Photos once again pilfered from James Wilkes's Facebook
This was the very first time I ever wore the t-shirt of the band I was due to see that night. Ho yes: For one night only, I was that guy.
This was also the very first time I'd attended a gig in London that wasn't some kind of festival. In addition, it was my first ever ATP event. The moment we entered Alexandra Palace, I understood just why their events are so revered: It's the attention to detail. It was clear right from the start that this was a night put on by music lovers with the express intention of satisfying the needs of those for whom music is a way of life.
The covers of the three albums that were to be played that night hung above the entrance like tribal banners. Giant versions stood before tall sparkling curtains by which you could have your picture taken. You could get yourself a massage, browse archival reviews and shop at the pop-up Rough Trade outlet. There were circles of chairs with attached headphones through which you could listen to what appeared to be albums considered canonical by the ATP elite: Fun House, If You're Feeling Sinister, Ladies & Gentlemen We're Floating In Space – right from the outset efforts had been made to make an event out of the gig.
Giant balloons had been suspended from the ceiling of the grand hall that was the performance space. Some were within our reach, so no sooner had the crowd gathered than a game began in which attempts were made to knock the smaller balloons into the larger ones. The effect was that a gentle multicoloured bobbing swam before the stage throughout the night – all performances were therefore as technicolour and fun as that of the headliners - it felt like a birthday party or some other celebration of goodwill. I suppose that was the point all along.
First up were Deerhoof, who were to play Milk Man, their 2004 concept album about some kind of malevolent psychedelic pied-piper type, in its entirety. They didn't quite achieve this. I can't remember them playing New Sneakers, and they bookended their set with a song which appears midway through the album's running order. The opening version of Milking was weak, anaemic and nervous – an immense disappointment which didn't bode well for the rest of the set. Things improved very rapidly, though, with a stunning triple barrage of Milk Man, Giga Dance and Desaparecere. But they really hit their stride with a demented run-through Rainbow Silhouette of the Milky Rain. It was every bit as mind-expanding as its title would have you believe and it teetered on a thrilling knife-edge between mathematical precision and absolute insanity. The second time they played Milking they recruited Cliff, the Flaming Lips' drummer. This allowed for a dual guitar line-up, so they were finally able to capture the demented chaos that I had come to expect. All was well.
A weapons-grade stack of Marshal amps heralded the arrival of Dinosaur Jr. They were here to play 1988's Bug, which meant that for what must have been the first time in a couple of decades they opened their set with Freak Scene. J Mascis would have been very well served by an electric fan at head height – he would have looked immortal were his flowing silver locks to billow as he shredded through his searing force-ten solos. So densely layered is their sound on record that I was afraid that they'd sound comparatively hollow live. Not so – their sound was a constant deliciously brutal sludge over which the sweetest and most laconic of vocals fluttered completely at-odds with the violence they were underpinning. They exuded a particular force during Yeah We Know – the thunderous THUMP which cleared the air before each refrain was heart-stopping. Finally, despite promising to destroy his voice for us, Lou Barlow's vocals on Don't had more of an Ozzy Osbourne wail about them than the hardcore roars we might have expected. I think the song was much better served by this style, though. It sounded like something of a yawning abyss of pain – utterly cathartic.
Some ten minutes or so before The Flaming Lips were due to take to the stage, Wayne Coyne addressed us directly. Prior to this, he had hardly been aloof. He had assisted in setting-up his band's equipment and could clearly be seen enjoying the two previous bands from the side of the stage. He warned those in the front row about the intensity of their strobes and spoke about what it meant to him to sing The Soft Bulletin in its entirety. He said that to play it in sequence is to make a suite out of it which, he said, really served to bring to light some of the concepts and thoughts inherent in the songs. He admitted that he sometimes felt overpowered by this, and begged our forgiveness should he falter.
There are some bands who thrive on mystique. Few would dare reveal themselves so starkly with the house-lights up. Wayne Coyne, though, seems to know that his music is powerful enough to speak for itself. It could survive without its accompanying smoke and mirrors, and his rambling monologues and interactions merely add further humanity to what is already the most human of music. I know some who are annoyed by what they call his “sermons”, but for me it just turns him into a sort of psychedelic Springsteen – a favourite uncle who's been round the block, has all the answers and knows loads of magic tricks.
