BEST of 2017: Flaming Lips – “Never Doubt The Rainbow”

Wayne Coyne and merry pranksters The Flaming Lips create day-glow art out of artifice in an all-comers party in Washington DC on the heels of their strongest album in years.

I’ll be honest right up front – over the 30-plus years that I’ve known about the Flaming Lips I’d liked and loathed them in equal measure.  From their ragged early years as an Oklahoma-based indie band through to their early 1990s alternative breakthrough with “She Don’t Use Jelly” to 1999’s unlikely fluke hit “Do You Realize?” and their commercial apex during the early 2000s, I could never quite tell whether the Lips, and leader Wayne Coyne in particular, really believed what they were putting out or whether they were putting one over on the audience.

It’s the problem that I’ve often had with self-consciously “arty” projects, whether in music, art, theatre or literature. I tend to prefer Serious Music by Serious Musicians, who in my mind are usually distinguished by their all-black outfits (with flannel as an allowed exception), dour music and sour expressions.  I have trouble trusting music made by people who by mocking their music, and who actually seem to be having fun (!) playing it, seemed to me to be mocking their audience along the way.

After seeing the Flaming Lips at the 930 Club in Washington DC on their Oczy Mlody tour, though, I’ll never think that way again.  On a recent interview on the “Nerdist” podcast Doc-Brown-coiffed bandleader Wayne Coyne described the experience of how much nicer it is to have someone scratch your head than to scratch it yourself, and I suppose having your brain scratched by a lover is as apt a metaphor for a Flaming Lips show as I can come.

The Flaming Lips’ shows are not really a concert in a conventional rock sense, they are a Communal Event Shared By Like-Minded People, a party where the hosts just happen to be playing music for a couple of hours. Their albums don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the wild party that the Lips throw on stage.

From the opening salvo at the introductory “Race For The Prize” where they blew the giant confetti cannons spraying the crowd and releasing two nets filled with giant beach balls onto the crowd (that managed to stay inflated for about half the show) you know that you’re in for as much spectacle as music.  Every song has a visual setpiece and most have props. Here are a few examples…

The secret weapon is the see-through curtain created at the front of the stage by a draping of beaded ropes that are multicolored and segmented to create a different mood for each song while still allowing you to see Coyne, who appears as part shaman, part wild-haired Professor, and part Dr. Who, who goes through multiple outfit changes as the show goes along, and while the rest of the band keeps to the background of the stage.

No Lips show is complete without outrageous props, and there were two at this show.  At the start of the third song, the pulsing, throbbing, totally-engrossing “There Should Be Unicorns” Coyne disappeared from the stage and there was an extended instrumental guitar intro where you could tell that something was brewing.  Then out of nowhere from off-stage-right, Coyne rode right through the crowd near the foot of the stage astride a giant mechanical unicorn, nearly trampling some of us in the process. You need to keep your head on a swivel at a Lips show! Coyne rode his mechanical mount to the middle of the floor and sang to the balcony and then rode it back off-stage as if it was just the most natural thing in the world.

What really changed my view of what Coyne was doing was seeing up close the beatific joy on Coyne’s face while he was singing. Here was a man in his 50s in an outfit that even Willy Wonka would suggest was a “bit much, really” riding a giant mechanical contraption and earnestly singing a song about why the world would be better if it contained unicorns, and I could see that he was absolutely committed to a truth he was seeking in the song and a conversation that he was having with the Universe.  He may have been riding a mechanical horse with a horn bolted to its head, but it was clear that this was not bull to him.  It was absolutely endearing to see how much he believed in what he was selling.

My camera-phone malfunctioned during this sequence after getting run over by the unicorn but you get the idea of what it’s like below…

After that, I started to look for the truth under the artifice, and I started to realize that the props, visuals and distractions were all intended to disguise the deep emotion in some of the songs.  Coyne went as far as to drop the mask for one intro when he said, paraphrasing, that he wanted us to all enjoy the party, the lights, props and other distractions, so that the seriousness of the song lyrics wouldn’t make us sad.

Many of the lyrics are so personal or elliptical that I honestly didn’t quite get it all, but I could tell that he meant them and some had real emotional impact on him.  On one song, where he was wearing an absurd hoodie with flesh-colored protuberances, he drew the hoodie down as tight as he could and you could actually see through the strobe-curtain that he was crying while he sang.

Then came my favorite part of the show.  At the start of a faithful cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” a couple of techs started inflating a giant plastic bubble. The long-time faithful (along with the rest of us who’d seen the clips on You-Tube) all knew what was coming but you could hear audience members around buzzing “You don’t really think he’s going to…No, he can’t possibly…is that thing safe?”.  Sure enough, when the bubble finished inflating Coyne got inside and nonchalantly zipped himself inside (“nonchalantly” being the only acceptable way of zipping yourself inside a giant inflatable bubble) and at the appointed time he just rolled off the stage onto the arms of the waiting crowd in perhaps the most unusual demonstration of crowd surfing that I’ve ever seen.

As with the unicorn, he rolled himself completely over the audience to the foot of the balcony, and sang the balance of Space Oddity as if world peace depended on it.  When he’d had enough he rolled his way back up to the stage and climbed out of the bubble as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Here’s something that should be on everyone’s bucket list to see once….

