Glimmers of future majesty imbue the band’s first collaboration with longtime producer Dave Fridmann
I remember vividly the first, and so far only, time I’ve visited Oklahoma City.
It was a few years back, for a Record Store Day performance. After arriving late due to severe weather, my wife/bandmate and I wearily checked in at our bleak freeway Super 8, where we were more than a little amused to discover that our room featured a massive painting of an oil drill hung above the bed. That and the frog-themed greasy spoon diner where we breakfasted the next morning neatly sum up this city’s off-kilter energy to me. Regardless, we played a fantastic RSD set that afternoon and left town with mostly positive impressions, despite a bit of annoying car trouble upon journeying home to Memphis.
Off-kilter energy, indeed, but you don’t often consider it in musical terms when someone says ‘Oklahoma City’ (other than country music, anyway). The one exception to this rule, of course, is The Flaming Lips, the eccentric and not-quite-mainstream psychedelic noise project that originated there in 1983 and soldiers on to this day. Throughout an odd and storied career, the Lips have taken the forms of many sorts of band, reconfiguring and re-evaluating as needed as they drift along. There was the acid-damaged noise-punk of the band’s earliest works, the 90s indie-rock era that resulted in a first exposure to a significantly-wider audience, and the synth-drenched inspirational balladeers they’ve more or less remained since their 1999 high watermark, The Soft Bulletin.
Yet a fourth band exists only in their messianic, delirious live performances, piled to the brim with confetti, fake blood, giant prop hands, Christmas lights, megaphones, a transparent human-sized hamster ball, and dancers in animal costumes gyrating hypnotically at the stage’s shadowy corners. Meet a devout Lips fan and you’ll find they usually embrace one of the band’s distinctive ‘eras’ over the others, but perhaps none is as rightfully acclaimed as their indelible 90’s discography, when they collaborated with Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, began working with Dave Fridmann and Steven Drozd for the first time, and briefly became a luminous sonic canvas for enigmatic, rainbow-blazing guitar wizard Ronald Jones.
All of this began to come to fruition, more or less, with 1990’s In A Priest Driven Ambulance. Disappointed with the previous year’s Telepathic Surgery and ready to shake up their formula, the Lips enlisted sympathetic pals Donahue and Fridmann just when they were needed most. Immediately upon listening to Priest, the production registers as fuller, more intricate and more considered. In Fridmann, the Lips found another mad tinkerer and experimenter with as crazed an obsession with the unorthodox as they had. Accordingly, everyone seems to have risen to the challenge, from Michael Ivins’ sturdy bass runs and Nathan Roberts’ titanically-huge drums to the positively glowing cacophony of guitar noise Lips leader Wayne Coyne and Donahue were merrily conjuring in the studio. Recorded at the SUNY campus in Fredonia, New York (Fridmann’s personal Xanadu in those days), the Lips fed off the encouragement and support of their newest friends, experimenting with strange sounds and tape loops and hypnotic noise just for the pure fun of it. In the minds of fans both casual and evangelical, this is how and when they truly became this band.
In a way, much of Priest signifies passage and transition, much befitting an album title concerned with death, spirituality, and transportation. It would prove to be their final album released on an independent label; the band signed on with Warner Brothers in time for 1992’s shoegaze-heavy Hit To Death In The Future Head. Coyne’s higher singing and ambitious lyrics both represent a turn towards introspection and sentimentality here, as if he’s already feeling nostalgic for the hardscrabble era the young band was leaving behind. Although Priest doesn’t hold up as a concept album down the line, it’s oddly peppered with religious arcana and references to faith, a perennial favorite subject of Coyne’s that he’d continue elaborating on well into the band’s subdued, synthesizer-soaked years.
Priest opens with the rollicking stomp of “Shine On Sweet Jesus”, rendered in a comically-simple chord progression beating the listener’s brains into submission, while “Unconsciously Screamin’” is a bluesy mid-tempo scorcher teased along by Roberts’ intuitive drum-work. The album’s first truly revelatory moment, though, comes with “Rainin’ Babies”, a color-swept widescreen panorama of thundering percussion and bells coaxed into bloom by a foregrounding of Ivins’ melodic bass licks. “Take Meta Mars” lopes along in a spectral Can-enraptured trance, and the closing cover of “What A Wonderful World” remains one of the bravest, most daring takes on that hoary jazz evergreen.
But the album’s two most striking moments, and in turn the two most prescient ones, are twin trailheads pointing the way for the kind of band(s) the Lips would eventually become. “God Walks Among Us Now” begins with the deceptively-calm cooing of a baby before launching full-tilt rocket fuel into one of the band’s punkiest, wooliest rockers. The lyrics could even serve as a manifesto of sorts for the Lips, as many of Coyne’s best lyrics could: “Used to be alright, but things got strange” he mutters coyly through trembling static and swirling feedback. “…things have changed and God walks among us now”. Drugs, God, and psychedelic music. There’s room for all such transcendence under the Flaming Lips’ big top circus tent. Freaks and weirdos are keenly encouraged to find their place.
That other halcyon glimpse is a comparatively gentle one: the languid twilight haze of “There You Are”, ostensibly penned about a gruesome car accident the Lips encountered on tour, but concealing spiraling layers of ontology and cosmic musing beneath, a second ghostly exposure lurking within the surface interpretations. This soft-focus acoustic gem was recorded beside a busy freeway (after attempts to record in the center median of the freeway failed), resulting in an eerie aura of passing eighteen-wheelers shifting gears in the song’s periphery, the trucks haunting the song like impatient, bustling phantoms. By 1990, “using the studio as an instrument” had become just another self-indulgent rock star cliche, but who else was live-recording folk songs next to freeways in 1990?
VIDEO: The Flaming Lips “Shine On Sweet Jesus”
Thing is, you can reach for such similar phrases in many conversations about The Flaming Lips, as this truly inimitable funhouse of a band has continued to skirt all convention, openly rejecting sarcasm and cynicism and embracing wide-eyed saccharine sentimentality even in 2020. They’d scored their one fluke Buzz Bin hit in ’93 with the charmingly slight “She Don’t Use Jelly”, assembled their first perfect album with Clouds Taste Metallic to widespread indifference two years later, then crawl out of that album’s devastating emotional and drug-addled wreckage to push even deeper into uncharted format experimentations and sun-draped Pet Sounds majesty. By the present day, the Lips are still producing and releasing a veritable avalanche of compelling and rewarding music, finding unlikely collaborators in pop radio ingenues and continuing to refine and streamline the components of the starry-eyed, electronic-tinged era they currently inhabit. But while most bands crash through the gate early, hearts ablaze with a million simmering ideas and powered by the young person’s bottomless reserves of optimism and ambition, the Lips really only set off on such a magical path with In A Priest Driven Ambulance.
That they’ve managed not to settle for elder statesmen complacency in the decades since is a testament to the wondrous curiosity and significance of this little band from OKC.