Friday, March 21, 2008

Rumination on "The Flaming Lips - The Fearless Freaks" (Shout Factory 2005)

It would be silly to review a DVD that came out almost three years ago, but I just watched it. Plus, the time elapsed since release didn’t deter me with The Road to God Knows Where when I reviewed it back in back in December but, hey, I was new at this and that particular documentary deserves a good hashing over every few years.

In 1987 I was listening to the Funhouse Punk & Noise Show on Pacifica radio 90.1 KPFT out of Houston (it faded in and out depending on the weather, etc. – we were pretty far out of town at that time) late one night. I don’t recall which night of the week, as the show was constantly being moved around to various late night slots due largely to indiscretions on the parts of the hosts who went by the noms de guerre Chuck Roast and Austin Caustic respectively. The Funhouse Show was my almost exclusive source for finding punk rock at that time and I listened religiously every chance I was able to find it on the dial. I even taped a few – the cassettes are lying around here somewhere waiting to be digitized.

Anyway, on the night in question Chuck Roast announced that he would be playing, in its entirety, the new Flaming Lips record Oh My Gawd!!! on the grounds that it might be the greatest record ever made. From The Beatles sample that kicks the record off through the one that ends it I found myself in whole hearted agreement and beat a path to Infinite Records at Westheimer and Montrose the very next Saturday to blow my pittance of socked away cash on it. While the whole “greatest record ever made” thing doesn’t hold up, it’s still one motherfucker of a powerful piece of work. I was an immediate fan and stuck with that band through Clouds Taste Metallic – in my opinion the last great, or even good, record they ever made.

This is where I’ll get in trouble, I know. The Lips have become international superstars on the basis of their post-Clouds music and I’m literally the only person I’ve ever encountered who holds that singular opinion stated above. Here’s the deal – The Flaming Lips went from being a powerful guitar based psychedelic pop band to a mellowed out keyboard/vocal effect prog rock pop band. As I’ve mentioned before I’m all for bands experimenting in new directions, especially if they do it in such a way that doesn’t smack of a sell out and leaves the essence of what makes the band unique undiluted. God knows The Flaming Lips did this – you can tell a Flaming Lips record, even having never heard it before, immediately upon hearing it. They're still 100% The Flaming Lips, whether I like the music they're making or not.

I’m going to start sounding old here. If it wasn’t broke, why fix it. The music contained on the records spanning Oh My Gawd!!! through Clouds Taste Metallic are textbook examples of how to make a record with a common sonic theme in which none of the songs sound the same. Every track is strong, experimental, and works in some positively viral hooks that stay with you for years (at least in my case). Why hare off in an entirely different musical direction when you haven't even fully explored the strengths you already have in spades?

What I’m left wondering, and what The Fearless Freaks didn’t address to my satisfaction at all, is how this sea change in style came to pass. A canny observer will note that this began to happen with the arrival of Steven Drozd as, initially, drummer and the subsequent departure of guitarist Ronald Jones, who was having issues with Drozd’s unconcealed heroin addiction. (as an interesting side note, to me at least, Steven was a drinking buddy of mine here in Austin during his Janis 18 days – Bryan Bowden, Hunter Darby, he and I hung out in the same small group of people catching shows, hitting parties, and generally making drunken nuisances of ourselves. He, of course, has no recollection of me now).

The documentary glosses over not only this major change in the band’s direction but several other pivotal moments in the band’s career. I’m left wondering, “Why?” If director Bradley Beesley had access unlimited enough to interview Steven Drozd about his philosophy on drug addiction while Steven is cooking and shooting up heroin it seems like he could have teased out some insight from Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins over the different directions the band has taken through the years. The movie seems more an exploration of personal philosophies, especially Wayne Coyne’s, rather than a comprehensive or even cursory history of the band and an examination of what makes it tick and continue to be so vital after all these years.

I guess in the end I felt a little cheated. That’s probably my own fault – I went in expecting one thing and came out having received another. What I did get was certainly entertaining and insightful, but if I want personal histories I’ll read the biographies (and likely review them here). For a rock ‘n’ roll documentary I want the live footage, the tension and release, and whatever catharsis (or lack thereof) that can be achieved through a TV screen.

The Fearless Freaks is worth checking out; I just won’t be checking it out again. I got it the first time through, Wayne. And Steven, for the sake of the friendship you’ve forgotten as well as your welfare as a human being, I’m glad you’re off the junk. Keep making them records – even if they don’t appeal to me there’s definitely something going on there, which is a lot more than can be said for almost every other major label artist out there. Maybe sooner or later you guys will even release another one I like.


leigh said...

for the life of me, i can't remember ever meeting stephen drozd, however i was doing quite a bit of drinking myself at that time.

bryan bowden, however, i'm convinced gave me strep throat by slobbering all over my beer one night at a party at hunter's house.

MiseryCreek said...

You're lucky that's all hegave you.

leigh said...

bwahaha! i was smart enough to keep that boy at arms length.

middlenamewayne said...

Steven Drozd set me on fire once in the Texas Tavern -- it was sorta by accident, at least. And he DOES remember -- when the Lips played Lollapalooza years later, he looked out into the crowd, spotted me, and made a "flicking his Bic" motion in my direction!

"Li'l Bryan" Bowden's crowning moment, in my opinion, was when he started to panic at a Lodge party around 4pm, screaming that "We need to get to the liquor store right away! It's almost closing time and I haven't even (turns and vomits, wipes mouth and continues without missing a beat) gotten a buzz yet!!!"

Finally, to throw in a gratuitous dual Spoon/Wannabes reference here, just last week Greg "Wendal Stivers" Wilson was reminiscing at the Showdown over breaking into my house to steal a bottle of bourbon one night. The logical reason for his action was, simply enough, because "The window wouldn't open far enough for Hunter to get in!"

- DrS aka KWL aka NDJ aka MNW aka etc.

MiseryCreek said...

While I wasn't present for the Bowden experience, I had many others with him almost identical and equally appalling.

I was with Greg and Hunter the night of the last anecdote. We had parted company before the incident related, or they may have tried to shove me through that window.

Good to hear from you, middlenamewayne.