Loud, wild and funny, the Flaming Lips play in the same pen of cartoon-psychedelia imagery used by others, but these disenfranchised Oklahomans, led by songwriter/guitarist/singer Wayne Coyne, possess wit and ingenuity most of the acid-addled competition lacks.
From its uniquely disgusting front cover to the brilliant alienation anthem “My Own Planet,” The Flaming Lips (originally issued on a label whose acronym is LSD) shows considerably more promise than just about anything else in the college-radio underground’s drooling- garage-thrash brigade. Hear It Is fulfills some of that promise. While affectionately borrowing riffs here and there, the Lips (now a trio, with Coyne inheriting vocal duties from his brother Mark, who left the band) show real originality, balancing the rockin’ grunge of “With You” and “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” with softer acoustic passages. The CD release on Pink Dust collects the contents of the first two records, adding a version of “Summertime Blues” that’s considerably closer to Blue Cheer than Eddie Cochran. (Hear It Is also was reissued on vinyl in 2005.)
The inventively self-produced Oh My Gawd!!! is a surprisingly mature and confident work, with more consistent material and performances. Odes to paranoia (“Everything’s Explodin'”), unselfconsciously anachronistic Pink Floydisms (“One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning”) and moments of genuine sensitivity (“Love Yer Brain”), allow Oh My Gawd!!! to transcend the Lips’ wacky-cult-band image, marking them as one of the American heartland’s brightest — if least likely — new hopes.
Telepathic Surgery is a competent but uninspired time-filler, lacking the manic unpredictability that made its predecessors special. Rather than attempting to reconcile their disparate components into a cohesive style, the Lips stick mainly to a straightforward rockish approach that only serves to make them sound more like everybody else. Curiously, Telepathic Surgery‘s most exciting numbers (not counting a two-and-a-half minute monologue on UFOs) are the two CD bonus tracks: the frantic “Fryin’ Up” and “Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory,” a mind-melting 23-minute jam that would do Hawkwind proud. (That last track appears in a drastically shortened edit in the box set Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid. The 2005 vinyl reissue of Telepathic Surgery restores the track to its full-length glory, devoting all of Side Three to it.)
In a Priest Driven Ambulance is an impressive return to form, with stronger material, committed performances and imaginative production — in short, all the fun and intensity missing from Telepathic Surgery. Coyne has developed into a skillful enough songwriter to draw deep emotional truths out of his cartoonish (and sporadically religion-obsessed) lyrical imagery without sacrificing meaning or humor. Similarly, the retooled band (a quartet again, with a new drummer and an added second guitarist) demonstrates new-found finesse, lifting such ravers as “Unconsciously Screamin'” and “Mountain Side” into the stratosphere, and adding an audible sense of discovery to introspective items like “Stand in Line” and “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain.” The album ends with a rendition of the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World” that’s both reverent and playful. (Incidentally, the packaging resorts to an old Phil Spector ruse, listing all of the tracks’ running times as 3:26.) The 2005 vinyl reissue includes five bonus tracks on a second LP.
The limited-edition Unconsciously Screamin’ EP (with a dandy holographic sleeve) teams the title track with three otherwise-unreleased outtakes from the Ambulance sessions. Like early pressings of Oh My Gawd!!! and Ambulance, and the Restless reissues of the Flaming Lips catalog, it’s on colored vinyl.
Signing to Warner Bros. did not dim the Flaming Lips’ lysergic sense of pop mischief. The extra, uncredited track on Hit to Death in the Future Head is an epic 29 minutes of static (and distant rolling thunder) ping-ponging between the speakers — hardly “bonus” music, but true to Lips’ form. The band applies a more focused kind of madness to the album’s ten actual songs. “Halloween on the Barbary Coast” opens with a rubbery guitar line that sounds like a woozy cousin of the riff in Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and then heads into a Middle Eastern haze, a crude but effective avant-garage evocation of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The lonely whine’n’strum of “You Have to Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil’s Brain)” features a dash of harrowing orchestration sampled from the soundtrack of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Without stinting on the guitar weirdness or wry melodrama (the big drum rolls and cymbal crashes in “Hold Your Head”), the Lips showcase their songwriting smarts to good effect. Warner Bros. released a teaser EP ahead of Hit to Death. It includes the album track “Talkin’ ‘Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants to Live Forever),” a medley of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “All That Jazz” and “Happy Death Men” and a demo track, “Jets (Cupid’s Kiss vs. the Psyche of Death).”
