CD-ROM track.)

Other cuts, like "Hell's Angel's Cracker Factory" (a three-minute excerpt from a much longer 23-minute sound collage), simply reveal a band enamored of sonic dimensions and learning its way around the recording studio, hard lessons that would come in handy when it came time for Coyne & Co. to record 1997's miasmic four-disc Zaireeka, a project that sprang out of the Lips' highly publicized mid-'90s musique concrete investigations known as "the boom-box experiments."

Rounding out the collection is a handful of oddities and rarities including the vertiginous noise ballad "Ma I Didn't Notice," which had been part of a limited-edition EP issued by Chicago's maverick Atavistic label, a Sub Pop single (covers of The Sonics and Nick Lowe), a track recorded for the '87 Neil Young tribute album The Bridge, and a pair of songs that originally appeared on a flexidisc included with issue #32 of indie rock fanzine The Bob.

To put a personal (disclosure) spin on this: The flexitracks were recorded courtesy the Mills Rolling Thunder Mobile Studio at the Charlotte, North Carolina, Milestone Club on September 11, 1987. "Thank You" and "Death Valley '69," Led Zep and Sonic Youth cover tunes, respectively, perfectly capture the Flaming Lips as trend-snubbing practitioners of (as Coyne puts it) "just music we loved."

Musically chaotic, visually stunning (a full-frontal, epilepsy-inducing assault of strobes, disco ball, billowing smoke and, for some reason, a Lawrence Welkian bubble machine), and so brain-piercingly mesmerizing that it is still talked about in reverential tones among people who were there, the Milestone gig was a watershed event by any underground standards. And for reasons we'll only learn on Judgment Day, the Lord looked down on Charlotte that night and got peeved. At precisely the moment at the end of "DV69" when Coyne hit a final thundering power chord, yelped, "I've had enough!" and threw down his guitar, the Hand of God reached out and zapped the club's power (and all down the street). Amplifier feedback abruptly ended in midpeal, two bright back-up security beacons mounted on the wall behind the stage switched on, and the crowd was frozen in their blinding glare like deer in headlights. That night, a moment was frozen in time as well.

The Flaming Lips survived all this and more, touring relentlessly, honing their chops, weathering a few personnel changes (for example, drummer English went AWOL one night before a gig, leaving Coyne and Ivins to perform as a duo for a brief undocumented spell), and signing with Warner Bros. in '92. Quips Coyne in his liner notes, "That was for so much money we assumed it was a joke. . . . We, believe it or not, boldly asked for even more money. And got it."

They're still going strong at the end of the millennium with their recently released lush pop masterpiece The Soft Bulletin and are considered to be one of America's most respected groups precisely because they did survive without succumbing to the blind corporatism and alterna-commercialism that signposts the current musical milieu. Young bands could do worse than to tear a page from the Lips' book and look to the band as role models for rock 'n' roll integrity.

Meanwhile, the rest of us fanboys have 1984-1990 as a sort of minichronicle of a bygone era. It's a document of the Flaming Lips' twisted salad days. And, oddly enough, of ours, too.

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