Saturday, May 15, 2010

Revisting the lunar ladscape - the Flaming Lips does Dark Side of the Moon

At 15 years of age I cried inconsolably for hours when I discovered, in the recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, which I had finally managed to buy after what seemed like an eternity of saving my pocket money, that there was a line sung by a group of Valkyries which, according to the score, was supposed to be sung by only one. You see, I just don’t like people tampering with the original. And it’s an obsession that I have never really outgrown.

So it was with some trepidation that yesterday I bought The Flaming Lips’ new reworking of the entire Pink Floyd masterpiece, Dark Side of the Moon. But the Flaming Lips have been such an interesting band, and they seem to have a knack of doing such wacky things with music while still retaining both the music’s, and their own, dignity, that it was really impossible to avoid seeing what they had done with this music, which even today, 37 years after it was recorded, is still fairly universally hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Taking on something as iconic as Dark Side of the Moon calls for an incredible sense of balance between, on the one hand, loyalty to the original and, on the other hand, recasting it into a new light. You have to find the right mix of flavours – the known taste of the old and familiar and trusted, and the surprise of the new and unknown. Have too much of the first, and you are really just doing a cheap and probably uncreative copy; have too much of the second, and you will have destroyed something great and people will hate you forever.

It was a balance which somehow Hans Zender miraculously managed to find, I think, when he recast Schubert’s awesomely devastating song cycle Winterreise for modern chamber ensemble and it seems that The Flaming Lips might just have managed to pull off the same thing here too.

Their version, clocking in at one minute shorter than Pink Floyd’s, follows the original pretty well note for note. But the notes are given here a 21st century makeover, troubled and harangued by a world where the descent into madness is a global phenomenon, where it is the society, rather than the individuals who inhabit it, that is sick. The music here is given a coarser, more jagged edge, an electronic intensity that cuts into veins that the original flowed through.

So here the old alarm clock that ushers in ‘Time’ has become a harsh, grating siren; the passionate howls of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ have become tortured, anguished screams; there’s an extra urgency to ‘On the Run’ where, as in so many places on this album, it seems that the private suffering of the original has been taken up by a whole world of crazed souls, spiralling downwards in a black hole of torment.

And yet in all of this, there’s always a certain tongue-in-cheekness about it all, and you are never entirely sure how seriously you are meant to be taking it. Listen, for example, to their quirky, almost jaunty version of ‘Money’, which, both confronting and humorous, somehow manages to just fall short of parody. You can’t help but feeling that the Flaming Lips, with their expanded ensemble including Star Death and White Dwarfs and Henry Rollins and Peaches, are having oodles of fun making this recording, even in its darkest moments.

‘Us and Them’ sounds perhaps even lonelier and creepier here than when Pink Floyd did it, the saxophone of the original now replaced by freaky electric plucked noise; ‘Brain Damage’ brings tears to the eyes, just as it always has done, the background choir now transformed into an electronic, space-age sort of whirring sound, almost like something from a B-grade science fiction movie, but haunting in a way that only The Flaming Lips could really manage to make it.

By time the cast come to the footlights with the anthemic final words of ‘Eclipse’, you feel that the journey you’ve been on has, once again, been an epic one. The landmarks that you remember so well from 1973 are all still there – transformed, painted in new and sometimes garish colours – and, while you will still want to go back and look at your mementos of the original trip, seeing it again as it has become today, is still a wonderful, and disturbing, thing.

I might never know why all those extra Valkyries sang that line in my first ever recording of The Ring – but I can certainly see why The Flaming Lips chose to do what they did the Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe this is what I needed to enable me to move on.

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