Even within the eclectic world of alternative rock, few bands were so brave, so frequently brilliant, and so deliciously weird as the Flaming Lips. From their beginnings as Oklahoma weirdos to their pop culture breakthrough in the mid-'90s to their status as one of the most respected groups of the 2000s, the Lips have ridden one of the more surreal and haphazard career trajectories in pop music. An acid-bubblegum band with as much affinity for sweet melodies as blistering noise assaults, their off-kilter sound, uncommon emotional depth, and bizarre history (packed with tales of self-immolating fans and the like) firmly established them as true originals.
The Flaming Lips formed in Oklahoma City in 1983, when founder and guitarist Wayne Coyne allegedly stole a collection of musical instruments from an area church hall and enlisted his vocalist brother Mark and bassist Michael Ivins to start a band. Giving themselves the nonsensical name the Flaming Lips (its origin variously attributed to a porn film, an obscure NO NO WORD!!! reference, or a dream in which a fiery Virgin Mary plants a kiss on Wayne in the back seat of his car), the band made its live debut at a local transvestite club. After progressing through an endless string of drummers, they recruited percussionist Richard English prior to recording their self-titled debut, issued on green vinyl on their own Lovely Sorts of Death label in 1985.
When Mark Coyne soon departed to get married, Wayne assumed full control of the group; in addition to remaining its lead guitarist, he also became the primary singer and songwriter. Continuing on as a trio, the Lips released 1986's Hear It Is, followed a year later by Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips. While touring in support of the Butthole Surfers, they played Buffalo, NY, where they were befriended by concert promoter Jonathan Donahue; after a jam session with Donahue's nascent band Mercury Rev, he and Coyne became close friends, and Donahue eventually signed on as the group's sound technician.
After recording 1988's difficult Telepathic Surgery, English exited, reducing the Lips to the core duo of Coyne and Ivins; after adding drummer Nathan Roberts, Donahue adopted the name Dingus and became a full-time member in time to cut 1990's stellar In a Priest Driven Ambulance while simultaneously recording the brilliant Mercury Rev debut, Yerself Is Steam. Following a series of hopeful phone calls to Warner Bros., the company signed the band in 1991, and in 1992 their oft-delayed major-label debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, appeared to little commercial notice; Donahue soon exited to focus his full energies on Mercury Rev, followed by the departure of Roberts.
With new guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd, they cut 1993's sublime Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which they supported by playing the second stage at Lollapalooza and touring the nation in a Ryder truck. Initially, the album stiffed; however, nearly a year after its initial release, the single "She Don't Use Jelly" became a grassroots hit, and against all odds the Flaming Lips found themselves on the Top 40 charts. They took full advantage of their requisite 15 minutes of fame, appearing everywhere from MTV's annual Spring Break broadcast to an arena tour in support of Candlebox to a memorably surreal lip-synced performance on the teen soap opera Beverly Hills 90210, where supporting character Steve Sanders (portrayed by actor Ian Ziering) uttered the immortal words, "You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!"
After the 1994 release of a limited-edition sampler of odds and ends titled Providing Needles for Your Balloons, the Lips returned in 1995 with Clouds Taste Metallic, a strikingly mature and diverse collection highlighted by the singles "Bad Days" (also heard in the film Batman Forever), "This Here Giraffe," and "Brainville." Despite the inclusion of the remarkably melodic "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles," "Christmas at the Zoo" (rumored to be under consideration for inclusion on an upcoming John Tesh holiday record), and the epic "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World," the album nonetheless failed to live up to the commercial success of Transmissions, and the band was once again relegated to cult status.
In 1996, the Lips' world went haywire; first, Jones disappeared to undertake a spiritual odyssey from which he did not return, then Drozd's hand was almost needlessly amputated after he was bitten by a spider. At about the same time, Ivins was the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident after a wheel came off of another vehicle and slammed into his car, trapping him inside. Ironically, Coyne was having car problems of his own when rumors of his latest sonic foray -- conducting an orchestra of 40 automobiles, all with their tape decks playing specially composed music at the same time -- prompted fan discussion of his possible psychological collapse. "I would try to tell people what I was doing and found that I couldn't explain it very well," Coyne later remarked about the project, dubbed the Parking Lot Experiment. "Plus, I had a sore on the side of my tongue for a week and it made me talk kind of weird. I'm sure they thought I was retarded."
By the following year, the Flaming Lips (who continued as a trio, opting not to attempt to replace Jones) were back in the studio, recording an album that, according to Coyne, would be "so different and exciting it will either make us millionaires or break us" -- in short, 1997's Zaireeka, a breathtaking and wildly experimental set of four discs designed to be played simultaneously. A previously unreleased track, "Hot Day," also appeared earlier that year on the soundtrack to Richard Linklater's film SubUrbia. A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording...by Amateurs, a retrospective of their Restless label material, followed in 1998, and a year later the Lips returned with a breathtaking new studio effort, The Soft Bulletin.