As post-punk novelty singles go, “She Don’t Use Jelly” from Transmissions From the Satellite Heart is grade-A whimsy, with Coyne’s wobbly singing the perfect complement to the band’s loose-limbed rumble. It’s also typical of the album’s drift away from amorphous sonic swirl to a more defined (at least by Lips standards) pop stance. For all of its bursts of distortion and messy feedback, “Be My Head” is tight, addictive bubblegum; in both the lumbering, psychedelic ballad “Oh My Pregnant Head” and the brisk, pulse-driven “When Yer Twenty Two,” the manic sound effects provide punctuation rather than propulsion. Turn It On is a three-song EP; Providing Needles for Your Balloons is an eight-song limited-edition mishmash of unreleased studio items, the musical evidence of an in-store appearance and “Slow Nerve Action,” from an Oklahoma City radio broadcast.
Clouds Taste Metallic is one long manic-pop thrill, more musically coherent than Hit to Death and enriched with surprisingly tight, bright harmonies that suggest a landlocked stoner version of the Beach Boys. The titles are tabloid-headline mouthfuls, but “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles” and “Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World” are great, serrated ear candy. If Transmissions is more fun than unforgettable, the juxtaposition of dense instrumental constructions and simple vocal hooks on Clouds Taste Metallic makes it both ingenious and irresistible. You’d never have guessed it from those wild, early records, but the Flaming Lips have grown into a first-class — if still somewhat bent — pop band.
Zaireeka, the group’s next release of new material, re-defined the notion of “bent” for a pop band. The Flaming Lips took the concept of interactive listening to a new extreme: they presented their fans with a four-CD set designed to be played on four stereos simultaneously. The discs each can be played separately, of course, or in various combinations; factoring in the possible adjustments of volume, balance, tone and so on makes the options truly limitless. (The title conflates Zaire with eureka — “anarchy meets inspiration,” as Coyne puts it in the liner notes.) Zaireeka mixes free-form instrumental passages, multi-layered (or rather, multi-channeled) sound effects and deceptively random-sounding noise into the Lips’ increasingly cinematic pop. The opener, “Okay, I’ll Admit That I Really Don’t Understand,” serves as an overture — not by introducing melodic themes from the subsequent tracks, but in displaying how the riffs, vocals and sounds on each disc blend into the full picture. On “Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (You’re Invisible Now),” the trio punctuates an otherwise rich melodic tapestry with the screams of a secret agent who passes a mirror and realizes just how “secret” he’s become. The equally lush “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair” is a multi-narrative drama about an airline pilot’s mid-flight suicide — complete with jet engine roar across the channels, a news reporter speaking from the airport, and the pilot’s heartbeat accelerating as he approaches the point of no return. On the set’s longest track, the folky “A Machine in India,” the repetitious sounds on each CD combine into a veritable factory. (The song’s lyrics, meanwhile, are a hallucinatory ode to the menstrual cycle.) The band makes the most of its multi-disc approach on “The Train Runs Over the Camel but Is Derailed by the Gnat,” taking the song from layered electric guitars through noisy (but still precisely charted) drum workouts and escalating choral passages, winding down to just a cheap-sounding organ and cha-cha electric percussion … all in the space of six minutes. The album was dismissed by some critics as a self-indulgent doorstop, mainly due to the surplus stereo equipment needed to pursue the full audio experience. Today, anyone with a home computer can rip and mix all four CDs to their liking — or, with a little ingenuity, can trigger the separated copies to play in sync through four sets of speakers. (This approach also enables the user to filter out the irritating frequencies in the otherwise plaintive ballad “How Will We Know? (Futuristic Crashendos).” Coyne warns the listener not to play this song while driving or when infants are present. Seriously.) Zaireeka is a testament to the Flaming Lips’ dedication to wild, even quixotic musical exploration, and a statement that a major-label contract doesn’t have to lead to compromises. By the way, it also includes some impressive, surprisingly entertaining music. (In 2007, Coyne distributed a fifth CD to the guests at Zaireeka‘s tenth-anniversary listening party. Lord, will the anarchy never end…)
Having delivered such an audacious, commercially reckless project to their label — without getting their walking papers in return — the Lips “rewarded” Warner Bros. with one of the finest albums of the ‘90s, The Soft Bulletin. Over the course of twelve songs (two of which are reprised in different mixes), the trio incorporates some of the most appealing aspects of classic rock — keyboards and guitars layered to symphonic depths that would impress any prog-rock group, drumming that a Zeppelin fan might appreciate, percussion and dramatic synth/string arrangements that hint at film score productions, and Coyne’s increasingly Neil Young-like voice floating over airy Beach Boys-style backup harmonies. Yet the results don’t evoke a spot-the-influence response. It all blends into a sound, a voice, that’s uniquely the Flaming Lips. (If the group learned anything from recording Zaireeka, it’s how to blend sound.) Even more remarkably, all this