The Flaming Lips/
[The Mail On Sunday, 2003]
THE FLAMING LIPS
THE ESSENTIAL BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
DYLAN HAD Donovan. U2 had Simple Minds. Britney Spears has Christina Aguilera. Wherever they crouch on the food chain, great fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite 'em.
Britney's primacy over Christina came about through luck and timing rather than any intrinsic merit. Both ex-Mouseketeers are blank outlines, distinguished by the draughtsmanship of those who colour them in. Initially Britney got the better writers, producers and stylists, which left Christina playing catch-up, and generally looking a bit desperate.
The pair remind me of rival ice skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. One a twinkletoed princess, serene in her own seemingly effortless success; the other, a tarty, hard-faced hustler. Granted, nobody's tried to nobble Britney's knees with a tyre iron. Yet.
But let's not forget - trashy Tonya could really skate. And Christina can really sing. The girl has quite a set of tonsils on her, and if she thought it would help sell records, she'd show them to you, naked and vibrating. Meanwhile, Britney's once flawless veneer is chipping - witness the fearful scrabbling for attention, the misjudged overexposure of flesh. It's coming down to brass tacks now. And as her live show demonstrates, nobody beats Christina for brass. Or, come to that, for bras.
Both women venerate the original bra-queen, Madonna, undisputed champion of making a little go a very long way. Madonna's genius (and it is genius) isn't musical, it's commercial. She is product, saleswoman and CEO all at once. Her 1993 Girlie Show tour is evidently the model for Aguilera's act, which delivers the same workrate - pound for pound, this tiny trouper may the hardest grafter in showbiz - but none of the panache.
You don't fill Wembley Arena without being tough and professional, and Aguilera certainly is that, writhing and flailing with the cold-blooded detachment of the table dancer she so closely resembles. Hers must be the least appetising buttock display this side of the mandrill family. Like R Kelly, I don't see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind. But I didn't expect Aguilera's performance to be quite so hollow and mechanical, to have such an air of, “Hey! I'm workin' here.”
This is a soulless blockbuster of an arena gig: an onslaught of noise, action and pyrotechnics, devoid of imagination or surprises. Apart from the moment when they wheel in Aguilera spreadeagled on Professor Branestawm's flaming tricycle. I'll admit I never saw that one coming.
Oklahoma's The Flaming Lips are one of those invigorating oddball bands (see also Pulp) that you cherish for years without the slightest hope that the world at large will ever share your enthusiasm. Then you're proved exhilaratingly wrong. The world is so keen to nuzzle up to The Flaming Lips, it's suffering rug burn from frontman Wayne Coyne's beard.
A compilation of early Lips recordings was titled Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, which sums up their origins exactly. The key moment in their evolution came with a cover of Neil Young's After The Gold Rush; that unique combination of plaintive, cracked rootsiness and eerie Ray Bradbury-style sci-fi has underpinned their output ever since.
To Young's template, they have added a fixation with insects, eggs and aliens, along with elements from Japanese monster movies and the dubbier end of club music. They now rank among the finest psychedelic bands ever to plant their melting footprints upon the face of God's polka dotted Earth.
Tonight's performance calls to mind a toddler's birthday do staged by Colonel Kurtz. Outsize multi-hued balloons. Bouncing inflatable suns. Back-projected war atrocities. Two dozen giant furry cartoon mascots equipped with searchlights. Beautiful, intensely strange music full of joy and delirium. The whole dazzling shambles, marshalled by the amiably demented Coyne, may well offer the most fun you can have at a rock show right now.
A decent Bruce Springsteen retrospective was due. 1995's Greatest Hits skewed in favour of his latest and least impressive work. The Essential Bruce Springsteen redresses the balance a bit. It includes some marvellous pre-Born To Run tracks, and takes in his recent return to form.
Inevitably, you find yourself disagreeing with the compilers, missing your personal favourites and begrudging the presence of such epic bores as Rosalita and Human Touch. Justice can't be done to Springsteen's repertoire across just two discs, but this is a fair effort.
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