After a three-year absence from the shelves, 2002 brought several new releases, including the new record Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and a two-volume retrospective of the Restless years. Yoshimi won the group even more popular and critical acclaim than The Soft Bulletin, which the group maximized by spending half of 2002 appearing with Beck on his Sea Change tour as both his opening act and backing band. The Lips kept busy over the next two years by touring in support of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and working on their movie Christmas on Mars. They returned to the studio in 2004 and spent much of 2005 recording; that year, the Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks and VOID video collection were both released, whetting fans' appetites for the band's 2006 album, At War with the Mystics.
In 2007, the Flaming Lips were nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Album for Mystics and won a Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. In 2008, the band's long-awaited, seven-years-in-the-making film Christmas on Mars made its debut at that spring's Sasquatch Festival in George, WA; that fall, the movie and its soundtrack were released as a CD/DVD set. During 2007 and 2008, the Lips began working on the follow-up to At War with the Mystics, taking a looser, more experimental approach than they had in several albums. The results were released as Embryonic in fall 2009. (From Allmusic)
Here It Is (1986)
Hearing Hear It Is years later, after all the band had done up to the new century, makes for an almost surreal experience. No swirling orchestral parts, no Beach Boys-on-Mars homages, even Wayne Coyne's immediately recognizable cracked fracture of a voice isn't present. Instead, it's raunchy bar-band-gone-insane fun or calmer but not too wracked ruminations from Coyne, with music to match. It isn't as completely discontinuous as might be thought, though -- Coyne's vision was already distinctly gone, in ways that most bands would kill for. The gentle acoustic strumming that starts the album on "With You" or the steady pace and mournful singing on "Godzilla Flick" shows that subtlety was as much a part of the game as stomping, fried electric guitar insanity. Throughout Hear It Is, there's a gleeful "try what works" approach that would only become stronger later -- the band may have been punk-inspired and birthed, but Coyne and company drew on everything from country & western to classic rock crunch and more; there are even some clear early goth rock touches.
Oh My Gawd!!!... The Flaming Lips (1987)
Starting with either a sample or a cool replication of a legendary one-off line in the Beatles' "Revolution No. 9" — "Take this, brother, may it serve you well!" — the Lips dive head-on into rock dreams on Oh My Gawd!!! Coyne's sudden resemblance vocally to Paul Westerberg is its own curiosity, but the Replacements never quite got so fried — drunk, yes, but not fried. The cover, one weird-ass collage of skullmonsters, random photographs of landscapes, dogs and things, and, on the back, somebody literally burning up serves to set the mood just as much as the rampaging fun of "Everything's Exploding." The same combination of this and that which made Hear It Is a fun listen takes precedence here — Coyne and company can strum along softly or crank everything up to ten and back as they please, and they do. Coyne's knack for utterly brilliant song titles also takes full life here — how else to explain such hilarities as "Maximum Dream for Evil Knievel" or the flatly phrased "Prescription: Love," a groovy mindbender and arty rave-up all at once.
Telepathic Surgery (1989)
With a few more studio tweaks and tricks at play, part of the band's continual efforts to find out just what could be done with a studio, Telepathic Surgery is pretty much the companion piece to Oh My Gawd!!!, blending the same great, crazy combination of influences into the mix. That the opening track has everything from a rushed Sonic Youth rhythm roil to heavily flanged guitar solos that are all treble and back again isn't surprising at all, really. Coyne later described the album as more open-ended experimentation with overdubs than a collection of songs per se -- some of the random orchestral samples and other drop-ins indicate as much -- but Telepathic Surgery has its joys, as much garage rock nuttiness as fried, off-kilter post-punk. Coyne himself is still in rough voice in plenty of places, but finding his own bit by bit; he still doesn't really sound like he would in the '90s, but the gentler side creeps in here and there.
In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1990)
In a Priest Driven Ambulance ranks as the first truly brilliant Flaming Lips album; the first effort to feature guitarist Jonathan "Dingus" Donahue, it's a loose concept record that brings Wayne Coyne's long-standing obsessions with religion bubbling to the surface. The thematic glue creates a structural framework unlike anything found on previous albums, resulting in a newfound sense of cohesion and depth: songs like "Rainin' Babies" and "Five-Stop Mother Superior Rain" offer unforeseen levels of poignancy, while guitar freak-outs such as "Unconsciously Screamin'" and "Mountain Side" slash and burn with remarkable potency. For the Lips, the future begins here.
