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THE FLAMING LIPS: With A Little Help From My Fwends
Revisiting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

   

CHICAGO, IL – The Flaming Lips took a crack at, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” last October. This is the Beatles signature psychedelic album and has been highly regarded as nothing short of a masterpiece. To attempt to redo it seems almost sacrilegious and even wrong. Other bands have played around with it and have had limited success. Cheap Trick even did a Sgt. Pepper’s overhaul but it was delivered almost intact with no radical departures from the narrative of the songs. The overall product was a loving tribute but nothing memorable. Wayne Coyne, (the main ringleader in the Flaming Lips) has pulled off something offbeat, whimsical and memorable.

I couldn’t wait for this to come out last fall. I got snippets of what to expect during last year’s Riot Fest music festival. Miley Cyrus appeared on one of the first released tracks, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and it is surprisingly brilliant. The initial gut reaction is, “Why? What is this going to sound like….?” And its incredible to listen to but I am getting way ahead of myself.

After the initial song leaks on Youtube I got sidetracked with the holiday season. In fact, in some ways I kind of forgot about this release. But I found this CD at Best Buy of all places and was reminded how curious I was about hearing the entire recording. So for the next two weeks it stayed in my car and I kept listening to it over and over again. I marveled at it’s brilliance and the delicate complexities that were included in every track.

This is a full take on, “Sgt. Pepper” and is done with some special guests such as Tegan and Sara, My Morning Jacket, the Electric Wurms, Spaceface and more.

TRACK ONE: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The crowd is missing from the cover of the album and they are missing from the opening track of the album. This is instant psychedelia and you are immediately sucked in. This is grandiose, lush, and colorful. The narrative of the song is here but it is delivered in multiple octaves. The tracks are sped up and overlap one another in some kind of weird techno bliss. You are in good hands but is difficult to really know where you are going.

TRACK TWO: With A Little Help From My Friends
We are joined with Black Pus and Autumn Defense. The song launches into an intro of the famed Billy Shears and he sounds tormented, stressed and crazed. I am reminded of Pink from Pink Floyd’s The Wall album. There is nothing beautiful about his voice or any hint of someone who is an audience favorite. There is a real contrast here from the original track delivered by Ringo. The interesting thing here is that The Flaming Lips kept the musical narrative  thin enough to carry the song. They left in some of the musical notes given from the fifth Beatle – producer George Martin.

TRACK THREE: Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
On the original album this track sucked me into the weirdness and psychedelic world of “Sgt. Pepper”. John Lennon’s lyrics are offbeat and flat out strange. They get stranger the more you contemplate them and what they mean. They carry very little meaning if you don’t dwell on them too hard and blow this off as a meaningless pop song. Miley Cyrus has a naivete in her voice that adds the right amount of childlike curiosity while adding dimension to the world we are about to enter. We see newspaper taxis and plasticine porters. The thought of clay people working on a train is just freaky with these new added audio sounds. The song picks up new weirdness. Wayne Coyne steps in for the chorus and it is some kind of nightmarish explosion in a diamond mine. It is a nuclear strike of light blinding brilliance. The song slows down again to let Mylie sing her part. Now we are nearing Rocking Horse people and it is sinking in how weird Lennon’s world really is. They are eating marshmellow pies. Ever stop and think about any of that? This track delves into the complexity of John Lennon’s lyrics while loud bombastic sound effects pick up Paul McCartney’s bass line while staying in key.

TRACK FOUR:  Getting Better
This track brings us back to Earth. The character in the song reminds me of Gene Ween but seriously lacks self confidence. The high pitch back up vocals follows the original harmonies of the album especially in the line, “It Can’t Get Much Worse……”. For me this song wasn’t really all that psychedelic but really talked about every day mundane life. I am not sure it really belongs on the album but I am sure the Beatles had a reason to include it.

TRACK FIVE:  She’s Leaving Home
This one is haunting and beautiful but carries a strong synth beat. The group Is backed up by Phantogram and adds dimension to the emptiness and sadness about a family that is falling apart. One of the most disturbing things about this song for me is I can never really tell what time period it was supposed to have taken place in? Why should that even matter though right? There is something more haunting to me if this song’s time period took place in the late 1800’s. I always imagined this taking place during the Victorian age for some reason. The sad event and the memories attached to it are trapped forever an in aging photograph. Maybe that photograph is found in a Goodwill at the bottom of a box of old books. The people connected to that photograph are long gone, dead, and not remembered.  The only that is left is just sadness and that is eternal.

TRACK SIX: Being The Benefit Of Mister Kite
This track is about some bizarre circus that took place in the 19th century from the great Pablo Fanque. Producer George Martin once said he wanted the listeners to be able to, “Smell the sawdust off  the floor” when listening to it. He also instructed his sound engineer to chop up the tape of the Hammond organ sounds and throw them up in the air only to reassemble them later. The end result was haunting and bizarre. As a teen I was further freaked out by connecting this particular track to David Lynch’s, “Elephant Man” film. I happened to have this album playing in the dark while lying on the couch. I was too traumatized to get up and turn the lights on.  This track picks up on some of the weirdness of that circus vibe. But it lacks that ingenuity in the middle with the chimes and is replaced with odd bits of laughter. The message still has a perversion to it that is unmistakable.

