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Late breakthrough for the Fearless Freaks.
on 13 November 2006
As a result of Bevis and Butthead - and a bizarre appearance on Beverly Hills 90210 - Transmissions from the Satellite Heart became the album that finally brought The Flaming Lips to the attention of the record buying public at large. Their previous album, 1991's brilliant Hit to Death in the Future Head had set a template for the music featured herein, but now, we had the addition of experimental guitarist Ronald Jones and their soon-to-become creative lynchpin Steven Drozd replacing Jonathan Donahue and Nathan Roberts respectively, to further the evolution of The Lips from an acid-tinged slacker act, into something closer to alternative rock. As a result, Transmissions remains an important component in the band's eventual evolution; leading on from Hit to Death towards the pop brilliance of 1995's masterwork Clouds Taste Metallic, and their critically acclaimed 1999 opus, The Soft Bulletin.
The standout tracks include the opening burst of nonsensical pop, Turn it On, a song to rank alongside previous opening highlights like Shine On Sweet Jesus from In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Talkin' Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever) from Hit to Death. The song is indicative of the overall style of the album as a whole, with the pop smarts of Drozd enlivening the creative juices of the Lips iconic front man Wayne Coyne - who once again offers his abstract and occasionally disturbed ruminations on the world with songs like Pilot Can at the Queer of God and Oh My Pregnant Head - as Jones adds all manner of bizarre guitar effects that complement the simple melodies lurking beneath. We also have the great rhythm section of Michael Ivins on bass and Drozd on drums, who, as a creative unit, really push these songs forward towards those great big crashing choruses.
Much of the album is, for me, unbridled genius, like pretty much everything that The Lips were producing during this period of their existence (which found them perfectly straddled between the clumsy, lo-fi psyche-rock sound of early works like Oh My Gawd! and Telepathic Surgery, and the elaborate, carefully composed and performed symphonic pop of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots). Songs like Turn it On, Pilot Can at the Queer of God, Superhumans and Be My Head fit perfectly alongside previous tracks like Halloween on the Barbary Coast and Frogs as easily as they would with subsequent tracks like Kim's Watermellon Gun and Christmas at the Zoo. Alongside these, we also have the key-single, She Don't Use Jelly, the song that helped the Lips breakthrough to the mainstream (being shown on the aforementioned Bevis and Butthead), as well as standing as one of the most iconic alternative-rock anthems of the last decade. The lead guitar riff from Jones is immediately recognisable, whilst Coyne's lyrics about guys blowing their noses on magazines and folk with tangerine hair (Coyne famously sporting a bright orange dye-job himself around this same period) always bring a smile to the owner of these aurally excited ears.
Other tracks, like the more acoustic Chewing the Apple of Your Eye and their cover of the 'Cool Hand Luke' track Plastic Jesus are perhaps less immediate, though on the whole, work well within the context of the actual record; showing a more restrained side of the band, while also pointing back to acoustic numbers like Raining Babies, Stand in Line and You Have to be Joking. The only song that grates on me slightly is When Yer Twenty Two, but this is more to do with personal taste than anything else. At any rate, it doesn't deter from the album as a whole.
Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is a fine album, standing as one of the highpoints of the middle-period of The Lips' career (a magical time when they were just beginning to find their feet - creatively speaking - with a collection of new collaborators, as well as discovering a new sound that fused pop hooks and deft musicianship, with the usual idiosyncrasies that the band had always thrived on). The last song combines elements that are both loud and dissonant, with softer passages of pure pop, suggesting some sort of imaginary collaboration between The Beach Boys and the Pixies. Regardless, it works well within the structure of the album, brining things to a close, whilst simultaneously, urging us to move beyond this to the next album... my personal favourite, Clouds Taste Metallic. Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is a great introduction to The Flaming Lips from a time when they were less polished and more interesting. The whole period, from Hit to Death in the Future Head to The Soft Bulletin is essential listening, and proof that The Lips were one of they key alternative bands of the 1990's.