Hit To Death in the Future Head (1992)
With Hit to Death in the Future Head, the Flaming Lips make the leap to major-label status as though it were the moment they've been waiting for all their lives. Though not as conceptually tight as In a Priest Driven Ambulance, the album is no less cohesive or imaginative, and in its way serves as the bridge between the band's noisier, more hallucinatory indie work and the acid-bubblegum aesthetic perfected on their later Warner Bros. albums. Nowhere are the band's pop smarts more evident than on "The Sun," which freely quotes Carole King's "So Far Away," or on the undeniably catchy "Gingerale Afternoon (The Astrology of a Saturday)" and "Frogs"; tracks like "Felt Good to Burn" and "Halloween on the Barbary Coast," meanwhile, indulge fully in the trademark weirdness that got the group this far. (And speaking of indulgence, check out the unlisted bonus track, which offers some 29 minutes of speaker-hopping static assault.)
Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (1993)
The addition of guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd recharges the Flaming Lips' batteries for the superb Transmissions From the Satellite Heart, another prismatic delicacy that continues the group's drift toward pop nirvana. In typical fashion, the record's left-field hit, the freak-show singalong "She Don't Use Jelly," bears little resemblance to the album as a whole; the remainder of Transmissions is much more sonically and structurally ambitious -- the towering "Moth in the Incubator" keeps generating new layers of noise before erupting into an amphetamine waltz, "Pilot Can at the Queer of God" dive-bombs with kamikaze recklessness, and the slow-burning "Oh My Pregnant Head" is as mind-expanding as its title.
Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
The same extraordinary madness that infected the best work of Brian Wilson rears its head on the shimmering and melodic Clouds Taste Metallic, a masterful collection which completes the Flaming Lips' odyssey into the pop stratosphere. The Pet Sounds comparisons are obvious -- two of the highlights are titled "This Here Giraffe" and "Christmas at the Zoo" -- yet not unfair; like Brian Wilson, Wayne Coyne has refined his unique vision into something both highly personal and powerfully universal. Similarly, while Coyne's lyrics remain as acid-damaged and inscrutable as ever, his densely constructed songs convey emotional complexities far beyond the scope of their head-case titles ("Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles," "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World"); galvanized by equal parts newfound maturity and childlike wonderment, Clouds Taste Metallic is both the Flaming Lips' most intricate and most irresistible work.
Zaireeka(1997) A combination of the words "Zaire" and "Eureka," Zaireeka is a term coined by Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne symbolizing the fusion of anarchy and genius. It's a perfect title; Zaireeka is the culmination of the Lips' helter-skelter brilliance. Pushing the concept of interactive listening into new realms of possibility, the work extends Coyne's infamous "parking lot experiments" into not merely one album, but four separate discs that can be played separately or in groups of two, three, and four with multiple stereos. (Properly synchronized multi-disc playback requires more than one person -- it's literally a party album.) Between combining the discs and toying with volume, balance, fidelity, etc., the options are truly limitless. No two multi-disc performances can be repeated, thanks to the space-time continuum and discrepancies from one CD player to another. Musically as well as conceptually, the Lips are defiantly experimental throughout Zaireeka; individually, each disc sounds more like free jazz than pop, although Coyne's diamond-sharp melodic sensibilities prevail even during the most chaotic moments. With each additional disc, the music's force and ingenuity reveals itself: "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)" is an epic orchestral noise suite, "Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair" is a multi-narrative plane-crash drama remarkably evocative in its depiction of fear and chaos, and "How Will We Know? (Futuristic Crashendos)" features such extreme high and low frequencies that it can lead to disorientation, confusion, or nausea (the track is not recommended to be played while operating a motor vehicle or in the presence of infants). Logistical nightmares aside, Zaireeka is a dense, difficult work, recommended only for the hardiest Flaming Lips fetishists; however, they're in for the musical experience of a lifetime.
Soft Bulletin(1999) Alright, this is my review of one of my favorite albums of all time. This thing is a masterpiece. The first albums are great, and they start showing they're capable of an album like this around Transmissions From A Satellite Heart, but this is something else. As soon as Race For The Prize kicks in, you hear a band taking it to the next level and not wanting to let go. The success of Flaming Lips was improbable up to this point, Oklahoma City misfits making garage psychedelic garage rock with titles like "This Here Giraffe" but now they were making something entirely different. It's hard to describe the compositions on this album without sounding silly, but take my word for it, it works. The little things like the harmonies on "The softest bullet ever shot" line in "The Spark That Bled" make you believe the band is finally be great on purpose. If you've never listened to this album, go do it, now.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) An album loosely based on robots and karate, The band take cues from SB and turn them into catalog classics. You've probably heard "Yoshimi" "Fight Test" and definitely "Do You Realize??" by now, and for good reason, these songs blur the line between sing a long fodder and some of the best song writing of the past 20 years. The album brims with great ideas, some which I wish they would play live. I still haven't heard "Are you a Hypnotist" or "In the Morning of the Magicians" live, which frustrates me to no end as they both would sound great in a large crowd outside.
