‘I don’t want them to go overboard with the lasers, the big hands and the hamsterball; I remember the simpler times when it was just a video screen… and a theremin… oh and a gong, fake blood, a glove puppet and a yellow jacket.’ I was only half joking.
Yes, 1st July was all about nostalgia (as Dave Rowlinson has already said) as we headed south-east to see the Flaming Lips perform their 1999 masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin. As part of the ATP ‘Don’t Look Back’ series, which invites bands to perform their classic albums, I’d been looking forward (or should that be backward?) to this performance through the romantic lens of my 18-year old self for quite some time. I was also intrigued about the opening performances: Deerhoof and Dinosaur Jr playing their albums Milk Man and Bug respectively.
The funny thing about gigs like this and a performance of the headline album in particular, for me anyway, is the weird interplay between past, present and future and whether expectations (or vain half-joked hopes) would be met. We kind of knew each setlist (I say ‘kind of’ because the UK version of the Soft Bulletin doesn’t actually reflect the band’s chosen tracklisting. It differed wildly from the US release and also from the vinyl release, the latter I think being closest to what the band wanted); but we didn’t know quite how faithful the performance would be to the album nor whether it would reflect more recent Lips gigs. Would Wayne talk a lot? Would there be time for an encore of songs from other albums?
It must have been an even weirder feeling for the performers. When most fans go to gigs, they want to hear the old favourites and it can be hard for bands that want to blaze new trails to find that balance. It must be worse when it comes to albums that are so beloved, so important and so defining that they seem not to belong to the band any more. I think Dinosaur Jr hinted at how surreal it was halfway through their set: ‘we’re starting side 2 now’. Deerhoof, who were a REVELATION, admitted that they’d underestimated how many people would turn up at 7pm to see them.
The venue added to the sense of conjunction. The Alexandra Palace is very Victorian; all symmetry and grandeur. The Great Hall is vast; its glass ceiling gave the gig an outdoor feel, and its two opposing circular stained glass windows and imposing organ told me the evening was going to be beautiful before it had even started. Imagine what it looked like once the Lips tour machine had done its work – balloons hanging on bungee rope, more balloons flying around, the enormous video screen… like some sort of cosmic artefact!
And Wayne, in his cute pre-set health and safety announcement (‘look after each other’) commented on how special but strange the event was. I understood why they didn’t play so many Soft Bulletin songs at their gigs; it’s a dark and intense album. Playing those songs must have started to drive them crazy. It’s no wonder that subsequent albums like At War With The Mystics (especially) seemed so unsubstantial by comparison.
The spectacle of the show was what we’ve come to expect of Lips shows and let’s face it, people would have been disappointed had it been any other way. Wayne did the hamster ball, whipping everyone up in its orbit; we got the lasers, the massive hands, the tickertape, balloons and dancers (this time dressed at Wizard of Oz characters). Was it over the top? Certainly. Did it detract? Absolutely not! I was captivated again!
The performance of those songs so cherished was utterly spellbinding, for the most part, and I’ve only two reservations. The first, Wayne talked far too much. The only ‘seamless’ transition was ‘What Is The Light’ into ‘The Observer’, which if you’ve heard them, is no surprise. No surprise either that the songs were punctuated by overlong chatter and crowd-rousing, but I just feel that if only a couple more songs been performed without break, the gig would have been even more satisfying. The second issue is that ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ was a colossal disappointment. Now maybe I’m not being fair, but I just can’t be rational about that song and you’ll just have to indulge me. But for me, they turned a heart-rending song into a bit of a karaoke piece – no drums, no bass (no video); just electric piano, which I could have coped with reluctantly were it not for Wayne’s haphazard delivery – elongated notes here and there. Milking it, basically. Though the sight of thousands of people, arms aloft, singing along was incredibly moving; I’m not totally made of stone.
But the rest of the show more than atoned! The crash into ‘Race For The Prize’ is always gratifying, its bewildering energy and the explosion of colour and sound that came with it might have made it better than any other time I’d seen it live. ‘Slow Motion’, not one of my favourites, benefited from being completely stripped down and ‘The Spark That Bled’ was as rousing as ever!
Andy had special praise for ‘What Is The Light / The Observer’, which were incredible, but for me, two songs especially stood out. ‘The Gash’ completely floored me; beautiful in a grotesque kind of way with a troubling video and a bridge that’s somehow uplifting (‘will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?’). Seriously, anyone who doesn’t punch the air to that is a bloody statue! And I can’t say much about ‘Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’ other than it was as gorgeous as ‘Waiting For A Superman’ should have been; it had me in tears. Honestly, it’s no wonder they don’t play these songs much nowadays.
Little wonder, too, that the evening didn’t end on the last track on the Soft Bulletin, the ponderous ‘Sleeping On The Roof’, but with a little bit of hope. We needed ‘Do You Realize??’ perhaps like Flaming Lips needed to make Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, the album it’s on. And it was utterly joyous! We needed to be accompanied out of the Alexandra Palace to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’. And that was serene.
In 2000, I was still affected by my first Flaming Lips gig for a long time after. A few months ago, I partly put that down to my youth. But every time I think about my night at Alexandra Palace, I feel those same things and the gig still stirs me. For a few hours, I felt my age, I felt older, I felt 18 again and younger still. And I can’t believe I was there!