Close Encounters of the Flaming Kind
From its Technicolor packaging, and cartoonish taglines (All Humans are Urged to Attend!), the new Flaming Lips concert DVD looks, at its face, more like an episode of Blue’s Clues than a seminal performance by one of art-pop’s enduring trios. That’s undoubtedly what the band had in mind with U.F.O.s at the Zoo.
The Lips are like Fun Dip for the senses, top to bottom. Having continuously ramped up their unique brand of psychedelia, it’s no surprise that Lips founder Wayne Coyne has finally tried the impossible: To capture on film the sound and the fury that is a Flaming Lips show. Loyalists will rejoice, as this is the band’s first ever live release – and it’s a good thing, since Coyne, now 46, is graying like a man who hasn’t slept in months.
Despite the homogenous crowd (this is, after all, Oklahoma), a sea of euphoric fans trade in their overalls for outlandish costumes, and extraterrestrials abound. One might be quick to credit the notoriously perverse Lips for pioneering live shows in a city zoo, however, both Frank Zappa, and the Grateful Dead appeared on this amphitheater’s hallowed grounds in years past. And the motif is no accident. Like Zappa, the Flaming Lips are gonzo avatars, who approach their craft from obtuse angles. Like the Dead, there’s a transcendently visceral appeal among hippies, yuppies, and outcasts.
Artists like the Lips achieve a sort of sonic philanthropy, with seemingly vacuous harmonies that belie their sophistication. Amidst the Spinal Tap theatrics and easy rhymes are some rather profound statements. Before fans know what’s happening, they’re humming to bubble-gum jingles that ask: “Do you realize that everyone you know, someday, will die?” Don’t mistake this whimsy for anything other than the clever disguise it is. The Lips have serious things to say, between all the smoke and mirrors.
As the mother ship descends (literally!) and guitarist Steve Drozd steps out into his keyboard station, it’s like 30 years just slipped from the clock. This is Parliament and Devo, circa 1977; a musical Mardi gras. After some hair-raising applause, the band fires into "Race for the Prize", their careening opener from 1999’s landmark album The Soft Bulletin. It’s a raucous and elegant piece that highlights immediately the schizophrenia abundant in their work.
Confetti bursts and balloons bounce above the heads of a frenzied audience, while Wayne sings with all the gleeful determination of a drunken king. His hoarse and pitchy vocals are forgivable, as Coyne becomes messianic onstage. Donning his signature ice cream suit, the 40-something exudes a youthful optimism that many will find surprising, often leaping in the air to punctuate a lyric. It’s infectious and undeniable – a pillar of the band’s live set.
Taken from their September 2006 homecoming, and directed by committee (Coyne collaborated with George Salisbury and Bradley Beesley, who helmed the band’s 2005 documentary The Fearless Freaks), the camerawork on Zoo is judiciously eclectic. It’s just not as inventive as one might hope. Despite a vividly paint-splattered stage, rife with dancing Santas, we get cropped angles and banal crowd shots.
The film’s visual narrative seems, at times, contradictory, as if the directors can’t decide how to capture the chaos. With all the gadgetry germane to a Lips show, it would have been nice to rig something special for those of us watching on the small screen. Indeed, the mike-cam is used to great effect, capturing Wayne in all his hirsute glory, smiling wolfishly. Unfortunately, neither bassist Michael Ivins, nor the hyperkinetic drummer Kliph Scurlock, earn similar exposure.
Ever the wily, social critics, the band intersperses their stage set with video excerpts of primates and pumas (presumably from the Oklahoma City Zoo), casting in sharp relief the mundane lives of our subjugated four-legged friends, with Mankind’s boisterous hedonism. More than just a winking non-sequitur, the meshing of concert footage with canned anecdotes is also meant to douse that synapse in your brain – the one yearning for a performance faithful to the Lips’ hyper-produced concept albums. By interrupting the flow, the audience can enjoy songs individually, as they are removed from context.
It’s all in good fun. Even fan interviews are played for laughs, with the filmmakers spotlighting oddballs rather than intellectuals among the tour faithful. Clearly they relate to the misfit horde, whose communal exuberance is, admittedly, chemically induced. “It’s like Christmas,” exclaims one zealot. Bleary-eyed kids boast of whiskey, weed, and whatever else, as if the powers-that-be will never see this movie…and they probably won’t.