At War With the Mystics (2006)
This is yet another tipping point in the FLips career. By this point the Sb/ Yoshimi aesthetic had been perfected so they try out even more studio wizardry. It's not bad, but it doesn't live up to the classics they released before hand. It almost seemed like they were trying too hard on songs like "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "The W.A.N.D." but it doesn't stop them from playing those songs every show. This is the black sheep in recent FLips output.
Embryonic(2009) This is the album that made me believe in the FLips again. A great change of pace, this album is a return to some of their darker stuff from earlier in their career. This album is not glossy or smooth around the edges at all. Infusing kraut-rock influences this time along with their earlier garage rock tendencies, they create a fuzzy funky stomp throughout the double album. Karen O guests on an answering machine, MGMT is apparently involved (good luck finding them) and the band find themselves back in fine form.
Darkside of the Moon Ft. Stardeath and the White Dwarves (2009) Perhaps the Soft Bulletin-era Lips would've had some interest in recreating the grandeur of the Floyd's original, but the run-through sometimes resembles a sibling of Embyronic's oddities. "Breathe", in both its appearances, reprises the jagged bass grooves and guitar sqwonk of "Convinced of the Hex" and "See the Leaves", while "On the Run" and "Any Colour You Like" are fractured space-boogie that echo the gloriously messy sprawl of "Powerless" and "The Ego's Last Stand".
Those standout instrumentals are collaborations with Stardeath and White Dwarfs, the band fronted by Wayne Coyne's nephew Dennis Coyne, and both make Coyne family reunions sound like good, illegal fun-- jammy affairs that sprinkle some much needed disco dust on Floyd's austere originals. Left to their own devices, Stardeath's take on "Time" and "Brain Damage" are less inspired, the former replacing the clockwork rhythm with coughing and panting and lost lyrics, the latter coming off relatively flat compared to the original, despite well-deployed singing saw. The kids shouldn't feel so bad, as the old guys don't fare too well themselves, neutering "Money" into a mechanized 8-bit lope, and minimally adjusting the track that needs the most help, the plodding "Us and Them".
The second tier of guests are also a split decision. Peaches' job is basically to moan orgasmically through "Great Gig in the Sky". But Henry Rollins, tasked with recreating the snippets of dialogue from Floyd's crew that float around the original, contributes all the line-reading talent you'd expect from the star of "The Chase" and "Feast". At least he doesn't attempt an English accent.
The guest star The Tonight Show brings to mind the similar project of the Lips' former tourmate Beck, whose Record Club series brings a random cast of characters to record an album in one day. The comparison doesn't reflect well on this Dark Side though, which comes off stiffer than Beck's ramshackle recreations, but without much in the way of thoughtful annotations to add to the original text. At its best, it's a more unhinged take on Floyd's song cycle of insanity-- like putting the Floyd that played "Interstellar Overdrive" into a time machine to meet the Floyd that wrote "Money". But the Flaming Lips and their co-conspirators can't settle on a color of the Floyd spectrum and run with it, leaving this Dark Side as a lunar capsule lost somewhere between a love letter and a joke.
Suggested Listening Alright by now you have maybe read that really long mixutre of my reviews (Embryonic, Yoshimi, AWWTM, SB) and allmusic and pitchforks and gotten a pretty good idea of what to check out. Every album is worth listening to, but they'll probably draw most from Soft Bulletin (Maybe wishful thinking,) Yoshimi, Embryonic, and AWWTM in the first set of original material, so start there. Transmission and CTM are two of my other favorites, by they rarely if ever play from those. If you want to know exactly what they're going to play, check past setlists from 09, they don't change things up much. Then of course listen to the cover album, they're going to do a whole set of it, so might as well know what too expect.
Most importantly, don't miss their live show (currently scheduled for Friday) at Bonnaroo.
Here are some live performances from the only show I've seen from them so far
Something that probably won't happen, but would be awesome "If you wanna hug Meg you can hug Meg too"
Physical Reaction/Live Show Less Talk, More Rock Wayne
Awesome job. Love me some Flaming Lips. Especially like the tag line "less talk, more rock". The last time I saw them at Roo, Wayne talked way too much. the good news is I saw them in their last tour and they were all music.
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart is one of those seminal albums for me. I come back to it all the time and listen to it just a little bit louder... awesome.
Only thing that will keep me from this show is a conflict with LCD Soundsystem.
OK, first off, thanks for the write-up. Well done. For one reason or another, I have yet to see this band and really haven't gotten into them. She Don't Use Jelly might be the reason. I never cared for that song. But now I am smitten. I have Yoshimi coming in the mail. I think AWWTM might be my next purchase. I am now extremely looking forward to their set on the farm, and am sure it will be one of my "must-sees." I like what I'm hearing so far. I missed them in '07 and will not do so again. Why did it take so long for me to get into this band? I've known about them for years and years.