sonic sophistication enhances the sense of innocent wonder in the songs and the emotional vulnerability in Coyne’s singing, rather than overwhelming them. The songs are populated with people who hold onto their optimism as they strive against difficult odds. The two scientists in “Race for the Prize” face the pressure of finding a miracle cure: “Under the microscope / Hope against hope / Forging for the future … [But] they’re just humans, with wives and children.” In “The Spiderbite Song,” Coyne sings about the mishaps his bandmates had recently survived (multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd’s spider bite — later revealed actually to have been an infection caused by drug abuse — and bassist Michael Ivins’ car accident) and admits, “I was glad that it didn’t destroy you / How sad that would be / ‘Cause if it destroyed you, it would have destroyed me.” In “The Gash,” the singer worries, “Will the fight for our sanity / Be the fight of our lives / Now that we’ve lost all the reasons that we thought that we had?” With The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips make a grand leap from the underground into a much wider realm of public appreciation, and manage it entirely on their own terms. As Coyne sings in “What Is the Light?”: “Is it chemically derived? / ‘Cause if it’s natural, something glowing from inside…Its potential has arrived.” (The UK release, which predated the American issue by a month, resequences the tracks and replaces “The Spiderbite Song” with “Slow Motion.” The album was reissued as a two-disc set in 2006, the second disc containing a remaster of the album in 5.1 SurroundSound. All of the Lips’ subsequent albums also have been reissued with the SurroundSound treatment.)
The Japanese edition of Race for the Prize includes two different mixes of that song, and single-disc stereo mixes of three songs from Zaireeka — “Riding to Work in the Year 2025,” “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair” and “The Big Ol’ Bug Is the New Baby Now.” The first two of those songs appear, still in separated mixes, in the two-disc UK edition of that EP…thus reducing the commitment involved in listening to them from four stereos to “just” two. The American Waitin’ for a Superman EP includes that song’s radio edit, two remixes and stereo mixes of “Riding to Work” and “Thirty-Five Thousand Feet.” The British 2-CD version of that EP, like its predecessor, repeats the separated-mix offering of those same two songs.
At first glance, the story of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots sounds like The Terminator done as anime, with a female resistance fighter standing in for the young John Connor: “Her name is Yoshimi / She’s a black belt in karate / Working for the city / She has to discipline her body / ‘Cause she knows that it’s demanding / To defeat those evil machines.” A few interludes between songs emphasize this with crowd noises — the populace cheering on the intrepid Yoshimi — and spoken asides in Japanese (courtesy of the Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-We). Rather than being bent on humanity’s extermination, though, the robots turn out to be drawn to its…well, to its humanity. (Perhaps that’s why they’re pink.) “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” illuminates this: “As the lights blink faster and brighter / One more robot learns to be / Something more than a machine / When it tries the way it does / Makes it seem like it can love.” The real theme of the disc, though, is the importance of living one’s life to the fullest, rather than letting “those evil machines” take it away. The Lips develop that theme in the album’s second half, in “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” “It’s Summertime,” the pastoral “In the Morning of the Magicians,” the self-explanatory “All We Have is Now,” and most touchingly, in the radiant “Do You Realize??”: “Everyone you know someday will die / And instead of saying all of your goodbyes / Let them know you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last / You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ’round.” On most of the songs, the band sustains the rich, organic sound of the previous album, with a bit more emphasis on acoustic guitars. “Fight Test” (which resembles Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” closely enough that Stevens successfully sued for royalties and a songwriting credit) and the instrumental “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2” both incorporate more playful synthesizers, sound effects and electronic percussion than the group used on its last disc. But from start to finish, the Flaming Lips uphold the melodic standard that made The Soft Bulletin so outstanding, and broaden the music’s cinematic scope as well. (The reissue includes the songs “Up Above the Daily Hum” and “If I Go Mad (Funeral in My Head),” a version of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1” in Japanese, a 5.1 SurroundSound mix of the entire album, and several remixes and videos.)
The Fight Test EP combines that song with two unreleased originals, covers of songs by Beck, Radiohead and Kylie Minogue, and a remix of “Do You Realize??” The Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell EP combines two remixes of that song with another remix of “Do You Realize??” and four unreleased originals. Yoshimi Wins! collects tracks from several radio station performances (plus one from AOL Sessions), including the songs covered on Fight Test and, in an oblique hint of things to come, a cover of the seasonal classic “White Christmas” (which originally appeared on a 2003 holiday compilation).