TRACK SEVEN:  Within You Without You
Here is George Harrison’s question and answer session about the Universe. Only this time it is delivered by a high pitched almost angelic like diva. The concepts of this song cannot be overlooked. They ring more true now in this era of New Age. Jim Morrison maybe said it best with, “How many of you people really know you’re alive?”.  People gain the world and lose their soul doing so. The woman in the songs asks if you are one of those people? We are reminded again that change begins with us and life flow in us and without us. Now as a kid I blew this one off big time because it sounded so foreign and I had no idea what he was babbling about. There is another Beatle version of this with a laugh track that appears on, “Beatles Anthology 2”. Surprisingly Flaming Lips followed the musical narrative of the sitars on this one with very little change.

TRACK EIGHT:  When I’m Sixty Four
This whimsical song lifts the album up and it’s placement right after the George Harrison number is critical. It is a cute and harmless look into the future. But here the song is kind of dark and depressing. The tone is that of dread. The idea of actually getting older with someone who thinks very little of you is very haunting. Wayne Coyne asks, ”If I stayed out to quarter to 3 – would you lock the door?”.  I am quite sure the answer is going to be a unanimous, “YES !!!!”. The tone is dreary. So when asked, “Will you still feed me, will you still need me…. When I’m sixty four.”  The answer will most likely be, “probably not.”

TRACK NINE: Lovely Rita
Tegan and Sara bring us into an interesting chapter of city life and the animated character that is lovely Rita. There is hope in this track and it deals with a crush. The keyboard in this song carries the songs musical narrative and transitions nicely. Then the song gets into an abstract jam with synth sounds, and machine like noises and overdubbed yodeling. It appears clumsy at first but it soon grows interesting and this should have been extended.

TRACK TEN:  Good Morning Good Morning
Beatles producer George Martin was once asked what he was most proud of in his career. He responded that it was the time when he turned a chicken into a guitar. I knew immediately what he was talking about and what track he was referring to and I laughed to myself. What an answer. You will recognize this song for what it is. The lead vocals has so much echo and dub on it that it sounds like a one man orchestra. I am reminded of the old, “Tracey Ullman Show” intro theme song to some extent.

TRACK ELEVEN: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
The track here is uplifting and has a festive like mood to it. The keyboards create an intricate sound while the  percussion helps steer it into a mixed tempo. It lasts long so you can enjoy it for what it is. This ties the entire album together and sounds very little like the Beatles version the longer it continues.

TRACK TWELVE: A Day In The Life
This song is beautiful and has the essential piano minus Ringo’s drum crashes. We go into a heartbeat type of beat along with more synth. Mylie Cyrus and New Fumes come in and carry the song through the busy day story line. I only have one minor complaint here about this track. I am missing the George Martin enhanced, “End of the World sound” that brings the song to its climatic end. Those were his exact words. He wanted a catastrophic sound that would be definitive and it is supposed to happen two times in this track only here it doesn’t. But Mylie makes up for it with her Lennon-esque acapella and it transcends the song into a dreamlike state. The song and album needs that deliberate sound instead of the abrupt ending. I miss that sound. I wanted to hear something as big as the audio explosion in track 3.

IN CLOSING:  Because of the way this album ended I find myself wanting more. So I return back to track 1 and start it all over again. I found myself doing this for Pink Floyd’s The Wall album too. Was that the real intention here I wonder? Is it to keep us on this endless loop and to revisit the album over and over again. Is this Wayne Coyne’s little joke? Does he want to embed this music into our subconscious? And not that it’s a bad thing to consider because this is a GREAT album. This album reached out to me and I felt that it invited me for more listenings and I couldn’t say no.

 

     
   
   

 

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“A VISUAL ASSAULT: REM Dissected Scene By Scene

The bottom video was shot in 1989 and is the closest thing I could find to what the original show opener was like in 1987. This was a departure for REM as much as it was for the audience. Just when you thought you knew the band they changed on you in a new and exciting way. It would take some time to recognize them once again. In the case of, “Document” the album had to grow on me. I noticed this sort of thing happening with the Smiths too.

There was one sequence in the video, not shown in this edition, when the words – “Want” and “Need” come on screen. The words flipped interchangeably and morphed into a strobe that said, “Need Weed” and I remember the crowd going a bit wild over that. This was Ann Arbor after all. There is some talk about the set list being accurate. I do not believe, “Orange Crush” or “Pop Song 89” was performed in 1987. Those songs were released after REM went to Warner Brothers. “Document” was the last album created under the I.R.S. Records label.

There is another version of, “The One I Love” done on the live tour. Stipe starts out with a slow intro and for a minute I thought the whole song would be done slow. It then kicks into the tempo we all know. The stage was also bathed in an eerie red light. How this song got perceived as a love song I’ll never know. It was about a sick love obsession.

Over the years I hear the young kids go, “Oh who cares about that stuff, REM was long before my time.” Trust me, you wish you were there. This show was nothing but historic.

 
 
 
 
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