Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips :: The Roundhouse, London, 21-5-13


The problem with employing gimmicks in live concert performance is that you can come to a point where they’re expected and can somewhat take over. This was the situation found in Camden last night. True, the Flaming Lips have plenty that are quite endearing. The introductory lecture, where Wayne Coyne ambles on stage without fanfare to cheers, comes before the show starts, which is supposed to set ‘I’m the rock star but I’m not making a big entrance, look, it’s me, tuning my own instruments!’ against a backdrop of ‘I’m just like you, and vice versa, so let’s have a chat before we play anything’. It immediately puts the artist and the audience on an equal footing, being talked to so directly, as is Wayne’s way. I find it rather charming. But then, once the music starts, I just want to hear it. Never has the phrase ‘would you just get on with it and play something’ been said telepathically by so many people in the same room before.

The gig the night before had been postponed, due to his croaky throat, for which one must make allowances, though I’ve always thought that gruffness in the delivery was part of the attraction. I’ve seen the Lips twice before: once in the Troxy Ballroom, a tiny art deco bingo hall, and again at Alexandra Palace, a cavernous near-arena with many thousands of people. On both of those occasions, Wayne and the rest (the musical driving force, the amazing Steven Drozd, and the insanely brilliant drummer Kliph Scurlock) showed a keen sense of how to raise an audience up and keep them high, figuratively, and in some cases literally, given the pot smoke that permeates all Lips gigs. But it wasn’t clear what the purpose of this show was. It’s near the beginning of the tour for their new record, The Terror, and so these songs are at the beginning of their lives.

I’m now just making excuses – the new material (when they finally got to it) sounded powerful, the band is fantastic, but the visuals have come to overshadow the music. This would be fine if songs came at you, consistently, and you could take yourself away on the air of it all. But the first 2/3 of this show was just plain terrible. It got going, then it stopped, a song was played at glacial pace, and then, even worse, in between every single song was a rambling tribute to the restorative and evangelical power of music. Look, this guy ain’t no Springsteen. He isn’t even Bono. I like a bit of onstage banter, but not to the point where it sucks the energy out of the room. It’s self-indulgent. People really have come to hear music. Not a lecture. The opening pre-gig speech, which usually takes the form of a ‘health and safety’ briefing, was jettisoned for a more serious subject. The recent tornado in Oklahoma, their home, was occupying their thoughts. People listened reverently to his heartfelt monologue about the desire to create something special out of something as unimportant as a rock show, compared to such tragedy. That was fine, of course it was. But, later on, once the gig had begun, must we really hear several minutes of pontificating before each song on the nature of ‘people who want to tell us how to live’? It was tedious. And then, came Race for the Prize. It started with a tease, or so I thought. Keyboards filled the room, he sang the first line, and everyone went mad. This gig was about to take off.

Then, he sang the entire first verse, like a ballad, then the chorus, and then the second verse, and the chorus again. It's a great song, but nobody was permitted to sing with him, it just wasn’t possible. Everyone was fidgety – when was this actually going to kick in? Both previous times I’d seen them live they’d started with it and the place bounced. After he had sang the song’s contents, and several minutes (that is a long time when you’re waiting for something) had passed, the full band kicked in and everyone was thrilled. They played two rounds of the pre-first verse music… and then it ended. What the fuck? I mean, if you’re Prince, and you have 30 hits, you can afford to throw away a few on a medley or a new arrangement. If you have 5 famous songs, tossing one off is utterly unforgivable.

And then, just at the point where I was feeling embarrassed that my cousin was with me, our first gig experience together, he says ‘This is a David Bowie song’ and my heart did a little jump. Heroes, it was. Someone should play it live! The crowd grabbed onto it like thirsty travellers in a desert coming across a waterfall. It kicked off properly, and it was wonderful. It soared. From then, the pace picked up and the between song chats lessened. It was disappointing that it had taken an hour for this gig to get off the ground. All We Have Is Now from Yoshimi was stunning, Riding to Work in the Year 2025 from Zaireeka was awesome and Do You Realize?? was beautiful, a mass sing-along (though I felt relieved at its brevity, as when they’d played it at Ally Pally it took an eternity to end; it was trapped in an endless, dreary Hey Jude-esque repetition of the chorus that went on for what seemed like hours). Finally, the connection between band and audience felt restored. Wayne, who has taken to standing on a plinth 20 feet high, and cradling a plastic baby, looked emotional and touched by the response. He should have realised earlier that we want to connect with him too. It’s not just one way. He talked at us about life and music and we cheered. But we needed a chance to feed back.

We know the Lips need an editor, though I do admire their conviction in simply putting out the sounds that feel good to them rather than thinking the conventional ‘we must put out The Soft Bulletin #2’. The gig ended on a nice high, though without Yoshimi or Fight Test. Throughout, it was a feast for the eyeballs, with a stage-wide LED screen, tendrils of vertical cables with white light rushing up them, and two songs with raining confetti. But this is the problem with gimmicks. They’ve paid so much attention to the visuals they forgot the crowd came to hear music as well. If you’re going to try out your new record do it in a tiny club. The Roundhouse holds thousands (and is considerably bigger than the Troxy, where they put on a fantastic show) and didn’t deserve to be treated like a testing ground. You’d think from his position atop the pedestal he’d have seen the audience, standing like statues, waiting for something joyful to happen. But then again, he literally put himself on it, and that’s a metaphor that says far too much about Wayne Coyne’s level of self-worship. He is never happier than when he’s hearing the sound of his own speaking voice, giving us all a lesson in ‘how to stick it to The Man’. I don’t mind at all the lack of the animal costumes and the absence of the famed big inflatable ball. But I do mind that a person who constantly cries out to be connected, who tells the audience what amazing people we are, and how we can all achieve something if we do it together, showed no ability to actually plug into what his audience wanted.

Heroes brought the whole place together and I couldn’t help think of what mythical Beatles-level adoration there is now for Bowie. It was the best moment of the night, for everyone. The Flaming Lips don’t have a song as good as that in their arsenal, but they do have several that can form an unbreakable bond between band and audience. The new album bargain is to be clever about your setlist, but also put in your best tunes, and play them properly. Next time, I hope they realise that’s what people were crying out for.

Look...The Sun Is Rising 
The Terror 
The W.A.N.D. 
Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast 
Silver Trembling Hands 
Try to Explain 
Race for the Prize 
Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die 
You Lust 
One More Robot 
Sympathy 3000-21 
Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now) 
Turning Violent 
Do You Realize?? 


All We Have Is Now 
Always There, In Our Hearts