Is this considered Classic Rock yet? Crate-Digging’d!
If 1991 was the year punk broke, then 1992 was the year when the punks started taking acid and freaking the hell out. Well, that’s not totally true I guess – The Flaming Lips, originators of that line of thought, stated it publicly with their 2002 compilation of their Restless Records material, Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid, which collected their earliest output from the mid-1980s. So by 1992 it wasn’t terribly surprising to hear the band’s brand of psych-rock weirdness play out in multicolored gooey hues over the course of a long-player, but it was still prior to the mass consumption of breakthrough tune “She Don’t Use Jelly,” let alone their consideration as the elder statesmen of experimental pop music. So while grunge bands were marrying Black Sabbath riffs with Black Flag anger, The Lips were content to channel their music through the paisley thud of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, fusing it effortlessly with the indie twang of The Meat Puppets. And although Wayne Coyne’s nasal delivery reeked of Neil Young worship, these Oklahoma City goofballs carved their own true niche in independent rock. In my opinion, these mid-period records, which include In a Priest Driven Ambulance, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, and Clouds Taste Metallic, are their best.
This was a tempestuous time for the band, as they were signed to major Warner Bros. on the heels of In a Priest Driven Ambulance, and Hit to Death turned out to be the first release for their new label. Prior to the album’s street date, however, turnover struck, as drummer Nathan Roberts and guitarist Jonathan Donohue left the band. Fortunately for us, Donohue went on to form the arguably weirder and equally awesome Mercury Rev, kindred spirits to The Flaming Lips in many ways. Also fortunately for us, drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd joined Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins for the Hit to Death tour, as did guitarist Ronald Jones, solidifying the classic Lips lineup that exists today. (Jones would move on as well following Clouds Taste Metallic; you may recognize him as the crazy longhair who plays the sickeningly sweet slide-guitar lead on “She Don’t Use Jelly.”)
All this is a backdrop to the album that would foretell the breakthrough of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, a classic even though it was dismissed as a one-hit-wonder record in the time between it and the string of critically acclaimed mastepieces that began with The Soft Bulletin. But the sound was there, cultivated through years of underground touring and studio experimentation. It’s apparent right away, with the buzzing and chirping pseudo-pop of unwieldily titled leadoff track “Talkin’ ’Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever).” Guitars waver and dance, and it’s weird to be reminded that the band can actually rock out instead of being content to craft exquisitely layered suites of abstract wonderment. Both are fine, but “…Smiling Deathporn…” is more immediate, and less inclined to feature giant hamster wheels, confetti, or naked and goo-covered dancers in a live setting. It does, though, feature a weird pitch-shifted doo-wop vocal on the choruses, but it’s shifted about an octave below the bottom range of most humans, so it’s more an augment to the low end of the song. It works well, especially since the guitars sound like bees – there’s a grounding that occurs.
The buzzing continues on what should have been their first breakthrough single, “Hit Me Like You Did the First Time,” 3:41 of the best songwriting the band had laid to tape at that point. (“She Don’t Use Jelly” instead of this as the cultural landmark? I guess it was the jokiness of the former – frat boys needed something to laugh at I guess.) “Hit” really showed the band stretching, not only with the melodicism and dynamic structure, but with interesting flourishes like the ascending string picks and noise bursts on the chorus. It is a song you can play over and over and not get sick of. “The Sun,” with its simplistic chorus of “The sun / goes over me,” follows, a soaring psychedelic track complete with horns and multitracked vocals. It’s the band’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” if I were to make a comparison. If I were continuing to make comparisons, then “Gingerale Afternoon (The Astrology of a Saturday)” compares favorably to Jeff Tweedy’s pop numbers around the time of Summerteeth, and even the title of the song is breezy and laid back. And “You Have to Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil’s Brain)” is Exhibit A as to why it made perfect sense for the band to have covered “After the Gold Rush.”
But “Halloween on the Barbary Coast” would be the band’s stadium-filling, U2 moment on Hit to Death, all of the band’s tricks culminating masterfully for almost 6 minutes, and it feels like half that. It’s their “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and instead of pumping their fists in the air to throngs of thousands and waving flags while preaching political action, we’re treated to visions of “retards” laughing, lines of clowns, getting the bends, and Christmas trees, hardly the imagery to propel masses to guided chanting. But the song soars unbelievably, even through the repeated insult of “boy you still got shit for brains” weighs psychically on it – you just have to laugh it off, really. It also happens to be the only song that I can think of that references the titular holiday without dipping into quirk or parody. And the Barbary Coast? Why there, of all places, for the song’s setting? Somehow it comes together and works completely.
It’s almost impossible to know what Coyne and co. were getting at with the title of the record, and the artwork is equally impenetrable. Despite the chorus of “Hold Your Head” (“Hold your head, now it’s over”) suggesting otherwise, it seems like the band went with the alternate meaning of “commode” for the visual, as a brightly polka-dotted toilet seat fills the cover. Knowing what I know now about how weird and off-kilter The Flaming Lips are, I don’t ask questions, I just go with it. And the title, with its main words “Hit,” “Death,” “Future,” and “Head” appearing throughout the song cycle (I’m having a tough time pinpointing “Future,” although the concept is pretty abstract), it seems like they were simply content to string the words together to form some sort of obtuse thought. A thought involving a toilet. Hm. And still the band Futureheads cobbled their name together from this album. Whatever.
RIYL: Mercury Rev, Spaceman 3, The Meat Puppets