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It was 20 years ago today: The Flaming Lips

SHARE It was 20 years ago today: The Flaming Lips

While I'm otherwise occupied, I've been using the blogging downtime to take a look back at 1990 and some of my favorite releases from that year from the perspective of two decades on. Today: "In a Priest Driven Ambulance," the first unqualified masterpiece by Oklahoma City's fabulous Flaming Lips, via an excerpt from my 2006 biography of the band, Staring at Sound.

The Flaming Lips, "In a Priest Driven Ambulance" (Restless) Rating:4/4

After several months of making demos at Michael Ivins' parents' house, Jonathan Donahue suggested that the Flaming Lips try recording their new material in Fredonia, New York, with his friend who had just accompanied them on their recent West Coast tour: "Dave Fridmann works at the college and can get us cheap studio time; what about recording this stuff there?" The pony-tailed, twenty-one-year-old Fridmann had grown up in Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo, listening to jazz fusion and progressive rock. He wanted to be a musician, but had decided to study audio engineering as a back-up plan. "Also, the best way to meet likeminded people was going to be in the studio," Fridmann said, "and I came across the Mercury Rev people as a direct result."

A loose collective of outsiders who couldn't fit in with any other bands, Mercury Rev came together at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Jonathan and his friend Sean Mackowiak, a.k.a. Grasshopper, played guitar; Jonathan shared vocal duties with the wildly eccentric singer David Baker, and Fridmann played bass and recorded the group in the student studio at SUNY's School of Music Sound Recording Technology in Fredonia, fifty miles southwest of Buffalo. The group had gone on temporary hiatus while Jonathan worked with the Flaming Lips, but he planned to continue recording with Fridmann whenever he returned to New York.

While his own tastes ran more toward Steely Dan, Fridmann welcomed the challenges presented by recording freaky indie rockers, and his willingness to experiment, his calm and implacable demeanor, and his strong work ethic made him a perfect foil for bandleader Wayne Coyne. "I have a retarded, German drive to work," Fridmann said. "If I'm gonna bother to do it, I'm gonna do the best I can, and I felt that way about being a busboy, too. Wayne seeks people like that out, but they also sort of naturally gravitate to him."

With or without explicit references to mind-altering drugs, much of the music the Flaming Lips loved most sprang from the two-decades-old genre of psychedelic rock and its goal of using the recording studio to take listeners on a mind-expanding trip to an imaginative world that existed only in the space between the headphones. Inspired by the creativity of the initial psychedelic explosion in the mid-sixties, seventies art rocker Brian Eno contended that the studio itself had become rock's ultimate instrument, and musicians could utilize overdubbing, multi-track technology, synthesizers, and an array of electronic effects to build orchestral waves of sound that would never have been possible in live performance with "real" instruments. As he prepped for his last year in SUNY's recording technology program, Fridmann offered the Flaming Lips a deal: They could record at the college studio for five dollars an hour at a time when similar facilities charged twenty times more. The sterile, white-walled hallways contrasted with the hip vibe most studios cultivated, but the gear was solid and time limits wouldn't be a concern.

The band had so far spent a total of sixteen days and twenty-one thousand dollars recording its first three full albums. "We just didn't want to make a record again if we had to do it the old way," Wayne said.

"We really wanted to break free of that whole thing where independent bands go in and spend fifty dollars making s---ty records in a weekend." The Flaming Lips received an unexpected gift when Enigma / Restless opted to extend their contract for another album, and the label gave them ten thousand dollars for their publishing rights. Wayne and Michael decided to spend all of what they called their "ludicrous windfall" recording with Fridmann. "We did the album thinking, "This is the last record we're ever gonna do, let's go out in a blaze of glory,'" Wayne said, and the group camped out in Fredonia for three months during the summer of 1989. It finally had the time, the money, and the willing co-conspirators to craft its version of a psychedelic-rock classic such as Revolver by the Beatles or The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. "Fridmann was working with all of these guys who wanted to be engineers, and we'd just give them challenges," Wayne said. "We'd ask, "ËœCould you set up an amp and a mike sixty feet down the hall?' And they'd say, "Sure!'"

Flaming Lips circa 1990: Michael Ivins, Wayne Coyne,
Nathan Roberts, Jonathan Donahue

Their new working methods were best illustrated by the way the band recorded a striking new track called "There You Are." The tune sprang from an unsettling incident the Flaming Lips witnessed on their West Coast tour in April, during a six-hour drive from Santa Monica to San Francisco. The band occasionally pulled off the road to stage fake U.F.O. photos: The musicians would stretch their legs, throw a hubcap in the air, and snap a few Polaroids. On one particularly disturbing evening, they stopped in front of a tire factory with smokestacks belching fire when they spied an abandoned trailer park nearby. "We were all kind of amped-up still from the gig, and we wandered into the place, but something about it really spooked the s--- out of us," Wayne said. "We all turned to one another at the same time and said, "ËœHey, let's get out of here.'"

