Oh my gawd!: The Flaming Lips during their twisted salad days. From left, Wayne Coyne, Richard English and Mike Ivins.

Unconsciously Brilliant

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."

1984-1990 kicks 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.

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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