Quarantining the Past is a new on-going column at Prefix Magazine where we’ll discuss albums from the ’90s. Records that were important to the decade, albums we overlooked, albums by important bands that don’t get talked about enough, albums that get better with age and those that time has been unkind to — we’ll talk about them all, with a new album featured every week. Got an album from the ’90s you want highlighted? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share your thoughts on the featured album each week.
Up this week: Flaming Lips’ Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
Such is the fate of the Flaming Lips and frontman Wayne Coyne. They are, as they have always been, an exciting and unique live act, creating one of the great oddball rock spectacles going. But if you want to see them at their kooky best, we need to go back 18 years to 1993, when they released their second major-label record, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.
This was the best incantation of the Flaming Lips as a rock band. And here’s where you ask “What about The Soft Bulletin? Are you trying to deny it as a perfect example of pop genius?” Well, no, I’m not. Not exactly. That album, a landmark pop record to be sure, is a totally different thing. In fact, as good as it is, it set the Lips off on a bombastic, otherworldly path that has morphed their homespun oddness into something a bit more forced. The Soft Bulletin was (and is) great, but consider this: The band had to pre-record parts for the tour. It was a sound that couldn’t be replicated in the real world. It was this beautiful alien thing.
Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is a rock album, one that digs its heels in with fuzzy riffs and crashing drums. If its idiosyncratic and strange (and it is) that oddness occurs more organically. Part of it rises out of the Flaming Lips being a major-label curiosity. Surely benefitting from a post-Nevermind landscape in the record industry, the band signed to Warner Bros. and release Hit to Death in the Future Head in 1992. It was a record that tightened up all the tangents they explored in the ’80s — when their sound was swung between the jangle of R.E.M. and the twitchy edge of the Feelies.
But Transmissions upped the ante without sacrificing personality. Opener “Turn it On” is such an honest, plainspoken plea. “If you ain’t got no relation, to all those other stations, turn it on,” Coyne pleas, his nasal bleat now perfected. It ends up being a timely song, for sure, since by 1993 the window for major alt-rock exposure was already starting to shrink. The Lips would get solid attention for Clouds Taste Metallic in 1995, but the rest of the decade was a series of major-label fads, from swing to rock-rap to boy bands to quasi-pop-punk and so on and so forth. So Transmissions exists in this strange space in the music industry when they were (sort of) backing bands that could be strange on their own terms and not get dropped by the label immediately if they didn’t go gold in a month.
Beyond historical context, though, Transmissions is also an undeniably strong set of songs. If every record since The Soft Bulletin has been about Dave Fridmann’s production and Coyne’s studio layering, this record is about how good a band they were. Ronald Jones’s guitar work is unruly but brilliant, melodic but often with a thick, psych-rock heft. Steve Drozd’s drumming is, as always, arena-huge, and Coyne’s role as the quirky master of ceremonies has just enough control to it. The songs come first, and though each one is strong, the shifts from track to track are often surprising. “She Don’t Use Jelly” shifts into the childlike folk of “Chewin the Apple of Your Eye,” but that sweetness is crushed under the opening riff to “Superhumans.” “Turn it On” for all its straight ahead hooks, ends in squalls of distortion and feedback, turning that knob to something new, something out of order.
The songs are plenty odd and Coyne has his share of stoner wanderings. He compliments the girl at the focus of “Pilot Can at the Queer of God” by claiming she’s from outer space. “Be My Head” is an honest request, because he’s “ruined this one.” In “Chewin the Apple of Your Eye,” he sings (metaphorically) about getting lost at the circus, and how it leaves him “happy but nervous.” In all these moments, and plenty others, Coyne’s charming combination of innocent wonder and stoner meandering works well. It provides the songs with humor and compelling imagery, even if it doesn’t always seem to make sense.
That last part, that lack of sense, explains why “She Don’t Use Jelly” became the big single. The video did pop up on Beavis and Butthead, among other places, but it caught on modestly because it’s an oddity that is much easier to grasp than the rest of the record. But even on that heavy-handed song (and the “Plastic Jesus” cover, which surely feels out of place) the strangeness of the record feels natural, not at all self-conscious.
The Flaming Lips now seem far more self-aware in their strangeness, like they’ve established this weirdo brand and they have to keep it going. It’s all very image savvy. That’s not to say they don’t mean it, or that it doesn’t make for entertaining performances, but next to the odd turns of phrase and imagery in Transmissions, new eccentricities like music housed in gummy skulls feels way overworked. Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is the sound of the Flaming Lips when no one seems to be looking. The band has spent the last 14 years — since the 4-disc mess that is Zaireeka — stretching boundaries, in the studio and on tour. But Transmissions exists inside recognizable rock music structures. There are flourishes, but this is mostly two guitars, bass, drums, and a hell of a collection of songs. It’s important to note that Fridmann played no part in this record, so his sonic swells are absent and the songs are more powerful for it. The album exists because of its sonic restraints, not in spite of them, and it proves it’s much harder to build sturdy walls than it is to just knock them down and spread out.
The Flaming Lips are one of the great pop acts of the last 20 years, and while it’s fun to watch them roll over their crowds in huge spheres, or assault us with towering, thickly layered psych records, they were at their best (and their most effectively strange) when they were just a rock band from Oklahoma. Before weird got so damn normal.