He came amongst us in his space bubble – even though I was stood just in front of the mixing desk, he came even closer to me than he did even at Glastonbury 2010 where I was stood right at the front. As usual, I found it impossible not to grin on the verge of ecstatic tears as the confetti cannons exploded upon the first note of Race For The Prize. Then came A Spoonful Weighs A Ton, which was performed to a backdrop of Teletubbies, a show which looks more like a disturbing Japanese “found-object” with every passing year. The last line of this song is “The sound they made was love”, after which we were encouraged to emit a primal orgasmic roar. I think we failed in this, with maestro Steve Drozd remarking that ours sounded like the sort of orgasm you have when you don't want anybody to know you've had an orgasm.
The good thing about watching bands play albums in sequence is that by-and-large you can be sure that certain of your favourites will be played. It was marvellous seeing Spiritualized perform Ladies & Gentlemen... as I knew they'd play I Think I'm In Love. Similarly, part of my almost unbearable joy on Friday night lie in knowing that The Flaming Lips would play The Spark That Bled. It didn't disappoint. In fact, it exceeded all expectations – the moment they launched into the orchestral breakdown – here replicated on guitars – I found the emotions that welled up inside almost too much to bear. I really did want to stand up and say “Yeah” - or something similar – just anything to release the spiralling hyper real intensity that they were kindling within. They finished their song with their famous “Laser Hands” routine – in which Wayne Coyne shot multicoloured rainbows at a glitter ball above – which served to turn the whole room into a transcendental kaleidoscope. To put it simply, it was “a moment”.
One of the many remarkable things about The Soft Bulletin is the fact that at least two versions exist and neither seems to be thought of as canonical. The American release has a different running order to that of Europe, which means that when they play the album here, we get a different setlist to the American shows. Across the Atlantic, The Spark That Bled is followed by The Spiderbite Song and Buggin'. I envy the Americans on Buggin', but through owning a European version of the album I've never really been familiar with The Spiderbite Song. And, besides, we got an airy, shimmering piano version of Slow Motion. Apparently only the second time they've ever played it, we were warned that here more than anywhere they were likely to falter. But they didn't – it was beautiful.
Then things went wonderfully Pink Floyd as the lights went low and the lasers were released for the pulsating combo of What Is That Light? and The Observer. Easily the most atmospheric section of the night, I was nonetheless impatient for what I knew was coming next – what must be one of the saddest songs ever written, Waitin' For A Superman was performed in a stripped-down fashion with just Steven on the piano. Wayne worked his way around some of the lyrics in quite a jazzy fashion, but the overall effect was as devastating as a song can possibly be when shorn of its chiming tubular bells.
Due to a combination of a passed-out girl needing rescuing and, I fear, Wayne's sermonising, the set felt somewhat truncated. We did get the entirety of the European release of The Soft Bulletin, and it was magnificent. To no avail I hoped for Buggin', but so magnificent was the grandeur of that which they did play – so human and intense the themes and feelings evoked – that it would be churlish to complain. The American's got a longer encore, but Do You Realize?? is such a beautiful, life-affirming song that, again, in the face of it I feel it's impossible to criticise. That song radiates such all-encompassing truth that I'd happily have it played at both my wedding and my funeral.
On the way out I was harangued by a journalist type who informed me that he hadn't enjoyed the gig and had therefore left early. This he proclaimed with a shrug before shoving a camera in my face and asking that I give my thoughts. For many reasons, by that point I was reeling, so in retrospect my diatribe was probably every bit as shaky, disjointed and rambling as one of Wayne Coyne's.
His happiness, optimism and apparently undying faith in humanity, then, is seemingly infectious. He's absolutely right when he insists that “rock and roll can save the world, if you're nice to people”.
Said journalist had commented upon how he simply felt that “something was missing”.
Well, if ever anything was missing from my life, I feel that I owe a large portion of my salvation to The Flaming Lips.