Think of the Past: The Soft Bulletin

The first Psych Explorations of the Future Heart blog was posted on June 22, 2009 – the tenth anniversary of The Soft Bulletin’s release… 

In recognition of the band playing that album live, in full, on New Year’s Eve 2010-2011, that blog is reposted below.  Keep in mind, this was written after Embryonic was recorded – and spoken about in interviews – but before it was finished or any of its songs were played live.  This post was meant to express the remarkable change The Flaming Lips went through in that decade, but read now it also inadvertently points out how much The Flaming Lips have already developed since this post was written a mere year-and-a-half ago.  This is precisely why the New Year’s Eve performance promises to be so special: it’s not just them playing their masterpiece, it’s them playing it from their post-Embryonic head space…

“Driving home the sky accelerates and the clouds all form a geometric shape and it goes fast… you think of the past”

-“Suddenly Everything Has Changed,” June 22, 1999

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. release of The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, the album that not-so-suddenly changed everything for the band.  In the past decade its reputation has solidified to what only a few had instantly recognized it to be: not just one of the most imaginative, heartfelt and spirited albums of the ‘90s, but the sound and the shape of rock n’ roll to come.  Likewise, since its release The Flaming Lips’ repute has gone from fringe freaks –typically dismissed as novelty one-hit wonders– to an unanticipated standing as one of the most creatively enduring, critically respected and consistently exciting groups of the past three decades… all while remaining fearless freaks.  They’ve won Grammys and the admiration of a “who’s who” from Townshend to Bowie, Yoko Ono to Ben Gibbard and Chris Martin; they’ve had a street and a law named after them; they’ve brought rock’s multimedia realm to new D.I.Y. heights with their every project and played memorable sets at virtually all major rock festivals the world over; their collaborators have spanned from Beck to Justin Timberlake, the Chemical Brothers to the White “siblings;” they’ve scored not just movies and T.V. commercials (now customary in a music industry in rapid transition), but births, weddings and funerals; they’ve earned mounting critical acclaim and most tellingly, inspired their ever expanding fanbase to rejoice, cry, think, scream, sing, dance, laugh and live before dying.  They’ve grown as artists, as “just humans with wives and children” and as involved members of their home communities, letting their philosophical dispositions, creativity and character shine brighter and broader as they age.

All of the above is quite a feat, especially considering ten years ago The Soft Bulletin seemed destined to be their swansong ( “the beautiful legendary song sung only once by a swan in its lifetime, as it is dying”).  Listening to it even today we can hear and feel the band -or at least its members- disintegrating.  It isn’t hard to imagine Warner Brother’s dropping the band (although Bulletin reached #12 on the Heatseekers chart, it predictably did not chart on Billboard’s 200 album chart and was a stateside sales flop by most industry standards), Wayne going back to frying fish at Long John Silvers (or to a mental institution), Michael getting in another bizarre car accident and Steven dying after one too many “spider bites.”  Like much gripping rock n’ roll, it’s surrounded by death, by the hope of psychedelic visions and the downward realities of substance abuse.  It was getting heavy, too heavy for even a superman to lift… yet somehow they raised the spoonful that weighed a ton.  The mere fact they’ve been able to stay on a major label for all this turbulent time while holding to their own terms (and the commercial limitations they present) is an impressive testament of their hard work and charisma.  That through that association and their sheer determination they’ve been successful by every measure (for what it’s worth, The Soft Bulletin didn’t light up the charts but it has become — according to the calculations of— the single most acclaimed 1999 album … by contrast, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots had sold globally close to a million copies and was R.I.A.A. certified Gold by the time of its follow-up –2006’s At War With the Mystics, #11 on the Billboard 200– and had the acclaim to match its sales) while impacting countless lives makes them a model for anyone who cares about the future of rock n’ roll for the head and heart.

This summer also marks fifteen years since Lollapalooza ’94, a pivotal year for the festival tour frequently referenced as its peak run.  With Nirvana as the intended headliner, it was supposed to be the next chapter after grunge opened “alternative” rock’s commercial floodgates.  Instead, Kurt burned out, the music played on, “alt-rock” reached its marketable-creative zenith and new stars were born, among them, those American idiots from Oakland and those one-hit weirdoes from Oklahoma.  It was through Lollapalooza ’94 that The Lips met Yoshimi (P-We, and the rest of the Boredoms) and got their name on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time, though those gigs were only part of their ambitious 1994 tour schedule (as were several pivotal shows in Chicago that helped launch She Don’t Jelly onto radio playlists).  

Just as 1994 was a high point for Lollapalooza’s ilk penetrating the mainstream, 1984 was a milestone year for alternative rock distanced from the mainstream.  The Flaming Lips were, of course, in the middle of the action: they released their debut E.P., got under the spell of The Jesus and Mary Chain from the get go, toured for their first times (small clubs throughout the mid-west with Wayne’s mom planning the routes), organized Sonic Youth’s first show in Oklahoma and opened for them, as they did Hüsker Dü, The Minutemen, Black Flag, The Butthole Surfers et al.  The Flaming Lips E.P. doesn’t hold the same stature as “Upside Down,” “Death Valley ’69,” Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime, My War or Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac but it does represent the beginning of a twenty-five year (and counting) recording career with arguably peerless longevity. Even queen and kings of kool Sonic Youth, the obvious exception, haven’t been as consistently fresh as The Lips in the last two decades, and nobody has re-imagined their sound, their look and their approach as many times, so rewardingly since Wayne first opened his bag full of thoughts.