As they pulled back onto the highway, the van's headlights suddenly died, but they continued the drive, propelled by a cassette of Atom Heart Mother. The title track of Pink Floyd's 1970 album is a lush but disquieting instrumental suite that finds the quartet augmented by an orchestra and choir, and it originally filled an entire side of a vinyl LP. By now it was 3 A.M. and the musicians were winding down, smoking, and listening to the music when they drove past a car facing the wrong way and smashed into the divider. "We wondered if we'd really even seen it," Wayne said, so they made a U-turn and doubled back. The driver had been thrown from the wreck and lay face down on the road, his belongings littering the highway. "We were already spooked, and then we saw this thing, and it was like, "ËœF--, he's truly dead.'"

The group sped to a rest stop to call for help -- "These were the days before cell phones," Wayne said -- but another driver had already called 911. "We were just a bunch of f---ing punks who didn't know anything about saving anybody," but they headed back to the scene nonetheless. A light rain had started falling and the paramedics had arrived. "They had put those red flares out in the road, and just as we pulled up, they threw a sheet over this guy's destroyed head. It was really just like something you'd see in a David Lynch movie. The whole time that f---ing Pink Floyd track was still playing. After all those years of driving around the country, Michael and me didn't have very many superstitions about the road, but from then on, it was, "ËœHey, don't play that Pink Floyd song again!'"

In order to capture an appropriately eerie vibe, the Flaming Lips convinced Fridmann to record the basic tracks for "There You Are" outdoors in the middle of the night during a full eclipse. Even at midnight, convoys of tractor-trailers heading north to Buffalo on the New York State Thruway sporadically rocketed through the western outskirts of the sleepy college town of Fredonia. Wayne, Michael, and Jonathan cradled their acoustic guitars as they sat on the edge of a concrete retaining wall bordering the highway behind Top's Supermarket. The summer air hung hot and humid, its stillness interrupted only by the crickets and the rush of the trucks, and the musicians sweated as they waited for Fridmann to run half a dozen ambient microphones through the weeds and the trash in the ditch beside U.S. Route 90.

"It had a slight air of, "ËœWe're not really supposed to be doing this,' and there was the definite question of, "What are we going to say if a cop shows up?'" Michael recalled. "But really the only thing they could have gotten us on was stealing electricity." Fridmann had unplugged the line of coin-activated motorized hobby horses in front of the supermarket to power the recording session. He hadn't needed a lot of prodding to pile a digital recorder and a small mixing board into the group's trusty blue van. "It was like, "You wanna go record by the freeway? Great! Pick up some mikes and let's go do it. The sky's the limit!' We kept trying to capture bigger and weirder sounds, and once we realized what we could do, it spiraled out of control."

The band had recorded a spare instrumental version of "There You Are" for "The Mushroom Tapes." Heavily influenced by what Wayne called "Pink Floyd's gothic period," circa Atom Heart Mother, it sounded too much like a conventional acoustic singer-songwriter ditty once he had written lyrics and developed the vocal melody. "We were looking for something that took it out of being Dan Fogelberg," and Jonathan had suggested recording the album version on the median of the Thruway as the traffic whooshed past. That proved impractical -- "The trucks kept running over the microphone cords," Jonathan said -- but the modified plan succeeded in capturing the ominous mood that inspired the song. The crickets chirped obligingly at the beginning of the tune, and the tractor-trailers fortuitously punctuated the final verse recalling the fatal car wreck.

"There you are / And you drive in your car / And you wish for the stars / And you end up face down in the road / Dead as f---," Wayne sings in a plaintive but self-assured voice that marks a departure from his previous vocals. Ironically, given the fight that nearly ended his friendship with Jonathan, he had gained new confidence as a vocalist when the band recorded a cover of Neil Young's "After the Goldrush" for the 1989 tribute album, The Bridge. "That Neil Young track really showed us the new vocal style that I was going to pursue, and that even if I wasn't a very good singer, I could still do something melodically."

"There You Are -- Jesus Song No. 7" is an existential musing on a God indifferent to human suffering, with Wayne posing the question of whether, given the cruel twists of fate, there is any point to trying to accomplish something in life -- to "work so goddamn hard to do anything at all." Wayne would provide an answer elsewhere on the new album in another song called "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain," inspired by his personal dilemma of being caught in the middle between Michele V. and Michelle M.: "You're f---ed if you do, and you're f---ed if you don't."

