01.) Turn It On * The Flaming Lips * Transmissions From The Satellite Heart
02.) Excerpt Part I * Ben Brooks * The First 50 Years of Radio Part One
03.) Edited Excerpts * Mike Staff * How To Become A Radio DJ
It’s easy to defend The Flaming Lips when they put out a great album, and have a hit song like, “Do You Realize?” and everyone is excited about festival concerts and the extreme production value they bring to their shows. But the cruel eye of hindsight is not so kind to them at times. While their output is treasured by hardcore fans, they become increasingly panned as the flops start to add up. This particular era of the band – we’ll call it the “Don’t Use Jelly” years – was not their strongest, to be perfectly frank. They had not yet written Clouds Taste Metallic, and where quite a long way off from The Soft Bulletin. In many ways they have become a bit of a cut-out-bin band, a novelty act that puts out Zaireeka (an album where you listen to all four discs simultaneously), or their absurd “7 Skies H3” (a 24 Hour Long Song), not to mention the song-for-song cover of Dark Side of The Moon, and “Christmas On Mars,” a holiday movie that is as inscrutable as it is terrifying. I can see why some people find them a problematic start to any story.
I don’t want to argue about their relevance or importance; I don’t want to claim that they are essential or a must for any smart psychedelic music fan; I don’t even want to convince you that you need to own or listen to anything else by them.
I just want to ask: have you ever heard anything as uplifting and strangely funny as “Turn It On” with these Mike Staff samples?
I gotta say, it’s better than it should be.
Now that you’re reconsidering The Flaming Lips, let’s get into it for a bit. I can’t change your mind, but they began to click for me when I had a better understanding when I considered the time and place. Mid-West in the early ’80’s, where the rules of punk rock were trying to set fire to the entire pre-history before The Ramones. Punk insisted that the bullshit excess of rock music from the ’60’s was completely valueless, and that only when we get loud and fast do we break out of the norms that had become “standard practice”. The past had nothing to teach us, and in the name of punk, we could only look forward to getting drunk and fucking shit up. The loudfastfuckyounow of punk awoke in their fans a rigidity of thought and uniform, behavior and musical ethos. Its narrowmindedness is often better summarized as a rejection of everything else rather than an articulate analysis of what they didn’t like about… well, anything.
The Flaming Lips understood that punk rock was due for an infusion of something new to save it: psychedelic rock. The story of punk had, ironically, been paved when rock & roll discovered psychedelia, spinning out of it a million permutations on a similar three-chord idea. Punk was a revolution, to be sure, but was insular and defined by negation, following a narrow aesthetic ideology. It had stagnated without anything new to expand it, and the fascistic denouement of all other things became a hinderance. The Flaming Lips never planned to create psychedelic punk per se, and even still, The Butthole Surfers beat them to the punch. But the Lips were such students of psychedelic rock and punk that their ideology was equally in those two worlds. In essence, the heart of the Flaming Lips is their curiosity about music in these varied forms and structures, and they have dedicated their lives to it.
Their early work borders on avant guarde, as the band is clearly still learning how to be a band. But after a handful of albums like this, a thread starts to emerge, and they get good at playing and writing songs. As the ’80’s closed, The Lips were a fairly strong band that could get a crowd, keep ’em, and put on a fun show the whole time. As the ’90’s began, they released records when everyone was watching for the next big alternative act. In the wake of this, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart hit stores, an album that not only summarized their sci-fi / earnest aesthetic in a nutshell, but wove a radio metaphor into the very fabric of their music, specifically the album opener, “Turn It On.”
If a mainstream band wore their heart on their sleeve more in the ’90s than The Lips, I’m hard pressed to name them at this time. “Put your life into a bubble / we can pick you up on radar / hit a satellite with feeling / Give the people what they paid for.” They have chosen this life, have dedicated themselves to being artists on display for us. We, as listeners, have a chance to pick up the signal they are sending, and fortunately for us they are the kind of band who will “hit” us with a feeling that is as real as possible. For the Lips, there is no better experience than that of celebration, or raising your voice to sing along to a song you hear on the radio, to Turn It On and On and WAY UP, and share that moment across the country at the same time and moment connecting us all in a positive expression of loving a simple rock and roll song.
How cool is that?
You can see that thread throughout all their work: this idea of sharing a celebratory feeling with a large number of people to create a magical moment, even a sad one, or a mundane one, and share that feeling through these transmissions, these records and songs The Lips have been making for almost 40 years now. Their perspective is so much a radio metaphor that, while it might seem crazy at first, they are the perfect band to kick off any story about radio.
This particular mix – with the Mike Staff Samples – comes from another audio essay I made in 2009, “A Sound Salvation.” I was rummaging through the library and came across this self-help tape by a NuRock style DJ, Mike Staff, who was going to reveal his tips for those who wanted to become successful professional DJs. This tape was perfect to mix with songs about radio and DJs, and the show wrote itself. While I don’t usually like to listen to individual songs from a show like this one (as I think the show works great as a whole), there is something about the way the mix during “Turn It On” worked that really sounds good to me. Mike Staff is over the top and full of himself, but his voice has that tone that makes you want to believe what he’s saying. And, for all his cheese, he makes a good point: Your Dream is Important to you, and can guide you if you will let it.