 

Not everything went smoothly. During one song midway through the set, there was a giant painted rainbow prop that was supposed to ascend from beneath the stage being pushed up from below by two stagehands.  In what looked something a bit like an outtake from “This Is…Spinal Tap” the rainbow got stuck partway and you could see the stagehands furiously trying to set it free. After a good 30 seconds of working with the rainbow, it finally loosened and ascended to its rightful place framing the song right before the end.

In the end of the song Coyne gave a little impromptu speech about how what we had just witnessed was a metaphor for life, in that because there was truth and beauty available in life that each of us owed it to the Universe to never give up seeking for that truth and beauty in the trash around us.  He ended the oratory with a sweet and plaintive entreat to  “Never doubt the rainbow, man…” at which point my stony heart finally melted and I gave in to the rest of the experience.

I’m still not sure that all Artifice is in fact Art, just as I’m not convinced that metaphorical truths are deeper than straightforward truths. I will however agree with Hamlet’s words: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”…

If you can’t see the Flaming Lips on tour, be sure to stream/download their new album Oczy Mlody (Polish words that Coyne pronounces “Oatsie Melowdy” and which literally stands for “Eyes Of The Young”).  In a world where it seems like there are only six different songs right now, each recycled hundreds of times, this is unique music coming from a single vision.

Never Doubt The Rainbow, man.

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Set List

  • March 5, 2017
  • Washington, DC, USA
  • 930 Club

Main Set

  1. Race For The Prize
  2. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 1
  3. There Should Be Unicorns
  4. Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung
  5. What Is The Light?
  6. The Observer
  7. How??
  8. Space Oddity (Bowie cover)
  9. Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
  10. The Castle
  11. Are You A Hypnotist?
  12. The W.A.N.D.
  13. A Spoonful Weighs A Ton

Encore:

  1. Waitin’ For A Superman
  2. Do You Realize?

 

 

The Exception That Proves The Rule – FFS Live at the Lincoln in Washington DC

In a rare collaboration that proves the sum can be greater than the parts, electro-pop pioneers Sparks and post-punk aught-wavers Franz Ferdinand combine for an audacious and delightful collaboration at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington DC on 2015-10-05 that charts new waters for each band.

I hadn’t seen this one coming.

Rock history is spotty when it comes to true collaborations where two bands come together and create a genuine third thing that is wholly distinct from the material of each original band. What usually happens is that each band tends to bring some of their own material and serves basically as the backing band for the other band for their material. Maybe the lead singers trade off some lead vocals, but it doesn’t really feel like a new band has been created.

That’s what makes the collaboration between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, called FFS, so interesting.

I’ve followed Sparks off and on throughout their 40-year plus career as one of the most quirky and creative bands in rock. The Sparks core has always been the brother team of Russell and Ron Mael, with Russell the hyperkinetic and flamboyant front man prone to burst into falsetto and Ron the stoic behind the keyboards acting like a scowling and disapproving teacher as he monitors his younger brothers’ antics.

Los Angeles-based Sparks had a couple of unlikely pop hits in the 70’s in the UK, most notably “This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us” (#2 UK Pop in 1974) and “Number One Song in Heaven”. They probably hit their commercial peak, or at least their peak influence, in the US in the early 80s in the heart of the New Wave era with a run of influential albums like “Whomp That Sucker”, “Angst In My Pants”, “In Outer Space” and “Pulling Rabbits Out Of A Hat”, all of which tried to leverage Sparks’ creative video sensibilities and turn them into New Wave posterboys and keyboard-based symbols of the New Wave era.

You might remember this duet with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s that was a big college radio hit in the days before “alternative” was a thing…

I run hot and cold with Sparks. They had a great sense of pop melody, but the lyrics would sometimes be slightly too clever and filled with, depending on your mood, funny or groanworthy puns and although they owned the musical niche in between Devo and Yello, the music could at times be a bit twee for my tastes.

However, their influence on at least three generations of bands cannot be denied. Across their 20-plus albums they have generated a body of work that has been highly acclaimed by electropop and dance artists, and one of the things that surprises me the most is how young and rabid their current fan base is. They are the very definition of a “cult” band.

Led by Alex Kapranos, Franz Ferdinand (Kapronos: guitar/vocals; Nick McCarthy:guitar, Bob Hardy:bass and Paul Thomson:drums; all original members since 2002) is one of my favorite bands to come out of the 2000’s. I love their lean, angular, spiky and muscular approach to alternative dance rock. Coming out of the Glasgow music scene in the early 2000’s, they brought a fresh injection of adrenaline into the moribund UK music scene like a post-punk version of Gang of Four for the new millennium.

Admit it, the first time you heard “Take Me Out” and the rhythm change that comes after the intro you thought, now that’s interesting. And then the biggest compliment that you can give a rock band – “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before”.

