The Flaming Lips' "overnight success" can be easily divided into three eras: the drug years, the pop years and the symphonic years. Every era claims its share of die-hards (and overlap), yet the Lips seem to have maintained their longevity by making sure that each chapter is, if not a literal improvement over the last, then at least a progressive enough divergence to make the former seem like a lark and to make each batch of new fans feel like they were the first to discover this "underground" phenomenon.
With recent reissues chronicling the drug years (1983-1991), those fans lured by the recent symphonic years (from 1999's "The Soft Bulletin" to today) may be a bit put off by the Lips' early, feedback-drenched psyche assaults. Spanning two releases and five discs -- "Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid: 1983-1988," a chunky triple set; "The Day They Shot a Hole in the Jesus Egg: 1989-1991," a tidy double -- the 89 tracks compiled here show a band both formative and exploratory.
The progression in sound is sometimes grueling to endure and the band's arrival at a unique and engaging sound (with the pathos-drenched psychedelia of 1988's "Telepathic Surgery") is as much a relief as it is a revelation. The path revealed on the discs is littered with a complex, mixed bag of tracks: occasionally awesome album cuts like the stoner classic "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond"; album tracks that sound like sketchy demos; completely mind-blowing live tracks from the era of legendarily loud Lips shows that were painfully hallucinogenic; and the compelling nonalbum selections that flesh out the set.
Of course, it wasn't until 1990 that the band truly created a masterpiece, in the form of "In a Priest Driven Ambulance." Sonically rich with thickly assaultive multitracking (courtesy of then-new producer Dave Fridmann) and a blanket of echo-chamber distortion, the Lips staked out a new direction in the "college rock" scene by openly daring to be ... well, daring. Unafraid of experimentation, yet too dorky to take their experiments seriously, "Priest's" blend of truly psychedelic sonics and Wayne Coyne's raw Jesus-curious poetry yielded an album that was capable of being catchy, being mind-blowing and, most notably, being unbearably loud.
But for those fans (like me) who were first-hand witnesses to the Lips' evolution on vinyl and on stage, the content of these five CDs is very nearly secondary. We know it already and we're already on the same page. It's the canonization of these early works that is so welcome and overdue. In an era that finds the same old '60s and '70s classic rock repackaged and reassessed (c'mon, do we really need a deluxe edition of "Blind Faith?"), to see works as "recent" as 1990 imbued with the same cultural import as the boomers' beloved cultural touchstones is to lend a pretty interesting air of credibility to a musical movement that is generally thought to have begun and ended with "Nevermind."
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, the wealth of talent that was recording and touring within the college-rock circuit of 1983-1992 cannot be overstated. A club could host Soundgarden one night, The Flaming Lips the next, and then Fugazi, Sonic Youth, American Music Club, Redd Kross, Bitch Magnet or whoever the night after ... and for $5 a show!
Even operating in this environment, The Flaming Lips were special, the band that other bands always talked about. And now, with an odd sort of critical love fest taking place every time Wayne Coyne comes up with a harebrained scheme -- much less releases an album -- it's quite appropriate to take a look back and realize that if any band ever deserved a career of continuing successes, it's certainly The Flaming Lips.