Branded with the industry’s slick new MVI (Music Video Interactive) technology, fans who purchase U.F.O.s at the Zoo should expect to “triple your expectations”. That’s quite a promise. Unfortunately, two-thirds of MVI’s offerings are fundamental to any concert DVD: Music, and Video. The last third, "Interactive", demands not only a computer, but Internet connectivity, which means that from your couch only music and video are available. Once you plug into a PC, the features multiply.
There is a PDF version of the art booklet (with some rather cumbersome scrolling); 10 wallpapers, and a customizable set of mobile ring tones (most of which can be purchased faster, via the band’s website, Flaming Lips.com.)
Thankfully, the piece de resistance is a software package called NU-MYX . Despite a nearly unbearable online registration process, the mixing app is a light version of Pro Tools, and it’s a blast to use. Few exercises can illustrate the multi-layered production behind a Lips tune as clearly as this.
The Flaming Lips are nothing, if not perfectionists. Flawlessly produced in the studio, the band is deliberately unpolished onstage, exploring jagged rock edges, with artful excess. There’s a wonderful dichotomy between Wayne’s flashy double-neck guitar, and Kliph’s stripped down drum kit. The two couldn’t be more opposed, and yet it is precisely this glam-versus-bam ethos that the Lips champion so vividly.
Like 70s-era Pink Floyd, the Flaming Lips fuse meticulous musicianship, with flamboyant spontaneity. They are a band meant to be both seen and heard, playing every note through an impossible haze of over-the-top stagecraft. Here, the DVD shines. Watching the quietly talented Drozd pick through the riff on "Free Radicals" is like eating brownie mix from the bowl, it’s that good. The multi-instrumentalist is acutely aware of each musical nuance, orchestrating much of the interplay on Zoo. If Coyne is the church steeple, Drozd is undoubtedly its cornerstone.
With impossibly catchy choruses, it’s a wonder the Lips don’t occupy American airwaves more regularly. Like Beck, they embody a candy-coated quirkiness, that’s also a little bit fearless. Commercially, though, the Lips won’t relent. They seem to enjoy their dark little corner, away from the scrutiny of today’s fickle audience. The band focuses on producing albums, rather than hits; an important, and increasingly rare, distinction in American music. Much of their best work is radio-unfriendly (albeit, Grammy-winning), even esoteric, like the proggy "Yoshimi Part 2" jam.
As Wayne waves a smoke cannon at his fellow Lips, and Ivins thumbs his bass in a full-body skeleton suit, there’s a goofy authenticity afoot, as if the band rehearses this way in their basement. Every day is Halloween for Coyne and Company, and yet, perhaps more than anything, the Flaming Lips want us to listen and understand. Their biggest fear is buried amid a lyric from "The Spark That Bled":
And it seemed to cause a chain reaction, it had momentum, it was gaining traction, it was all the rage, it was all the fashion…and that’s too bad, cause in reality there was no reaction.
No reaction. That kind of apathy is destructive, and contrary to what this band stands for. If nothing else, the Lips are here to solicit smiles, shouts, even tears, from their audience. When Wayne incites the crowd to free the zoo of its inhabitants, you can sense the coming anarchy; when he deconstructs the ironic chorus behind "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", it shape-shifts from a corny pop ditty, into a sonic hand grenade. Few front men are as versatile, or can sermonize so endearingly. As ten thousand people gaze upon their poet-king, it is clear what the Lips would do with all their power… and this is it.
Stage props aside (Ivins dons a pair of giant hands for "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton"), there isn’t a moment as epic as when the band steps out from behind their respective instruments to a capella the show’s final verse:
Yelling as hard as they can, the doubters all were stunned, heard louder than a gun, the sound they made was love.
With a bow, it’s clear, the Flaming Lips have always given more than they had. Fueled by love and the urge to bring a virtual aurora borealis to the Midwest, U.F.O.s at the Zoo is an audio-visual embrace. It retains the band’s mythology as pop-art pranksters, while also revealing a benevolence and spirituality that’s missing on vinyl.
Indeed, the Church of Coyne is peculiar, sometimes pretentious, and often profound. It’s a place where everyone’s not only drinking the Kool Aid, but enthusiastically passing it along. Listening to the Flaming Lips through your stereo is an aural indulgence, but experiencing them live is an opportunity to break out of one’s mental zoo, and run with the other animals. As the mother ship lowers to collect these interstellar Okies, you’ll feel complicit in their experiment… as if you’ve just had a close encounter.