Franz Ferdinand have followed their debut with a string of solid albums – “You Could Have It So Much Better”, “Tonight: Franz Ferdinand” and “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions” that have solidified them as one of the most reliably creative bands to have come out of the 2000’s. In particular “Do You Want To” and “Right Action” are examples of alternative dance-rock that just pop out of the speakers and into your ears as earworms. The only negative I have about Franz Ferdinand is that they’ve created such a distinctive sound that they may have painted themselves into a bit of a corner stylistically for the future, unless they consciously make an attempt to break the mold they’ve made.

Which in retrospect probably made them a perfect candidate to collaborate with a band to shake them out of their patterns. Enter Sparks.

Based on interviews I’ve seen/heard with Russell Mael and Alex Kapronos, apparently the two bands were discussing collaborating to at least release a split single (remember singles?) as far back as 2004. However, nothing came of those original discussions until a couple of years ago when a chance meeting in San Francisco made them give it a shot.

The two bands, based 6,000 miles apart, sent files back and forth with either completed songs or just musical snippets and they iterated back and forth for months to flesh out the songs. They hadn’t met face-to-face during that time or actually played together at the same time until an intensive 15-day recording session that completed the entire album.

The sound of the FFS album and the songs really is a revelation – the four members of Franz Ferdinand bring a muscularity and punch to the songs that gives them a sense of urgency, and the Mael brothers bring a sense of melody and fun that can at times be missing in FF. FF sands off a bit of the weirdness of the Mael brothers, while the Maels bring out of some FF’s inherent quirkiness and an artsy side that they can tend to keep submerged.

In other words, each side brings the best of what they do to the other side and in so doing pushes the other side to expand what they do best and to explore new territories for each.   There are times where you can definitely tell which group came up with the original material (Sparks: “Piss Off”, FF: “Police Encounters”) but more often they came up with truly original sounding material.   “Collaborations Don’t Work” is a particularly wry observation on the difficulties that go into artistic collaborations, and at nearly seven minutes in length goes through more tempo and time signature changes than some bands do in a career.

It’s a really audacious and unlikely sound that they create throughout the album, sort of like if the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas” had come to life as an album. It sounds like an update of the best 80’s New Wave, with pulsing keyboards and mass vocals and spidery guitar work that verges at times on Snakefinger territory.

In particular, Mael and Kapronos’ voices meld together very well. They sometimes sing in unison and sometimes trade off the vocals in a way that sounds absolutely organic. You would never know that they didn’t write the songs together in a room.

When it works best, the results are thrilling and exhibit the best attributes of all six members. In particular, check out “Johnny Delusional”, “Call Girl” and “The Man Without A Tan”.

See the video for “Johnny Delusional” below…

Which brings us to the show in Washington DC on 2015-10-09. This was one of the most surprisingly enjoyable shows I’ve been to in years. All six members were obviously having a huge amount of fun, with Russell Mael bouncing like a hipster with a vigorous energy that belies his 67-year old status while his 70-year old brother sat at the keyboards with a bemused scowl (if there is such a thing). I’m not being ageist, I mention the ages only because I’m astonished at the level of energy they were putting out, literally like men half their age.

Alex Kapronos, freed from having to carry the front-man duties by himself prowled the stage like a panther declaiming and exulting. It was an arch and arty performance but one that drew the crowd in because he was obviously having so much fun.

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The band had played approximately thirty shows apparently prior to this one, and there was no sign of any hesitancy on the new FFS original songs, they played like a band that had been together for a decade and was having an absurd amount of enjoyment.

Throughout, they traded off instruments and sometimes all came together to play on Mael’s keyboard. The musicianship was solid and tight throughout.

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“Johnny Delusional” was the opener and was a declarative statement of faith that this truly was a new band. “The Man Without a Tan” was the second song, and here’s how that went…

Kapronos sometimes sang and sometimes played guitar, and the other members of FF traded off guitars, bass, drums and keyboards throughout the show.

They played nearly the entire FFS album, as well as “covering” three Sparks songs (“Number One Song In Heaven”, “This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, “When Do I Get To Sing My Way”) and three FF songs (“Do You Want To”, “Michael” and “Take Me Out”).

Here’s the cover of “Do You Want To”:

They ended the main set with a rousing rendition of “Piss Off” and Ron Mael regaled the crowd with his dance moves.

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The encore highlighted a discofied version of “Call Girl” that was really outstanding and concluded with an extended and nearly operatic version of “Collaborations Don’t Work” that thoroughly disproved the song title in its success.

It’s not often that you see two established acts creating a baby band together, and it’s gratifying to see it done this well. Collaborations may not often work, but this one definitely does and I personally hope to see an FFS round 2. One of the most surprising and satisfying shows of 2015, certainly.

Set list:

  • Johnny Delusional
  • The Man Without A Man
  • Police Encounters
  • Do You Want To (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • The Power Couple
  • Little Guy From The Suburbs
  • Save Me From Myself
  • Things I Won’t Get
  • So Desu Me
  • The Number One Song In Heaven (Sparks cover)
  • Michael (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • This Town Aint Big Enough For Both Of Us (Sparks cover)
  • Dictator’s Son
  • Take Me Out (Franz Ferdinand cover)
  • Piss Off

encore

  • When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”
  • Call Girl
  • Collaborations Don’t Work