The title of the group's fourth album had emerged while recording "The Mushroom Tapes," and it captured both the fatalism of the time and what Wayne called "the weird religiosity" of the new songs. The joke is that you know you're screwed when a rescue vehicle arrives driven by a clergyman ready to administer the Last Rites, but the full name, which appeared only on the vinyl release, includes a subtitle that hints at Wayne's unquenchable optimism: In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Smiles).

The powerful new two-guitar attack, the more aggressive rhythms that contrast with the quiet acoustic interludes, and the imaginative psychedelic production are all part of the charm of In a Priest Driven Ambulance, but its real strength is the songwriting. The opening track alone boasts more hooks than all of the songs on Telepathic Surgery combined, and the disc features some of the band's most memorable lyrics. Michael, Jonathan, and Nathan all contributed key melodies and stray lines, but as always, Wayne drove the project and provided its conceptual core.

The album is divided into distinctive halves. The dark but perversely named "Smile Side" opens with "Shine on Sweet Jesus -- Jesus Song No. 5," which kicks off with sounds evoking a calliope, as if to announce, "Welcome to the circus." Washes of backwards reverb and frenzied noise jams connect the verses and choruses, and the dizzying swirl of the two guitars is almost overpowering, but in contrast to the band's previous efforts, the vocals occupy a proud position at the front of the mix. "Waitin' for my ride / Jesus is floatin' outside," Wayne sings in his new Neil Young vocal style. "Shine on, sweet Jesus, on me," responds a choir of odd backing voices, including a down-tuned vocal by Michael that sounds like Satan singing through a megaphone.

The album's most raucous rocker and its nominal single follows, and Wayne estimated that the band did two hundred mixes of "Unconsciously Screamin'" before it was satisfied. (The Flaming Lips also filmed their first video for the song, a freaky black-and-white clip that found them in an abandoned Biblical theme park called Holy Land.) Despite lyrics about paranoia, staring into the void, and "screaming 'til our lungs are full," it's a love song, albeit one that finds the narrator so overwhelmed with emotion that he can't express himself except through "Unconsciously screaming / And whispering at everything she brings."

"Rainin' Babies" pursues a similar theme, portraying a man in the midst of an assault so strange and Apocalyptic ("It's rainin' babies from the sky down on me") that he's unable to move ("If I breathe, you know, I'm gonna lose it"), though he maintains that he still has something unique to offer ("This is my present to the world"). Slow, spare, and creepy, adorned with tinkling piano, tambourine, and ringing bells, the tune is driven by Michael's catchy walking bass line, as is the next track, the plodding "Take Me ta Mars." The melody, rhythm, and choppy vocal delivery here are borrowed from Can, the most celebrated band from Germany's early seventies psychedelic rock scene, which British critics dubbed Krautrock. It's not the album's only case of a purloined hook.

"For God's sake, "Rainin' Babies' is almost exactly based on Juice Newton's version of "Angel of the Morning,'" Nathan told The Flaming Lips Trading Post Web site, "and "Shine on Sweet Jesus' is so close to "Put A Little Love in Your Heart' by Cilla Black that it's almost criminal." Wayne insisted that the imitation wasn't always intentional. The Flaming Lips first heard Can's "Mushroom Head" on tour in 1988 when they crashed with a fellow music lover in Cincinnati and sat up all night listening to records. "That guy only played it for us one time, so we didn't exactly set out to copy Can. We just had this riff in our heads, and we probably weren't even sure where it had come from." Nevertheless, Can's "Mushroom Head" had made enough of an impression that it had inspired the name of "The Mushroom Tapes."

Side one ends with "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain," a regal ballad with a Dylanesque title, portentous horns, elegant acoustic and slide guitar parts, and an understated piano that recalls "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones. Once again the singer finds himself dwarfed by troubling events, each more surreal than the last. The first verse opens with Wayne announcing, "I was born the day they shot J.F.K."; the second with the declaration, "I was born the day they shot John Lennon's brain," and the last with, "I was born the day they shot a hole in the Jesus egg." He waves his hands in the air and tries to assert his humanity -- "Somebody please tell this machine I'm not a machine" -- but it seems as if no one is listening.

"We were just trying to connect these wicked things, and "Ëœthe Jesus egg' was such a perfect lyric," Wayne said. The phrase had come from the title of Jesus Egg That Wept, a 1984 EP by English art rocker Danielle Dax. "I don't know what it means, but it has great imagery. A song like "Wild Horses' is this long epic, and we took that format and filled it with cosmic, existential s---. We wanted to sing about s--- that we truly didn't understand, but then we would come up with these lines that would cut right to the heart of things: "You're f---ed if you do and you're f---ed if you don't.' I don't know what "ËœFive Stop Mother Superior Rain' means, but you have the hallucinations right next to the horrible realities of life, and I thought, "Damn, I kinda like that.'"