It’s twenty years since The Lips rose towards the top of the American underground.  Fans on the scene in 1989 could see up-and-coming opening indie acts such as Nirvana followed by shambolic, noisy and literally flaming sets by The Lips… or conversely, The Lips open for Jane’s Addiction, leading a new wave of major label rockers.  They released their third album, Telepathic Surgery, and –at the request of the burgeoning Sub Pop Records– their first official single, “Drug Machine” (aka “Drug Machine in Heaven”).  In the summer of ’89 they went for the first time to Fredonia, New York -where they’ve recorded most of their output ever since- to create the album of their dreams: In a Priest Driven Ambulance.  After covering “After the Gold Rush” for The Bridge Neil Young tribute/ benefit album (getting their name in Rolling Stone magazine for the first time- David Fricke described them as “acid-dementia specialists” in issue 564), Wayne crystallized his new singing style, the only constant in the band’s ever-evolving sound over the last twenty years.  Yet if it wasn’t for a whirlwind of new faces – Jonathan Donahue, Trent Bell, Nathan Roberts, Dave Fridmann, Keith Cleversley, Scott Booker, George Salisbury, J Michelle Martin, Jim DeRogatis – as well as major labels’ general interest in indie bands as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, it’s completely plausible this would’ve been the end of the line.  Instead of Steven pounding his way into the band and them onto Billboard’s Modern Rock charts, Ronald masterminding mid-‘90s live guitar freak-outs and Michael becoming the eye of “parking lot orchestra” storms and a tech whiz engineer, they could have disintegrated.  Wayne could’ve resumed work at Long John Silvers: the softest bullet would never have been shot and Yoshimi would never battle those evil natured pink robots!

They traveled so far between the releases of “Drug Machine” (January 1989) and The Soft Bulletin (June 1999), yet in some ways, so little had changed.  That their uncertain situation in 1999 –poised simultaneously on the edges of breakthrough and breakup- echoed that from a decade earlier but doesn’t resemble their current state a decade later reveals the point of all the above: after a quarter of a century of going in the right direction with the right associations at the right time while holding their own ideas out of trend and time, they’ve become to rock n’ roll enthusiasts a band for all-time.  In other words, in 2009 the future of The Flaming Lips, if nothing else, no longer seems fleeting.  A million possibilities came from that one album and ten years later, the limits now are none.  “From this moment on, blaring like a trumpet… the confidence of knowing.”  Their potential has arrived… so this really isn’t about the tenth anniversary of The Soft Bulletin, the fifteenth of their Billboard debut, the twentieth of their climb through the underground or the twenty-fifth of their recording career… this is about all we have: now!

Later this summer, The Flaming Lips will headline America’s two most inimitable music festivals (Pitchfork, where their set will be voted on by ticket buyers, and All Tomorrow’s Parties, where they’re guest curators) in addition to a tour of their own (with a special ticket bundle offering concert-goers a recording of the show they attended plus an exclusive E.P. of unreleased new material and rare B-sides) and yet another new “first” for the band, the release of a double-album (promised to be along the lines of double classics like The Beatles’ White Album and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as only The Lips could imagine that combination).  Elsewhere, Steven is working with Steve (Burns, formerly of Blues Clues) on fantastical kids music and Scott Booker, their manager (and former member, very briefly), is pioneering new ground for music in American higher education as CEO of the Academy of Contemporary Music.  Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, April 28, 2009 was officially named “Flaming Lips Day” in Oklahoma, as “Do You Realize???” went on the books as the “State Rock Song”.

“We can’t predict the future/ or resist the inevitable urge to try” –this key line from a Soft Bulletin out-take, resonates as clearly in 2009 as ever.  And though the future is uncertain we can, as The Lips have repeatedly expressed, make the most of “right now,” and maybe even do so through learning from the past.  With so much insecurity “right now,” both in the music industry and society at large, how The Flaming Lips improbably arrived into their 2009 state from their precarious past deserves a closer look for aspiring artists and caring music fans alike.  For when they stood up and said, “yeah!” it really did cause a “chain reaction” that’s been magnifying itself for the past decade.

“We think we know just who we are
but sometimes I think we’ve gone too far”

                                -“Right Now,” Telepathic Surgery, 1989

“Will the fight for our sanity be the fight of our lives
now that we’ve lost all the reasons that we thought that we had???”

                                -“The Gash,” June 22, 1999

It’s with these surroundings and thoughts in mind that Psych Explorations of the Future Heart is coming to you in 2009. 

Happy Anniversary…
                              -June 22, 2009

Listen to some of the coolest live versions of songs from The Soft Bulletin – here.

Click here for more on the 2010- 2011 Freak-Out.

Watch highlights from other 2010-2011 shows, here.

Ray Suen is joining The Flaming Lips for NYE.  Learn about him and his Magic Space Harp – here.



For the latest on The Soft Bulletin live, New Year’s Eve, songs of the day, music news, Flaming

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