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. And 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 troups of dancing animal suited. A screen behind that shows mini-films and close ups of front man Wayne Coyne from a mike mounted camera as he waggles puppets, cracks blood pellets and puts himself through the mangle of entertainment. Giant sized coloured balloons bounce off the audience and around the Apollo with slo-mo physics.
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. Dry ice engulfs the stage till you can’t see anything but a big fog, cut through by torch beams waved like kids in a forest. The furry animals emote like a mascot school reunion. Their show transforms hollow stage gestures – balloons pregnant with meaning and Mexican waves profound.
Like the Teletubbies scripted by Becket and directed by Sergio Leone its an off kilter cuteness, peaking with Wayne singing Happy Birthday to people in the audience (Joe, Katie, Vicki, Tim, Katherine and Christina tonight). Its like Dada doing Disney Character breakfast birthdays. And perhaps they were never meant to be so different. After all, Walt hired Dali to make “Destino” : “the first motion picture of the Never Seen Before” (shelved in 1947, post huminously completed 2003, DVD release 2004).
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. Its a fermenting hooch of American Folk music – country schmaltz, hip hop beats, Detroit techno squelches, blues guitars. acid rock amongst others that give off a hazy fume, distorting sound like a aural mirage. An interstellar folk music.
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. Released as four CDs designed to be heard simultaneously by lining up 4 CD players and sprinting around the room pressing play. The bands 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. Coynes cracked vocals are like looking at a faint star from the corner of your eye. You can hear it in the shows big finale, ‘Do You Realise’: like the Six Million Dollar Man in bionic mode, slowing down makes it feel faster.
The Lips make squewed pop music. Their view is slanted in a way which reclaims kitsch and pop from those who dismiss it as a dead end. The Lips show that a magic realist pop can be deep, tragic and optimistic. A soundtrack to inexpressible human experiences: the delight of sunbeams, the primordial wonder of existence, the mystery of death. It is an aesthetic at once emotionally raw and warmly cuddly – brutalism draped in fairy lights. An avant guarde that wants us to love each other.
This is what pop architecture could have become if Robert Venturi had blown his Yale Prof $$$’s on heroin and acid in a Las Vegas motel – a psychedelic difficult whole. Or if Madelon Vriesendorp was the architectural guru her ex-husband became. Her Delirious New York pictures ( e.g.: 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 Coynes own paintings – a spooky kind of naive allegorical fantasy.
The Americana which clutters the Venturis home (drive-in McDonalds signs in the hall, papier mache orange cactus, giant sized ketchup bottle …) are just the kind of thing that the Lips sing about on Fibre Optic Jesus – a backstage gift from Jack White. 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. That the whole universe is an illusion. That beauty can (and should) be found anywhere in it – especially things that somebody has tried so hard to make beautiful.
Wayne’s end of show each-day-at-a-time self-help-esque soliloquy is about the individuals 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.
First Published in Icon