20 Years Ago: The Flaming Lips Release the Intricate, Shimmering ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’
"Are these still the Flaming Lips I love?"
That question might have crossed your mind a couple of weeks ago, as you watched Wayne Coyne fire a confetti canon from between Miley Cyrus' legs. It was a question plenty of Lips fans asked themselves last year when the band put out With a Little Help From My Fwends, a tedious and too-obvious song-for-song tribute to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band featuring My Morning Jacket, Moby and, yes, Miley Cyrus. It was also a question they asked themselves in 2009, when the band released Embryonic, a dark left turn from the wide-eyed metachromatic pop the band had specialized in for the previous 10 years.
And it was most certainly a question fans asked when the band released The Soft Bulletin in 1999 – the album where they officially ceased to be a rock band and gave themselves over to sparkly, synthetic psychedelia.
The downside for fans of bands that move onto new sounds is that those can seem to lose a measure of their artistic purity; the upside is that every new record is a surprise. That confusion is a core part of being a Flaming Lips fan. Certainly, fans were asking themselves what to make of the band's decisions in 1995 – the year Clouds Taste Metallic came out. The sounds on the record (released 20 years ago tomorrow) were more melody-focused, more trimmed down and most significantly, more radio friendly than anything they'd done before. 1995 was also the year the band, which had exemplified the punk rock ethos in just about every way in their early days, played their novelty hit "She Don't Use Jelly" on Beverly Hills, 90210 and contributed a song to one of the worst superhero movies ever.
But the core ethos of the Flaming Lips was the same in 1995 as it was in 1986, just as it's the same now: Wayne Coyne – the band's founder and leader – is an eccentric workaholic driven to make things and a bandleader with the enviable power to get strange and talented musicians to collaborate with him. Because of the artists Coyne has enlisted for that mission (and because Coyne's work ethic has never let up) the Flaming Lips have continued to be a morphing, shifting thing – and one of the few bands of this or any era that can rightly came to be utterly unique. Note for note, song for song, Clouds Taste Metallic – one of the Flaming Lips best and most overlooked albums – is a record unlike anything else in the band's catalog and, in that way (more than any other) it's a true Lips record through and through.
Clouds Taste Metallic was the product of five or so years of relative turmoil for the Flaming Lips. Originally founded in 1983 by Coyne and his brother Mark, the band had, by 1986, developed a noisy-yet-tuneful country punk sound that could, on a dime, spread out for an 8 minute jam. They sang songs called "The Ceiling is Bendin'" and "Hell's Angel's Cracker Factory." Critic and Flaming Lips biographer Jim DeRogatis called them "the Replacements on acid."
The band reached their initial peak in 1990 with In a Priest Driven Ambulance, featuring Mercury Rev founder Jonathan Donahue on guitar. Donahue was Coyne's first real creative foil, and together they created the Lips' most captivating album to date – a record infused with the grit of grunge but with an ear for bubblegum pop like Dinosaur Jr. but less stoned and with pretty harmonies. The record was good enough to get the band signed to Warner Bros., but Donahue quit the band to focus on the Mercury Rev just a year later. Drummer Nathan Roberts soon followed suit.
Coyne didn't waste time bringing in fresh blood, and it was this version of the band that recored 1993's Transmissions From the Satellite Heart – the album that truly set the stage for Clouds Taste Metallic. The newbies were guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd, and both were worthy Coyne collaborators. The Flaming Lips built up a revised sound around Jones' microtonal, almost avant guitar sounds, which complemented Coyne's tone-agnostic vocals and Drozd's carpet bomb drumming. The lead single from Transmissions -- the runaway novelty hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," was powered by a sublime combination of the three. Critics dug the record, too. "With Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, the Flaming Lips join the ranks of rock 'n' roll's most endearing eccentrics," Rolling Stone trumpeted. Once it came out, Coyne – in typical taskmaster fashion – led the band on a three-year tour to support it. Teen soap and superhero flick cameos ensued.
Warner Bros. was happy the Lips had a hit and impressed by the band's willingness to tour nonstop and shill in Hollywood. The label supported the recording sessions for Clouds Taste Metallic by letting the band hole up in Oklahoma City and toy around like mad scientists. "The studio was a hodgepodge of every instrument imaginable," recalled DeRogatis, who sat in on some of the sessions. Jones tinkered with homemade effects pedals; Drozd plinked on a glockenspiel and an upright piano; Coyne intoned fake radio announcements into a mic.