The album’s “Brain Side” begins with the quiet, dark, and mostly acoustic “Stand in Line.” Unsettling images of babies are once again on Wayne’s mind: “Ten moms stand in line / At the maternity ward / They’re not bringin’ no babies out to play / Anytime today.” The similarly low-key “There You Are” separates the album’s other full-bore rockers, “God Walks Among Us Now—Jesus Song No. 6,” where Nathan’s pounding drums and a ringing alarm bell propel the rhythm, and “Mountain Side,” the Flaming Lips’ amped-up take on the rollicking “Mountain Song” by Jane’s Addiction. The latter once again merges images of love and death. Addressing the unnamed object of his affections, Wayne not only boasts of “Dyin’ in your plane crash of love” and “Crashin’ through your windshield of love,” he claims to be holding an electric toaster while “Standin’ in your bathtub of love.”

The lyrics of “God Walks Among Us Now” are even more striking. With distortion adding urgency to his vocals, Wayne the control freak asks how it feels to be falling apart, “Breakin’ down molecules” and “Sinkin’ from the bottom down.” Rather than finding comfort in religion, it adds to his distress. “It used to be all right / But things got strange / Used to be all right / But things’ve changed and God walks among us now.” The song stemmed from all-night talks in the van with Jonathan. “I think we liked each other because we could talk about God and outer space and really confront the idea of, ‘So, you don’t believe in God? Well, we don’t either,’” Wayne said. “But the other side of that is, ‘Well, what do you believe in?’ For some people it really is devastating when they don’t have this belief in the mysteries of the universe anymore: It’s great to believe in unicorns and God and Jesus and all that.” With a mix of cynicism and optimism, the album’s nine originals assert that there is nothing to believe in except for yourself and the power of love, requited or otherwise. No one is coming to save you, no ambulance and no priest or divine power, but the final track insists that even if all our efforts are for naught, life is still a pretty wonderful trip.

A major force in the music industry for six decades, Bob Thiele worked for ABC Records in 1968 when he presented a ballad called “What a Wonderful World” to Louis Armstrong. Thiele had written the impossibly cheerful anthem with George David Weiss as a deliberate contrast to the horrors of the war in Vietnam and the race riots on the streets of some of America’s biggest cities. Armstrong needed a follow-up to his massive hit with “Hello, Dolly,” which had exposed him to a new audience unaware of his stature as a founding giant of jazz, and Thiele had produced his earlier, legendary recordings with Duke Ellington. Satchmo loved “What a Wonderful World” and recorded it with an orchestra, eschewing his trumpet and singing in his distinctive, gravelly voice, but ABC President Larry Newton hated the track and didn’t promote it. Although it became a number-one hit in England, selling six hundred thousand copies, it sold fewer than a thousand forty-fives in the United States, and it never found a wide audience until Barry Levinson included it on the soundtrack of his 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam, where the Flaming Lips first heard it.

“They thought we were really saying, ‘It’s an evil, s—ty world,’ and in some ways, I think that’s why Jonathan liked it,” Wayne said. “But I just took it as this great song. I found myself thinking, ‘This really is a simple, perfect sentiment,’ and the way that the melodies and the chords all work to propel the singing, it really is perfect. I don’t know why we stumbled on it as something you would associate with the Flaming Lips, but I guess by doing it, it became that. We were struggling with it—I still don’t know what the chords are—but when Dave Fridmann was recording us, he said, ‘You know, you aren’t doing that right, there are some big holes in the ship, but that’s what makes it unique and beautiful.’ Other guys wouldn’t have done that, they’d have tried to make us fix it, but that’s one of Dave’s strengths.”

When the sessions ended in September 1989, everyone who worked on In a Priest Driven Ambulance believed that they’d created something special, and the community of do-it-yourself fanzines, alternative newspapers, and college radio stations later agreed. “Far be it from me to say that we thought it was a masterpiece,” Michael said, “but it did seem like there was a cohesiveness to the whole record from start to finish. There was no, ‘Oh, these songs are actually pointing to the next record.’ There was something about all of it: the way it looks, the song titles, the time, how it was done, and the way the band looks on the cover.”

In an effort to encourage radio play, the band jokingly listed the running time of every song as three minutes, twenty-six seconds, purportedly the ideal length of a hit single. That possibility no longer seemed absurd—some of the other bands on Michele V.’s Bulging Eye roster were garnering attention outside the indie rock world, especially Nirvana, whose debut album Bleach had been in heavy rotation in “Old Blue” the van all summer—but the enduring weirdness of the Flaming Lips’ sound and problems with their record company would assure that they’d remain underground favorites for some time.

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