It was a miserable night in June and I was feeling grumpy as hell as I wandered down the hill through thin sheets of rain, getting soaked for the second time that day. Reaching deep inside myself I tried to gather the requisite enthusiasm for The Flaming Lips show I was about to see, but it just wasn’t there. I wandered through the doors as the clock was striking nine and in the time it took me to shuffle into a decent position in the stalls, Wayne Coyne had somehow managed to emerge onto the stage without causing a spectacle! It was surreal as hell, as he thanked the small crew of devotees who had given him the screaming recognition he deserves. The house lights were still up and everyone – from the crowd to the crew to the musicians on stage – seemed a little thrown by their sudden, inconspicuous arrival.
Coyne took a few moments to explain that, with the heightened security at the moment they had forgone the usual inclusion of a support band and were going to launch straight into their set. Then, with a teasingly extended intro built up through enticed roars from the crowd, they launched into ‘Race For The Prize’ swiftly followed by ‘Yoshimi Battle the Pink Robots Part 1’ – arguably the two best known Flaming Lips songs, easily two of my favourites. As the drums kicked in and Coyne fired a confetti cannon to the onion-domed ceiling the place erupted with more confetti than I’d ever seen falling down upon us and an army of giant balloons unleashed into the crowd. They began the show with the kind of spectacle most bands dream of being able to reach to end one. The sensation of all these tiny pieces of tissue falling on you is really rather pleasant, if you’ve never felt it before – it’s a bit like being tickled by hundreds of tiny faeries. Then there’s the balloons: if anything is going to put you into a childlike state of wonder it’s being invited to play with giant balloons and scream your heart out. Suffice to say the doom and gloom of my rain-soaked afternoon were swiftly banished.
Soon after this monumentous opening there was a little hush as Coyne disappeared, only to emerge a few feet away from me to mount a life-size neon unicorn I had somehow failed to spot on my way in. The band proceeded to perform ‘There Should Be Unicorns’, the first track of the night from their latest album Oczy Mlody, while Coyne was led around the auditorium by the reins of his unicorn. I began to wonder how the band were going to keep up the momentum after such an amazing beginning to the set, but I needn’t have worried. While there tended to be a little lull between each song, as the band adjusted their instrumentation, the stage crew wheeled in another ridiculous prop, or Coyne disappeared for another costume change, it never held things back to the point it lost the crowd.
The set lent heavily on three key albums from their career: The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and At War With The Mystics. As I’d predicted in my album review, the songs they played from Oczy Mlody felt right at home amongst these melodic peaks from their back catalogue. In particular ‘How??’ featured a phenomenal vocal performance from Coyne, who sometimes gets a bit of stick for his voice being a little thin and reedy. His soaring vocals on ‘How??’ actually blew me away, far exceeding my expectations of what he was capable of, beating the album version for me.
Early in the set Coyne told us we were one of the loudest crowds they’d ever played to, which seemed absurd at the time (I’d hardly begun to holler yet). Still, by the time he returned from his journey across the crowd in a giant inflatable bubble whilst performing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ we started to believe it was true. At least, the more Coyne and Steven Drozd told us we were “Soooo loud”, the louder we collectively became. Having played ‘Space Oddity’, Coyne told us a long anecdote about how they had come about playing that song, going through a bit of a journey in trying to decide whether to continue performing it or not. Ultimately they decided they had to keep it in the show, and now Coyne feels every musician out there should find one of Bowie’s songs to perform and make their own, so his legacy lives on. It was a touching speech, and all the more so for the fact it felt totally unplanned, leaving several of his bandmates looking somewhat bemused. That’s one of the great things about The Flaming Lips’ live show, for all of the carefully orchestrated stunts and props it still doesn’t feel like it’s a polished, choreographed performance that will be exactly the same, no matter where you see it. Something you might expect from arena pop giants like Katy Perry or U2. There’s still a shonky, making-it-up-as-we-go-along feel to it – it is genuine organised chaos that is a true joy to behold.
The final encores of ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ and ‘Do You Realize??’ brought the show home in suitably glorious fashion, with more silvery confetti falling from the ceiling for the finale. But there were gems aplenty in the middle of the show too – songs I hadn’t listened to for years and had slightly overlooked at the time became gloriously full-bodied for the live show. ‘Are You A Hypnotist??’ was brilliant, the band’s double drummer set-up really coming into its own, with kick-ass break-beats that suddenly pushed their way through to the front of the mix, where often the band choose to hold the drumming back for their crescendos. Also ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ bares a mention as the perfect slice of summery pop, cleverly hiding its dark lyrics – something the band do so well. Hearing the lines: “If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch/ Would you do it?/If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich/ Would you do it?” while neon signs instruct you to sing-along to the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ responses is pretty fun, whilst posing a very serious question about the corrupting influence of power.
A friend told me he’d been a little disappointed by The Flaming Lips show he’d seen at the Dome a few years back, where they just played their dark broody new material, swapping the bright colours for a dark intensity. I was kind of expecting to get a similar experience, so I felt really lucky to have caught them in full-on psychedelic-pop circus mode, playing their biggest and best-known songs, and, in doing so, showing just how good the material from Oczy Mlody really is. It’s a night I won’t be forgetting any time soon!