Restless capitalized on its former act with two archival sets in 2002. Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid collects the first three long-players and the debut EP, adding about a dozen bonus tracks, including covers of Led Zeppelin, the Who, Neil Young and Sonic Youth (but omitting the “Summertime Blues” cover that appears on some editions of Hear It Is). The Day They Shot a Hole in the Jesus Egg combines In a Priest Driven Ambulance with a disc of demos. The Shambolic Birth and Early Life is a 12-song promotional release that samples both box sets.
The lines that open At War With the Mystics set forth the album’s principal theme: “If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch / Would you do it? / If you could make everybody poor, just so you could be rich / Would you do it?” On this disc, the Flaming Lips themselves are the “mystics” waging war (or at least declaring it) on people who let their cravings for wealth, power and control overtake their lives and threaten to overtake everyone else’s. In “The W.A.N.D.” (The Will Always Negates Defeat), Coyne proclaims, “We’re the enforcers / The sorcerer’s orphans…Time after time, those fanatical minds / Try to rule all the world.” Over the laid-back, hip-hop-flavored groove of “Haven’t Got a Clue” (its sound inspired, perhaps, by the group’s 2003 tour with Beck), the singer tells an attention whore, “I still can’t believe all your plastic surgeries / And now it’s everybody’s problem that you’re unhappy / Aww, come on!” In a few songs, though, the Lips follow through logically on Yoshimi‘s theme, singing about lives slipping away for good. “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung” is the story of two lovers unable to outrun the flood of lava, comforting themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be preserved hand in hand forever. In “Mr. Ambulance Driver,” when the paramedics arrive too late, the narrator mourns, “Though I’ll live somehow…I’m wishing that I was the one / That wasn’t gonna be here anymore.” “Vein of Stars” and “The Sound of Failure” could almost pass for outtakes from Love’s classic albums — except that a Love song with the line, “So go tell Britney, and go tell Gwen…” would be eerily prescient, even for the lysergic traveler Arthur Lee. Despite such high points, At War With the Mystics falls short of the high standard set by Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin…and its singles are to blame. Rather than letting the disc’s most radio-friendly tracks identify themselves, as they did with such glories as “Do You Realize??” and “Race for the Prize,” the Lips sound as if they’re trying consciously to create them, with startlingly weak results. “The W.A.N.D.” and “Free Radicals” serve mainly to show that funk (to say nothing of Coyne’s attempt at a Prince-like falsetto on the latter) is not a strong suit. “It Overtakes Me” (another groove-oriented track, with P-Funkified cartoon voices) and “The Yeah Yeah Song” come off as just cute. (The special issue includes five studio out-takes, a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” — originally recorded for a Queen tribute album — a 5.1 SurroundSound mix, and several video clips.)
By 2007, the Flaming Lips seemed to be all over the pop-culture landscape. Their songs were showing up in movies (50 First Dates, The Heartbreak Kid, How to Deal, Spider-Man 3 and Wedding Crashers, to name just a few) and in commercials. The band “graduated” to amphitheaters and the summer festival circuit; Wayne Coyne walking over audiences in his giant clear-plastic ball became one of the must-see moments of the concert season. Back in Oklahoma, the Lips performed at the state’s centennial celebration that year, sharing the stage with such homies as Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith. (Two years later, “Do You Realize??” would beat the other nine candidates combined on a state ballot to become Oklahoma’s official rock song.) So, like any charming, winsome pop band on its way to world domination, the group took the traditional next step to winning the hearts of millions: a Christmas movie. Of course, the Flaming Lips are much less likely to identify (or be identified) with Rudolph, Frosty and Charlie Brown than with Charlie-in-the-Box and the other misfit toys. Starring the band members, along with relatives, friends, associates and even a few people with actual acting experience, Christmas on Mars is the story of Major Syrtis (played by Drozd) and his efforts to boost the morale of the Martian colonists, and the help he receives from a green “alien super-being” (played by Coyne) who turns out to be curious about Christmas. The film score ranges from icy Eno-esque ambient/drone pieces (“Once Beyond Hopelessness,” “The Distress Signals of Celestial Objects”) to quasi-symphonic-structured tracks (“The Secret of Immortality: This Strange Feeling, This Impossible World”) to elegantly melodic numbers like “Suicide and Extraordinary Mistakes,” “Space Bible With Volume Lumps” and “The Horrors of Isolation: The Celestial Dissolve, Triumphant Hallucination, Light Being Absorbed.” Esquivel himself might’ve enjoyed putting this soundtrack on the stereo in his space-age bachelor pad, although with song titles like “In Excelsior Vaginalistic” and “The Gleaming Armament of Marching Genitalia,” he probably would’ve kept the album cover itself hidden from his date. (The score and movie are available in a two-disc package.)
