Charlotte Church Talks the Flaming Lips’ With a Little Help From My Fwends

The Welsh renaissance woman explains why the Flaming Lips’ Sgt. Pepper tribute album is like filling prophylactics with mashed potato.

People often ask, “Are there ever negative pieces in the Talkhouse?” There sure are, and we figured it was time for a week’s worth of outstanding pans. It does take a little gumption to knock the work of one of your peers in such a high-profile forum, but plenty of Talkhouse writers have registered their displeasure. As ever, though, they do so from a musician’s perspective, a rare and very valuable point of view. Best of all, the pieces come from a place of respect… usually. But we’ll let you decide.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

The British fin-de-siècle philosopher James Allen said that “until thought is linked with purpose there is no intelligent accomplishment.” If pop musicians had strictly adhered to this theory in the 20th century, our audible present might well have become a grandiose horror-show of turgid pomposity, with the great cultural touchstones of our past supplanted by over-cooked ELP-type atrocities, or we’d have all just bloody given up. Luckily we had jazz, blues, rock & roll and pop music, the early apex of which, arguably,was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To argue the intelligent accomplishments of SPLHCB (of which there is inarguably a wealth) would only produce a lengthy and one-sided article that’s already been written a thousand times over. To argue the intelligent accomplishments of With a Little Help From My Fwends is what I’m tasked with doing, however, and to be honest, spotting them is the hardest thing.

So we have a band that couldn’t care less what any of us think of them. Flaming Lips have nothing left to prove, having given us a string of unique and brilliant-sounding records since the mid ’90s. Apparently they don’t give a flying fuck. Why should they? Nonetheless, there’s an overwhelming sense of pointlessness looming luridly over every facet of this record. They don’t take us far enough away from the original to offer anything new, but seem more preoccupied with stuffing their covers’ membranes with as many modern digital effects as they can take, like filling prophylactics with mashed potato. With the exception of Auto-Tune, (here cheaply employed on the title’s namesake, just for LOLs), almost all of these effects were available to the Beatles when they were creating their absurdist masterpiece, yet George Martin et al used them only sparingly, always in all the right places and always to great effect. The result is closer to an act of Yellowism than to any Roy Lichtenstein-ish intention, which prompts the question, why am I listening to this when I could be listening to the original?

This is hardly the first time someone has covered the whole of Sgt. Pepper, and unsurprisingly, given source material of such quality, some of the earlier attempts were very successful. 2009’s Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band offered a fresh, enjoyable approach that coherently linked thought with purpose. The NME’s 1988 compilation Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father is definitely worth seeking out, especially for Frank Sidebottom’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and for the Fall’s take on “A Day in the Life.” It’s no easy task to tackle the Beatles’ masterpiece head-on, but with some careful thought and a spark of ingenuity, it’s possible.

However, neither careful thought nor spark of ingenuity is evident on this record. It’s difficult to listen to all the way through because whenever Coyne & Co. run out of ideas they tend just to whack a massive distortion on the master track and be done with it. The first two tracks are virtually unlistenable. The overall laziness of the artistic approach is exemplified by the end of the record, in the original a famous and pioneering moment in music history, simply given up on here, just stopped. You can almost hear Wayne, the giddy man-child, LOL-ing heartily at the Ultravox surgery he’s just performed on one of the most influential songs of the last century, then doing a secret handshake/high-five with guest singer Miley Cyrus before suggesting they drop more acid and go play in the ball pool. This is a grown man who uses the word “fwends,” for chrissakes.

It’s not all awful, and Cyrus’ contributions in particular are memorable. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” contains one great conceit (“psych-supernova”) but then just repeats it ad nauseam. “Fixing a Hole,” the only track without “fwends,” starts out lovely but soon reveals a leaden quality that leaves you weary and longing for some vitamin C. “Good Morning, Good Morning” is difficult to go wrong with, and here it isn’t much changed from the original arrangement. With Miley onboard, it seems like a missed opportunity to have Julianna Barwick singing “She’s Leaving Home,” especially when she performs it with the same characterless, breathy female vocals that plague modern pop music at every turn. Considering that the Lips are famous for being an enormous amount of fun, it’s disappointing to hear that they’ve sucked most of the joy out of this record, preferring atonal dirge-scapes in place of the melodic circus feel that defines the Beatles’ instrumental passages.

So what purpose does this record serve? Even the Crazy Frog had the purpose of earning its creators huge wads of cash. By pledging the profits of this record to an Oklahoma City animal charity, Flaming Lips have decided not to raise awareness for a universal concern, and as laudable as it is to be supporting any charity, it does seem like another missed opportunity. It does not satirise or pastiche, it offers nothing new that hasn’t been employed to greater effect on previous Flaming Lips records. It is no accomplishment at all, as far as I can see. There is no thought and no purpose. What the shitting hell is the point of this record?

Charlotte Church is regularly called a hippy, an accusation she vehemently rejects (despite being regularly seen crocheting her own yoghurt in “those” coffee shops and buying veg boxes from local farms in flares and a Mexican baja). Nobody has managed to convict her of an actual crime as of yet. This is puzzling to the readers of teen megazoins in which she has listed “bank heists” as a hobby since the floods of ’98. She abhors whimsy of any kind and nurtures a glory of unicorns in the battlements of her higgledy-piggledy palace made from the toenails of toothfaeries. Yay!