In the fall of 1990 the Flaming Lips played an incredible, legendary show. That night there was danger in the air, and the band nearly burned the place down—literally. It was a time of new beginnings for the group, and that evening marked another such occasion.
The fourth Flaming Lips album, In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares), is the first record the band made that resembles the Lips we know today. The LP featured two new members: Nathan Roberts (drums) and Jonathan Donahue (lead guitar). Donahue was also in the recently formed avant-pop group, Mercury Rev. With the Priest song “Unconsciously Screamin,” the reborn Flaming Lips made it crystal clear that they were now swimming in uncharted sonic waters. “We’re not what we used to be,” indeed.
Priest was released in September 1990 by the indie label Restless Records, but not long after the LP dropped, Restless went under. Though now without a contract and free to sign with another company, the Flaming Lips hadn’t much considered the idea of hooking up with a major label, though they’d soon get their chance.
On October 17th, 1990, the Lips played what’s remembered as one of the wildest shows they’ve ever done. Taking place at a Norman, Oklahoma club called Rome, their blazing set included material from Priest, as well as two disparate covers: The Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” and the Bee Gees’ “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You”—all at deafening volume—but that’s not the half of it. In his book, Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips, author Jim DeRogatis describes the madness of the evening:
The Flaming Lips had borrowed one of the Butthole Surfers’ most striking effects, which involved filling an upside-down cymbal with alcohol. The band’s friend George Salisbury lit “the Flames of Destiny” and struck the cymbal, sending burning alcohol shooting everywhere and setting himself on fire. A panicked club staffer doused him with an extinguisher, prompting Wayne [Coyne, singer/guitarist] to crack, “I’d rather burn to death than be sprayed with that shit.”
The group had staged the show fully aware that a representative from Warner Bros. Records would be in attendance. Roberta Petersen was an industry veteran and a Lips fan; she flew into town specifically to see them.
“It was the most incredible show. I was mesmerized. I really, truly was, and then they did this thing where they set something on fire. That didn’t work for me—I thought the place was going to burn down—but I also thought, ‘This is a band I’ve got to have. If there’s a fire, I’m gonna die here, but that’s okay. I just wanna die with this band.’” (from Staring at Sound)
After the gig, Peterson bought the Flaming Lips dinner at a restaurant chosen by the group—Denny’s. Once there, Peterson made her intentions known—she wanted to sign them.
Roberts and Donahue would depart after the recording of the Lips’ major label debut, and the group has subsequently been through a number of lineup changes over the years, but the band soldiers on. It’s now been nearly 30 years since that fateful, fiery night in Norman, and Warner Bros. is still releasing new records by the Flaming Lips.
Much more early Flaming Lips after the jump…