Twenty years ago today The Flaming Lips played England’s Reading Festival for the third time, marking their last performance with Ronald Jones. Five of the songs were recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 1, allowing us to revisit this transitional moment in the band’s history two decades on. Stream them all below.
Listening today we can hear these performances in numerous ways. For starters, remember their future was not at all certain. If their sudden left-turn into the parking lot experiments after this show hadn’t panned out, Reading ’96 could had been The Flaming Lips last gig, ever – the end of the band altogether.
“I remember being as depressed as I can get.
In general, there was a crisis in the whole band of
‘Jesus, what are we going to do now?'”
– Michael Ivins
In mid-June 1996 Jones visited Steven Drozd unannounced. “He didn’t call before, which I thought was kind of weird, because Ronald wasn’t the kind of guy to just show up. He had this little plastic bag, and in the bag was everything I’d ever given him, from a piece of paper with a little drawing on it making fun of something, to a cassette of the Tormato album by Yes, down to a little necklace,” Steven recalls in Jim DeRogatis’ book Staring at Sound. “He told me he didn’t want to see me anymore, and if I didn’t leave the band, he was leaving the band.” Jones repeated this with every member of the band.
Following a grueling 1994 tour schedule into 1995, the band was planning to take summer 1996 off save for three big European festivals: Denmark’s Roskilde in June, Ireland’s Phoenix Festival in July and England’s Reading Fest in August. All three followed Jones’ ultimatum. And so heading into Reading they knew it was the end of the line, the final show of this incarnation of the band at the very least. Particularly bothered by this, bassist Michael Ivins admits to getting drunk before they played, wrecking their performance. “There’s just no excuse, but I guess his leaving really did affect me,” Ivins says in Staring at Sound. “I guess because I talked to Ronald a lot or roomed with him, people thought we were in cahoots somehow: That he was going to quit the band and I was going to quit as well. I remember being as depressed as I can get.” Adding to the tension of Jones leaving was the fact that Clouds Taste Metallic, released eleven months previous, had failed to meet commercial expectations, making the Lips appear in the eyes of the industry like yet another of the many mid-90s alt-rock one-hit-wonders. “In general, there was a crisis in the whole band of ‘Jesus, what are we going to do now?'” Michael told DeRogatis. “It didn’t seem quite as easy to just find another guitarist. Bands were getting dropped left and right at this point, and the alternative thing was totally dying. That movie Spinal Tap is supposed to be a ‘mockumentray,’ but to me it’s not funny; it’s reality. We worried that we’d end up being some forty-five-year-olds banging out some heavy-metal bullshit at the state fair, and we didn’t want to do that.”
In hindsight we of course know Reading was not the end – far from it – but that makes it all the more interesting to listen to it as if it could’ve been. It was an ending though – not just for it being Jones’ final show, but also because it was the last time the band took this musical approach of two guitars, bass and drums rocked out in a blaze of noisey glory. Indeed it was eighteen years after Reading ’96 before they played “Unconsciously Screamin'” again – with Steven not drumming in concert at all for the vast majority of those years.
And yet, though Reading ’96 did mark the end of an era for The Flaming Lips, heard today it’s apparent how much they had already moved on. Listening with this sort of hindsight knowledge is a second way of hearing these recordings. The stylistic shift heard the following year in Zaireeka’s lusher material that culminated on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin didn’t come from nowhere; it developed over the course of the ’90s with tracks like “Sun Arise” and “Put The Waterbug In The Policeman’s Ear,” one of the songs – in a sign of things to come – that Steven had taken to playing keyboards for in concert. Ditto for the softer moments of their live arrangement of “When You Smile” – especially the blissful intro they added – and the soft edge Steven gave “She Don’t Jelly” by omitting the drum part for a tinkled bell counterpoint to Jones’ wonderfully demented slide guitar playing. The storytelling approach of “Put The Waterbug’s” lyrics also foreshadowed future Lips songs:
A third way of hearing the Lips’ Reading set is simply on its own terms, divorced from any context. Not as Jones’ last (though it was); not as a performance by a band with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them (though they were), nor a preview of greatness to come (though it did) – but purely on its own merits: a fantastic band making fantastic music. Though Ivins says he ruined this set, most fans would probably disagree. Hearing this with no backstory, who would even suspect he was drunk? There’s much to relish here for fans of this era of the band: the sensational syncopations and drumming prowess of Steven Drozd; the noise brilliance of Ronald Jones; the incessant charm of Wayne Coyne; the singular chemistry of their playing together woven around Ivins’ foundation.
Listen to them jam out “When You Smile” and segue a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” (another sign of things to come) into “She Don’t Use Jelly” and it should be clear this was never some one-hit-wonder fluke act.