The Flaming Lips – Live at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Monday 26th May 2014
Am I starting to get the Flaming Lips? Maybe. I don’t know. There’s a lot to get. Their back catalogue dates back to the mid-eighties, and there are a shitload of releases between now and then. So to put my own ‘expertise’ in context, I don’t think I’ve even heard more than a fifth of their recorded output.
I only became peripherally aware of them sometime after the release of The Soft Bulletin (1999), and even then it was because of a Ben Folds Five cover of She Don’t Use Jelly which turned up on a b-side somewhere*. It may sound all wrong, but even listening back to it now I still have a rather soft spot for that cover version.
Anyhow, I got into the Flaming Lips via the pop songs. I may never have really listened to The Soft Bulletin, and oddly enough I still haven’t, but I was right there front and centre with everyone else for the release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. I liked that album, but I have to confess I never really loved it; some of it is great, some of it not so much. And then when they followed up with At War With the Mystics I have to confess I just wasn’t that keen. There are good songs on that album too, but I just don’t like it all that much, overall.
I ended up in this kind of indifferent but superficially positive relationship with the band, and I wouldn’t necessarily have even bothered with their 2009 release Embryonic had it not been foisted upon me by the label’s PR team. A good thing they did, too, because it was actually that album which made me sit up and really take notice. It is an epic mess of an album, all over the place at times and I still don’t love all of it, but it is one of those albums which, even when I don’t like bits of it, I feel like I don’t like them for the right reasons – because the band are doing the right things, not just because they’ve written a dull song.
That might be a snobby thing to say, but it was the first time I really twigged that the Flaming Lips weren’t just an Uncut-friendly indie band with a love of Japanese psychedelic design aesthetics. There was something abrasive in this album, something more confrontational and wilfully obscure, and even though I didn’t always click with it I definitely felt more of a kinship with and admiration for the band for realising it was there. And I may never have reviewed it on Song, by Toad, but last year’s The Terror is even better.
By getting into these two albums I started to think that far from being a pop band, they were an experimental band who accidentally wrote some hits. Yoshimi wasn’t the real Flaming Lips, and they are actually one of the few bands in the world whose back catalogue consists mostly of proggy, experimental psychedelia and yet still manage to headline festivals and fill arenas the world over. Alright, they’re no Coldplay, but few bands this weird ever have what seems to be such broad appeal.
And I suppose at last night’s gig I finally realised why. Neither of my impressions of the Flaming Lips were quite right. It’s not that they’re a radio-friendly indie band, or that they’re arcane experimentalists whose real soul lies in the difficulty of most of their music. It’s more that they are a euphoric psychedelic band who happen to throw themselves into both of these aspects of their music with pretty much equal vigour. And fuck me they put on an amazing show.
Far from being semi-accidental, somewhat unrepresentative pop tunes, songs like She Don’t Use Jelly, Do You Realise and Yoshimi are cornerstones of the live set. Wayne Coyne himself seemed to be constantly urging the crowd to join him in the effusive joy which the music seems to bring him, trying to whip everyone into some sort of glorious euphoric state of shared music and heady exuberance.
The pop songs are part of that – everyone gleefully singing along to sad, sad lyrics about death – but so are the wig-outs. They – well, Coyne in particular – seem to want nothing more than for us all to be swept into the same whirlwind, be it singing along with our arms in the air or in a trance-like state induced by hazy, repeating guitar licks, the weirdness and the simple pleasures are all part of the same mission.
I still wouldn’t say that I like everything I’ve heard by the Flaming Lips, and even last night I did find the last third of the set starting to drag just a tiny little bit. After the first song they never really elevated the intensity to full throttle, and I would have liked to see them go absolutely fucking mental once or twice. But I at least feel like I am starting to get more of a handle on what the band are really about, now, and despite my reservations it was still a pretty great show. And most importantly I find it sending me straight to their back catalogue to listen to more.
*Yes, I used to buy Ben Folds Five CD singles and collect all the b-sides. What of it.More: flaming lips, usher hall