Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 8 - 1995 (Flaming Lips)

August 27, 2021 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 8
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 8 - 1995 (Flaming Lips)
Show Notes Transcript

UPDATE: I replaced the original file because I inadvertently muted a couple different music tracks. Therein lies the problem with DIY. Sometimes Y can't get out of his own gotdang way lol.

Don't Call It Nothing Episode 8 now live! We're headed to Oklahoma City to catch up with the Flaming Lips and their 1995 masterpiece Clouds Taste Metallic. We celebrate the short-lived Steven Drozd/Ronald Jones era, take a side jaunt to In A Priest Driven Ambulance, and unfortunately, have to reckon with one of the country's worst terrorist attacks.

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and today we’re going to visit Oklahoma City in 1995.

Before we do that, though, lemme acknowledge this past week of music losses. It’s like, “I get it, Death. You’re all powerful. How about taking a few weeks off, rest up, maybe get ready for the college football season?” Anyway, the death parade started last week with Tom T Hall, one of my favorite country songwriters. If you’re unfamiliar with him, go to Spotify, and check out the compilation, Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher. That title sums up Tom T. And if “Mama Bake A Pie” don’t choke you up, you’re a bad person. The next day we lost Don Everly, the older of the Everly Brothers, who remain one my favorite country AND rock ‘n’ roll acts. And finally, the passing a few days ago of Charlie Watts, the only Stone worth liking [laughs]. He was one of rock 'n' roll’s greatest drummers and he did it without creating a persona, keeping up with trends, or projecting any fake tits bullshit. In that sense, he was both anti-Jagger and anti-Richards. He was just a bloke who enjoyed hanging out with his kids, grandkids, and dogs, a classy, dapper, one-man repudiation of the culture that surrounded him. For that I'll be forever grateful. Godspeed, Charlie.

The needle in the needle’s disguise

Amidst this litany of obituaries, it was also quietly announced about a week ago now that Michael Ivins, the Flaming Lips’ bassist since 1980 -freakin-3 (!), has left the band. Wayne Coyne’s statement on Instagram was very positive, betrayed no animosity, and even hinted that this was in the works for awhile. That said, even if you leave a job on good terms, it’s been 38 dadgum years – shout out Bobby Bowden. There’s gonna be a lot of complicated emotions to process for Ivins, Coyne, AND longtime drummer, keyboardist, and symphonic genius Steven Drozd. I get it, though. Being in a touring band is stressful under the best of circumstances. Being in a touring band during a pandemic – or trying to be a touring band, more accurately – that has to be on another level of suck. To be fair, Ivins did this for a long while, so I’m hoping he’s retiring because he can afford to retire. Young bands aren’t so lucky.

For example, when The Flaming Lips released Transmissions From The Satellite Heart in the summer of 1993, it basically went nowhere. Given that their first album for Warner Brothers, the previous year’s Hit To Death In The Future Head, also went nowhere, you couldn’t blame the band if they felt like they were spinning their wheels on the major label treadmill. I think the biggest problem with Hit To Death is that it had a few good songs, but wasn’t really a strong album. That drummer Nathan Roberts and guitarist Jonathan Donahue , who you might know from Mercury Rev and to which he returned, they bailed on the Lips even before that record came out. Bad sign. But, Transmissions is damn near flawless. In my opinion, the dumbest thing Warners did to the Lips was right after the album was released they went out on a brief tour opening for Porno For Pyros and then immediately after that went out on a long tour opening for the Butthole Surfers and Stone Temple Pilots. Brilliant strategy! One of the best bands of the decade gives you one of their best albums ever and you have them playing to empty fucking seats. But don’t worry, your drummer is hanging out with Gibby Haynes and Scott Weiland and definitely not doing drugs.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the poor house. 

On March 5, 1994, Beavis & Butthead – then at the apex of their popularity – mildly praised the video for “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the song slowly started to gain traction. And then Lollapalooza came calling, so for 24 dates in July and August of 1994, the Lips headlined the second stage. Between the novelty success of “Jelly” and the fact that these badass songs were finally being played in front of, you know, actual human beings, Transmissions started moving units. So much so, in fact, that the Flaming Lips opened 1995 by appearing on The Jon Stewart Show. On the January 11th episode, the Lips played both “Jelly” and “Mountain Side,” one of the better tracks on their 1990 artistic breakthrough – and the album that got me into the band – In A Priest Driven Ambulance.

Speaking of which, two weeks after the Stewart appearance, on January 28, the Flaming Lips played Priest in its entirety. Now, this wasn’t something bands did in the ‘90s. Having a band play an album front to back was something you saw a lot of in the 2000s and 2010s, especially on the festival circuit. This was not that. The Lips were playing a small club in Norman called The Water Palace and luckily for us, someone was smart enough to record. Keep in mind that Coyne's voice is a little wobbly and the tape's kinda fucked up [laughs], but it’s still worth listening to because you get Drozd on sledgehammer drums and the great Ronald Jones on slide guitar. Here’s an excerpt.

