Rock-N-Reads: “Staring At Sound”

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I found the ‘official’ Flaming Lips bio, called “Staring At Sound” in a charity shop for £3. I couldn’t pass it up at that price and I’d meant to buy it when it was first published in 2006.

Written by Jim DeRogatis, it traces the band’s history from their childhood days up to the making of their (then new) record “At War With The Mystics”. I also own DeRogatis’s history of psychedelic rock, called “Turn On Your Mind: Four Decades Of Psychedelic Rock” (previously published as “Kaleidoscope Eyes” in 1996). I quite like “Turn On Your Mind”, even though, to me, he misses out some pretty important bands. I suppose that is to be expected with any book attempting to cover an entire genre in just a few hundred pages.

Featured in a chapter of “Kaleidoscope Eyes” and updated in “Turn On Your Mind..” were The Flaming Lips – who DeRogatis cited as one of the more important psych guitar bands of the 1990s (along with Anglo-Irish ‘shoegazers’, My Bloody Valentine). He was able to hang out during the recording of their 1995 release, “Clouds Taste Metallic” and used that as some of the chapter in the book. I suppose after that and some more meetings with The Lips and their spaced-cowboy Okie leader, Wayne Coyne, over the next five or six years led him to expand it into a whole book about the band.

The chapters in “Staring…” are based around the group’s record releases, so you get the atmosphere of what was happening, tour-wise and studio-craft. I found the earlier years of The Lips more of a revelation than the post-“Soft Bulletin” era, simply because there seem to have been very few interviews from around then (unless you were hip to small ‘zines in the late 1980s that may have had pieces about The Lips). The author did a fine job rounding up ex-members of the band and letting them have a say – particularly former drummers Richard English and Nathan Roberts. Tellingly, Ronald Jones, the guitar wunderkind who joined just in time to help kick-start The Lips again in 1993, refused to be interviewed. He’s portrayed as an uber-sensitive soul who had a spiritual discovery while on the Lollapalooza tour in 1994 and subsequently left the group soon after the release of “Clouds Taste Metallic”.

DeRogatis doesn’t shy away from most subjects – Steven Drozd, the drummer/multi-instrumentalist who’s been with the group the longest, besides Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins, had drug and drink troubles in the late 90s/early 2000s and nearly left The Lips a few times. Coyne’s jealous streaks and control-freak nature are also given a public airing – particularly concerning his former girlfriend/band manager Michelle Vlasminsky. The group’s spats with producer/engineer Keith Cleversley, who’s portrayed as arrogant and fomenting tension between the band members, are another example of the bad times…as is the 2002 tour with Beck.

Through it all, though, you can’t help but admire their persistence and positive attitude. At each dip, they somehow manage to pull themselves out of it and start a new phase – such as in 1989, when Jonathan Donahue (who brought his own Lips-ian flair to his own group, Mercury Rev) joined and from their non-stop jamming, the guitar-skronk classic, “In A Priest Driven Ambulance” album was realised. They did it again after Jones left. Trimmed down to a trio (which they essentially remained since), Coyne got the idea for the “Boom-Box Orchestra” shows, which led to the 4-disc album “Zaireeka“, released in 1997. They then hit super-stardom with the “Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” records, released in 1999 and 2002, respectively. A few massive tours and four years later, “At War With The Mystics” was finally completed. The book ends with the band in the studio, recording that very album.

Though more detail could’ve been used for the later sections of the book, I’d recommend “Staring At Sound” for the Lips novice, though the hardcore devotees will probably find out things about the band they didn’t know either – unless they’re personal friends of the individual Lips.

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3 responses »

  1. A-ha! I bought this book when it was in a Waterstone’s sale about three or four years ago and never read it. Its since found its way to the charity shop. Thanks for reading it for me, sir! I’ll admit that I find it hard to get as enthusiastic about the Lips as I used to but that’s not to say that I don’t still love that core of albums from ‘Clouds’ up to and including ‘Yoshimi’ For me, in recent years, old Wayne and pals have started to sound like they are trying too hard to be ‘The Flaming Lips’ – all goofy and experimental all at the same time. Rather than making their version of ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ or that recent album with all those guests with some horribly naff title, I’d rather they concentrated on what they are good at. I thought ‘Embryonic’ was an improvement on ‘Mystics’ so when are they going to get back to that kind of thing? It’s probably me and not them but there are only so many dancing animals, inflatable balls and confetti cannons that one can be impressed by. Oh, God! I’ve become so bloody cynical!

  2. Ha Ha Ha! No worries, Bear. It’s a good book and a generally quick read. I know what you mean – I don’t like them quite as much as I used to, t.b.h.

    I still love a lot of the records, but lately they do seem to be in, not necessarily a rut, but more a furrow of their own making. The “D.S.O.T.M.” album seemed like a vanity project and some of the 2011 EP material smacks of self-indulgence that might make E.L.P. blush. I’m also getting a bit tired of Wayne’s beefs with other front-men. I realise he’s trying to point out ‘rock-star’ attitudes in others – but at the same time it seems like blatant publicity-mongering.

    Ah well – despite all that, I still like ’em and they’ve made some incredible records. It’ll be interesting to see if they can re-invent themselves yet again.

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