Producer Dave Fridmann sat in the booth, gently guiding the sessions. Meanwhile, Coyne was a more vocal manager, keeping the band in the studio long hours and pushing Jones and Drozd near their breaking points.
The album the band delivered in September of 1995 was a refinement of all the music they'd made in the previous 10 years -- the apoeothesis of a style they'd invented and developed from shards of Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin. The lead track, "The Abandoned Hospital Ship," lays out a theme of the record. "Sure, it seems easy now but I tell you what / We were perplexed, finding the needle / In the needle's disguise," Coyne sings. It's a song about artifice, about making things for the sake of it. Meanwhile, the music felt like a demolition – Drozd's drums shuddered like a buckling brick wall and Jones' slide melody picked its way over the debris. Together, it elucidated the album's (and the band's) core philosophy of growth via destruction.
In some places, the album sets a template for the aspirational comic book melodrama concepts The Soft Bulletin would explore four years later. In "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World," Coyne sings, "He's on the way to a real first in all the universe yeah, yeah / He saves the day and the world knows, the sonic boom explodes" and it feels like a warm up for "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1." Elsewhere, Coyne's lyrics are more like images on a poser than words on a tract -- they're mental amusement park rides that don't communicate much but are fun to watch unfold like taking a peek at someone else's dreams. "Kim's Watermelon Gun" and "Lightning Strikes the Postman" elaborate on their surreal titles and not much else. "Psychiatric Exploration of the Fetus With Needles" is a nonsense song and also the catchiest the band had ever written.
The rest of the songs are dark -- darker than anything the band would explore on the records to follow. "Evil Will Prevail" -- which begins with a pretty, off-kilter Jones guitar line -- is about the crushing cruelty of the universe. "Bad Days," which sounds like it could soundtrack a demented carousel ride, implores the dead-ended multitudes to sleep more, so they can escape real life and murder their bosses in their dreams. And finally, this line from Placebo Headwound: "And if God hears all my questions / Well how come there's never an answer?”
It's the contradictions baked into the album that make it such an enduringly intriguing listen: The balance between its strange timber and radio-ready melodicism; the tension between the surreal images and sincere moments; Coyne's dilemma of optimistic and pessimistic impulses. It's the first Flaming Lips record to embody all of these things and so concisely, at that. Futher, it's completely alien to the world of face-bashing acid jams they orchestrated years before.
As is often the case with difficult albums, sales were slow – Clouds Taste Metallic didn't chart at all in the U.S. Critics liked the album, though the surprise of the band's weirdo sound had worn off a bit. Warner Bros. let the band stay regardless (and anyway, Coyne hadn't even really begun testing their patience). But in the long run, the most important long-term outcome of the album's production was where it led the band next. Certainly, some moments presage the sonic maximalism of The Soft Bulletin, especially the breezy bash of When You Smile.
But it had another indirect effect on the evolution of the band: After five years in the band, Ronald Jones announced he was leaving toward the end of 1996. His departure has been variously attributed to Coyne's unrelenting work schedule, Drozd's worsening heroin addiction, and Jones' own quest for spiritual enlightenment. Whatever it was, it robbed the band of one of its major voices, and forced them to make do without him. They plunged head first into the creative unknown. Just as their fans were becoming used to this version of the Flaming Lips, they set off to become something else.
There is an interesting footnote to the Clouds Taste Metallic story: Earlier this year, on Feb. 24 – around the same time Coyne was recording Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz – the band played Clouds Taste Metallic in its entirety at a tour stop in Minneapolis, celebrating- the 20th anniversary of the album. The performance was given the full 2015 treatment, albeit a small-room version, complete with convetti canons, ropes of LED lights and the hamster ball. At the show, Coyne announced the band was making a documentary about the album.
Bands revisit classic albums all the time – sometimes to beautiful effect – but it doesn't work conceptually for every artist. (Can you imagine On the Corner-era Miles Davis doing Kind of Blue live?) It's not a particularly Lipsian thing, to dwell on the past this way, especially when it means going back at least two versions of the band. No -- it's better that the band focus on making new records to worry over.