That’s the Flaming Lips from the Water Palace in Norman, Oklahoma, with “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain,” on some days my favorite Lips song. And I may be wrong, but I think this is the only time “Five Stop” was ever performed. The original recording featured Roberts on drums and Donahue on guitar, who actually were more than capable sidemen. They do well on Priest. Hit To Death, it might not be their fault that those songs don’t work. I have no complaints about their work on Priest. That’s a masterful album. That said, going from those guys to Drozd and Jones was like adding Grant Hart and Nels Cline to the Lips. It’s impossible to overstate what a luxury it was for Coyne to have Drozd, this powerhouse fucking drummer who could also play – lemme see here – oh yeah, EVERYTHING. And then to ALSO have Ron Jones on free range space guitar? That’s an embarrassment of riches.

So, listen to this. “Stand In Line” is a perfect example of how the change in personnel elevated even the mundane. The original recording of “Stand In Line” is one of the lesser tracks on Priest. Not terrible, just so-so. However, when filtered through Jones, the track becomes something special. Check out this excerpt.

What in the fucking world??? [laughs] What are these sounds??? Ronald, tell us what these sounds are! THAT’S the power Jones was bringing to the table as the band started recording Clouds Taste Metallic in the spring of ’95. 

“Spin: Do you consider Clouds to be the end of an era?

Wayne: I think Steven and I would say it is now. That that was the peak of when we thought of ourselves as a rock band – loud guitars.”
— Spin, "The Flaming Lips Answer 20 Questions for the 20th Anniversary of Clouds Taste Metallic," September 18, 2015

A masterpiece of mostly whimsical psychedelia, Clouds is my favorite Lips album and the final showcase for Jones, whose kaleidoscopic lead work echoes Hendrix and Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), even as it explores new sonic territory. This album and about 100 shows were his final statement before leaving not just the band in mid-’96, but the public eye altogether. Ronald Jones effectively disappeared after his stint in the band. Clouds also marked the end of the “Drozd as Drummer” era, by which I mean he continued to play drums on recordings, but his role in the band changed from full-time drummer to electronica-obsessed multi-instrumentalist as the Flaming Lips embraced Dream Pop. Not that Clouds wasn’t pop. It was. It’s just that the melodies were wrapped in explosions of firepower. 

That’s The Flaming Lips at the late, great Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 11, 1995. As with Clouds Taste Metallic, "The Abandoned Hospital Ship" opened the show with Drozd playing a small keyboard set u right next to his drum kit and Coyne on vocals just breaking hearts. Halfway through, the song erupts into spasms of violence as Drozd pounds his kit and Jones folds the space-time continuum to take us through a wormhole. The album version is similar, but opens with the hum of a film projector as Coyne sings over the mournful piano. The apocalyptic feel actually anticipates The Soft Bulletin. At :24, Jones enters in the left channel, his spidery lead playing a single-string countermelody. At 1:14 we hear a mellotron positioned center-left as well as Coyne's ghost vocal, followed by Jones introducing the guitar riff that takes us to the song's second half. At 1:59, Drozd comes in on drums with Bonham-esque heavyocity. Listen to that fucking snare! Ivins then drops in on bass, wiggling around the main melody, as Jones summons ball lightning. "Hospital" eventually gives us bells, more sound effects, more guitars, and finally a theremin. It’s the big, old, black golden buzz of Apex Lips. 

For all of the hotshot firepower on display, though, the unsung hero of Clouds Taste Metallic is Michael Ivins, who is endlessly creative, playful, and intuitive. Listen to him on "Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles" and "Bad Days." It's pure bippity bop carnival bass. Or, check out "Placebo Headwound." He's like McCartney on Sgt Pepper's, the pulse of the rhythm section, walking up and down the fretboard suggesting the melody, but never playing it directly. "When You Smile" and "They Punctured My Yolk" also echo late '60s McCartney. I highly recommend listening to this album all the way through and JUST listening to Ivins. You will not be disappointed. He wasn’t just “the bass player.” He was an integral part of these arrangements and the Lips would not have been the same band without him.

Oh, my Jesus, it's worse than you think

Here’s the thing, though. It’s hard for me to separate Clouds Taste Metallic from its context. The album came out in September, but in May, during a break from recording, the Lips did a brief west coast jaunt, which is where I caught up with them. They played a pair of shows at Moe’s, one of Seattle’s best venues at the time, and they also played an in-store at Cellophane Square in the U District. This was May 6, 1995. Seventeen days earlier the various members of the Flaming Lips were at home when this happened.

How does a massive fucking terrorist attack two miles from your house not impact your art, life, and headspace? That this was domestic terrorism, homegrown cracker ass motherfuckery, made it a million times worse. 168 dead, 19 of them children, hundreds injured, tens of thousands with PTSD, depression, anxiety, and various other perfectly understandable psychological reactions to the bombing. And I would include the extended family of the Flaming Lips in this latter group. Coyne himself admitted as much that day at Cellophane Square.

