The Flaming Lips
CARLING HAMMERSMITH APOLLO, LONDON
Monday, November 3, 2003
Old fan or new, it’s a live show that blows your mind. Gaily-coloured balloons the size of space-hoppers assault and caress you from every direction. The on-stage bunnies, pandas, blow-up suns and giraffes play air guitar and get sweaty (when one removes her head to reveal a human within, you want to lynch her for spoiling the illusion). Lights, films, retina-slaying strobes go mental, while the avuncular Wayne Coyne does his routines and rambles affably. Somewhere in all this, songs of hope, kindness and death coalesce and dazzle.
What an unlikely triumph are The Flaming Lips. Years grubbing away as trippy indie noiseniks; further time spent skulking as friends/neighbours Mercury Rev stole their thunder; and then?as if there were things like karma and justice in the world?they break through as a popular band, no longer just press darlings who throw together startling gigs. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is a ubiquitous album. The age range at this gig is as vast as those balloons. It’s a carnival, a rave, a “happening”. It may even be spiritually uplifting. It’s certainly spectacular fun.
Here’s how it goes:song, speech, song, speech. The songs are by now practised set-pieces (and if there’s a reservation, it’s that this has remained the same show for 18 months now). Wayne’s preachy, pseudo-philosophical speeches are what make it great for many. For others, the disruption of momentum (song carries you away, then you have to sit on your hands and listen to him pontificate before you’re away again) is a price to pay. Coyne’s subjects tonight include telling us that this is the biggest gig (5000 people) they’ve ever played, “bar festivals, where everyone’s just there for drugs and sex. But you’re here to enjoy the music!”Actually we’re here to enjoy the balloons and bunnies too, but whatever. He gives us a potted band history. He conducts the traditional Happy Birthday singing, and “White Christmas”. And once he gauges the mood horribly wrong, trying to win a wave of sympathy for US soldiers in Iraq. Though he’s forgiven promptly, he’s booed for a moment. He’s attempting to say it’s the leaders’ fault, not the lackeys’, but it’s a chronic, borderline farcical misjudgment.
The blood capsules and ventriloquist nun go down much better. And the songs swing low and sweep high, as ever. “Yoshimi”yanks at the soul, “Do You Realize??”is a Spector scattergun. That nice Cat Stevens song they’ve ripped off, “Fight Test”, has more legs than the Boyzone version (“Father To Son”). Second number in is a cracking cover of The White Stripes'”Seven Nation Army”. It works: whether as subtle postmodern deconstruction of trend-surfing topicality or as kick-ass blues, who knows?
One film shows a guy opening his head, chopping out his own brain and snorting it. In its peak moments (there are many), a Flaming Lips show smoothes the crow’s-feet from your cranium. Then lights a big candle and fills you with breath. Up, up and away.