The Flaming Lips might have taken their symphonic-pop style as far as possible or felt the next album’s theme demanded a different sonic approach; Embryonic‘s songs tell of collapse and chaos, and how those who survive it can make a fresh start, particularly if they re-align their lives with the natural order of the universe. The narrator of “The Ego’s Last Stand” tells those who panic at such changes, “There’s no way back / It’s complete devastation…How can you still believe what you believe?” Later, the Vocoderized singer of “The Impulse” expresses compassion for one reluctant to relinquish comforts of the past. Embryonic has a harder, rawer sound than the group’s last few albums, with more distortion on the electric guitars, noisy electronic treatments and pounding drums (courtesy of Kliph Scurlock, who began touring with the Lips in 2002 but joined officially in 2007), with glistening keyboard washes coursing through the tumult like meteor showers through a turbulent night sky. The quartet plays “Convinced of the Hex,” “See the Leaves” and “Silver Trembling Hands” with angular guitar stabs and chugging rhythms that echo Hawkwind. “Sagittarius Silver Announcement” even includes a lyrical mention of “Silver Machine.” The astrological motif continues in the slow-building space-ballad “Gemini Syringes” and the instrumentals “Aquarius Sabotage,” “Scorpio Sword” and “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast.” Even on comparatively tranquil numbers, the Lips throw instrumental discord into the mix. “Evil” floats along in the band’s classic ballad style, until a buzzing keyboard drone punctures it. (“If” essentially reprises that song, without the disruption.) The band takes a similar tack on “Powerless,” disturbing the mantra-like calm with an abrasive guitar break. Psychedelic-pop duo MGMT plays on the pounding “Worm Mountain”; Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O contributes her vocals to “Gemini Syringes,” the suitably playful “I Can Be a Frog” (wrapping up her parade of animal vocalizations with a giggly “Do you want me to, uhhh, do any more…y’know? Just let me know”) and the album-closing “Watching the Planets.” Although not as instantly fetching as Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin, Embryonic works with repeated spins. It shows that the Flaming Lips aren’t willing to let themselves get too comfortable in an established style, and heralds a new direction for the group — one that sounds likely to produce as much great music as their symphonic phase of the preceding decade, or the psychedelic-pop-prankster phase of the ‘90s. (iTunes and Amazon.com both offer four extra tracks with the download of Embryonic.)
The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic image and elaborate stage shows have long drawn comparisons to Pink Floyd. So have the band’s richly layered recordings. (Zaireeka certainly took the concept of quadraphonic sound further than the Floyd ever could have.) Perhaps that’s why the rawness of its remake of The Dark Side of the Moon — a collaboration with the group Stardeath and White Dwarfs (an Oklahoma band started by several members of the Lips’ road crew, including singer/guitarist Dennis Coyne, Wayne’s nephew), Henry Rollins and Peaches — seems self-conscious, even deliberate: to circumvent any suggestion that it’s a “tribute album.” (A lyric change in “Money” humorously underscores this: “I’m in the low-fidelity first-class traveling set.”) Still, this is far from a deconstruction; apart from Stardeath’s discofied approach to “On the Run,” all the songs remain recognizable. The Lips render “Breathe” as a feedback-drenched garage-rock stomp. Stardeath applies similar ‘60s garage-punk touches to “Time,” mixing abrasive electronics with buzzing, tremolo-heavy guitars. (Imagine the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” covered by Suicide.) The Lips perform “The Great Gig in the Sky” with vaguely Latin touches, and take an almost comical electronic approach to “Money,” right down to the chintzy-sounding synthetic percussion and Vocoderized harmonies. Rollins handles all the spoken-word asides; Peaches takes Clare Torry’s role, singing on “Speak to Me” and “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Rollins delivers most of the lines almost verbatim, like an actor in a radio program, while the heavy distortion on Peaches’ vocals makes a comparison between her and Torry almost impossible. Even with Embryonic (released just two months earlier) modifying what fans might expect of the Flaming Lips’ sound, it’s hard not to feel that this lo-fi approach sells the band short. In the end, though, this remake seems simply to be a self-amused side trip — neither reverent tribute nor provocative deflation.