Let’s consider the Oklahoma City bombing from Ronald Jones’ perspective. His dad is black, his mom is Filipino, and he was born in Hawaii where that combo of ethnic influences would barely register. Dad then moves to Oklahoma, home of the 1921 Tulsa Honky Riot, where people who looked like Ronald weren’t just attacked and killed by white mobs, they were literally bombed by fucking airplanes and then blamed for their own massacre. 

So, fast forward to April 1995 and as the news leaks out that the perpetrators aren’t Middle Easterners seen speeding away from the downtown area, which was reported in the immediate wake of the bombing. In fact, the terrorists were these same weak, insecure white dudes like McVeigh who are always blaming government and minorities for their own mediocrity. The difference is that instead of just talking talking forever talking, a certain subset of Caucasian male feels emboldened to build bombs and then set off these bombs so as to inflict massive casualties on innocent people. The terror is the point. The cruelty is the point. And if you’re a hyper-sensitive artsy type who’s half-black and half-Filipino living a few miles from a bomb site where people were deliberately murdered by a white supremacist, how are you supposed to respond to that? How do you compartmentalize that? Or do you? And what if maybe there was an undiagnosed psychological disorder or condition already floating around in there? 

When you combine all of these factors it’s not surprising that Jones hated “Evil Will Prevail,” the penultimate track on Clouds. He wasn’t complaining about the music. Who’s not gonna love Coyne’s voice and acoustic guitar up front and center in the mix, with what sounds like a clean electric guitar in the left channel and a mellotron in the right channel harmonizing on the song’s melody, not to mention the third act rock band eruption? I mean, he’s not dumb. No, Ronald objected to a song in which the bad guys win.

Knowing evil will prevail
Knowing that evil will always win...  

Those are the final words of the song. Artistically, I get it. Coyne was also trying to process this horrific event and he’s not wrong. Evil prevails sometimes and he lives two miles away from the evidence. But, I also see Jones’ side of this. It’s easy for a comfortable white dude like Wayne to make lemons out of lemonade. Ron’s lemons look like strange fruit. The stakes for him are way, way higher. And while I wouldn’t say he quit the band because of the bombing, I bet it’s why he quit show business. Think about it. If you’re Jones, already hyper-sensitive and psychologically fragile, how do you know one of these cracker dumbfucks doesn’t wanna make an example of the half-black half-Filipino guy on stage? Fuck that.

Still, it’s always critical to recontextualize. And in this case, it’s important to remember that within the context of the record, Coyne doesn’t actually let evil win. Yes, he may have allowed it to briefly prevail, but the final song on Clouds ends on a hopeful, optimistic note.

That’s the Flaming Lips at The Fillmore in San Francisco, on May 12, 1995, about a week after I saw them at Moe’s. And sure, Coyne doesn’t quite hit the high notes, but taken in context, the band trying to muster up any note of optimism following such a horrific event has to mean something more than just the next song on the setlist. The fact that it’s a song about hating your job is besides the point. This is how art works. Sometimes events overtake intent. Artistically speaking, I almost couldn’t blame the Lips had they decided to release Clouds with “Evil” as the last song. Given the events of April 19, 1995, it was not inaccurate. But, that ain’t who Wayne Coyne is. He embraces spectacle, schtick, and artifice with every damn bit of his soul, like a psych-pop Willy Wonka. Walking around in a bubble suit, releasing songs on a USB drive that are buried inside of a life-sized gummy skull (true story), playing with a bubble machine, playing with a smoke machine, having a giant set Christmas lights twinkling behind the band on stage, and conducting parking lot experiments where dozens of people play boom boxes at the same time. Coyne’s whole goddamn raison d’etre is to be a light in a world with so much darkness.

For years, I dismissed the gimmicks and wished Coyne got back to songwriting, but I think I get it now. When you live two miles from a terrorist bomb site and you come to terms with the fact that you live amongst a lunatic fringe of violent extremists and thousands, if not millions, of people who may not do the actual dirty work of the extremists, but you know that if Jim Crow were reinstituted tomorrow, they’d be all, “Oh gosh. I wish there was something I could do. My hands are tied. I mean, not literally like yours, but metaphorically, which is way worse!”

In the face of such darkness maybe the best thing Coyne did was worry less about songwriting in the traditional rock sense and instead began to curate fun, psychedelic shows designed to make people happy, where it’s less about the songs and more about the experience. And yes, I realize that sounds fucking trite and maybe I’m normalizing a different kind of mediocrity. But, I don’t know. Is it? I think there are far worse outcomes than introducing colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky onto the faces of people going by.

That’s the Flaming Lips from January 28, 1995, at The Water Palace in Norman, Oklahoma, the night they covered In A Priest Driven Ambulance in its entirety. Wayne hits most of the notes, but the best part is it explodes into a kaleidoscopic hailstorm, goes back into the ballad, and then finishes with more hailstorm. 

That’s gonna conclude our deep dive into the 1995 Flaming Lips. You don’t have to hate your boss at your job to subscribe to this podcast, but it might help. Please go visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website. Like, comment, become a member, tell yo mama, and tell a friend.

Talk to ya next time when we explore the wonderful world of 1996!