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The Flaming Lips

+ {Electric Wurms}

There is the weird and wonderful, and then there is The FLAMING LIPS (named so after a dreamed-up pseudo-religious porn film, or an unheard-of drug metaphor). Obscure as their name would suggest, the revolving-door group, led by stalwart space cadet, Wayne Coyne, went virtually unnoticed outside the confines of underground cult-dom for a dozen preparatory years. Then, almost out of the blue, the single `She Don’t Use Jelly’ – lifted from an album dating back to ’93 – gave them a modicum of success, in fact twice in the mid-90s, leading to subsequent breakthrough sets such as “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”.
The FLAMING LIPS were formed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1983, by Wayne Coyne and his brother Mark, who reputedly stole instruments from a church hall to get their act off the ground. After a rare and weird eponymous EP in 1985, main singer Mark bailed out to get married, leaving guitarist brother Wayne (now the singer), bassist Michael Ivins and umpteenth drummer Richard English to cut their debut album, HEAR IT IS (1986) {*5}. Taking their neo-psychedelic cue from The 13th FLOOR ELEVATORS and RED KRAYOLA, with a little JESUS & MARY CHAIN-meets-BLACK FLAG thrown in to the mix, the ‘Lips were different entity as they plied their irreverent mournful mess on the likes of `Jesus Shootin’ Heroin’, `Charlie Manson Blues’ and a fuzz-fuelled take of the EDDIE COCHRAN nugget, `Summertime Blues’.
For OH MY GAWD!!!… THE FLAMING LIPS (1987) {*6}, the trio trip out (or trip up) on acid-rock; cranked up really high via groovy skull-crushers from `Everything’s Explodin’’ and the 9-minute `One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning’, to `Maximum Dream For Evil Knievel’ and `Prescription: Love’. Released a few years later, TELEPATHIC SURGERY (1989) {*5}, fitted much the same identikit profile; LED ZEPPELIN-like riffs (they shout them down on `Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon’), and SONIC YOUTH’s off-kilter post-garage; check out the CD version for the 23-minute trance-blast of `Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory’, plus `Chrome Plated Suicide’ or the JOHN CARPENTER-esque `U.F.O. Story’.
A growing reputation meant that with wild, climactic live appearances (Richard English had now been superseded by drummer Nathan Roberts and MERCURY REV guitarist buddy, Jonathan “Dingus” Donahue), the quartet could confidentially gel for their fourth album, IN A PRIEST DRIVEN AMBULANCE (1990) {*8}. The loosely-based concept set saw the all-new-improved and expanded FLAMING LIPS conquer their demons; even on Harold Adamson’s old Louis Armstrong chestnut, `What A Wonderful World’. Religion and fear – with songs about Jesus, God, Mother Superior and Lucifer – reared its sanctimonious/ugly head throughout, although the wig-outs of `Unconsciously Screamin’’ and `Mountain Side’, offered a noise-pop solution.
Subsequently signing to Warner Bros., and in between appearing at the Reading Festival of ’92 and promotional tours, The FLAMING LIPS delivered their paean to noisy, shoegazing acid-bubblegum in HIT TO DEATH IN THE FUTURE HEAD (1992) {*7}. Major-label status was probably a hindrance to the experimental quartet. Featuring ten songs of varied weirdness, and one near-30-minute ear-assault of an untitled dirge, the ‘Lips sounded almost accessible and dream-pop driven on `Felt Good To Burn’, `Gingerale Afternoon (The Astrology Of A Saturday)’ and `Talkin’ ‘Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever)’.
With Donahue’s commitments to MERCURY REV leading him back to his own neo-psych roots, and guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd, replacing him and Nathan forthwith, TRANSMISSIONS FROM THE SATELLITE HEART (1993) {*8}, finally consolidated their place among the indie glitterati; the record gate-crashed the charts at No.108. It was a start. Buoyed by their aforementioned freaky, pro-vaseline dirge, `She Don’t Use Jelly’, there was also a flavour of the post-grunge/post-shoegazer times in amphetamine-rock songs `Plastic Jesus’ (penned by the obscure George Cromarty), `Turn It On’, the MOTT THE HOOPLE-esque `Pilot Can At The Queer Of God’, `Be My Head’ and `Moth In The Incubator’.
For some unknown reason, the equally masterful CLOUDS TASTE METALLIC (1995) {*8}, failed to register a chart place, although Coyne’s whimsical vision was still on course; titles like the great songs within came via `This Here Giraffe’, `Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles’, `Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World’, `Christmas At The Zoo’ and `Brainville’; the latter attendant 45, heralded the weird-oid narrative B-side, `Waterbug’.
Their avant-garde psychedelic, BARRETT/FLOYD, cocktail days behind them, at least for a while, The FLAMING LIPS secured weirdo posterity after giving birth to the drug-orientated, 8-song/4-disc, ZAIREEKA (1997) {*7}. This unique and historic culmination could be played as four individual discs, or, with the addition of other CD-players (yes, we’ve all got them handy), a second, third or fourth in sync, depending how you felt in its limitless powers to display listener participation. Overall the space-time-continuum theory works on some levels, but as for explaining what tracks suit what media, etc., one would have leave that for a logistical alien with four brains.
Taking a sharp detour and ending up in Dave Fridmann’s upstate New York studio, the ‘Lips (with Jones) recorded the spooky but highly commercial and intentionally accessible, THE SOFT BULLETIN (1999) {*9}. Adding the said Fridmann formula, the album sounded unsurprisingly similar to MERCURY REV’s “Deserter’s Songs”, although relying largely on its YES-type chord changes/structures and BEACH BOYS multi-dimensional harmonies, via Coyne attempting to sing in tune (possibly for the very first time). The UK Top 40 album spawned a couple of hit singles in `Race For The Prize’ and the echo-fronted `Waitin’ For A Superman’, while mankind’s creatures, religion and the universe are scrutinized through `A Spoonful Weighs A Ton’, `The Spark That Bled’, `The Spiderbite Song’ and `Feeling Yourself Disintegrate’.
The group – adding drummer Kliph Scurlock – returned three years later with an album just as stunning and as beautiful as their previous effort. Influenced by Japanese counter-culture, YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS (2002) {8*}, was yet another concept album – kind of. From the lush title track, with its swirling analogue synth to the emotionally sweeping `Do You Realize??’, “Yoshimi…” could be categorized easily alongside GRANDADDY’s “The Sophtware Slump” and RADIOHEAD’s “Kid A”, although it seemed that The FLAMING LIPS had a lot more fun. `Fight Teat’ was issued in 2003, an EP of B-sides, remixes and obscure covers that extended the band’s diversity even further. In amongst the oddities was the truly hilarious and rather downbeat cover of Kylie’s monster hit `Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’. Beginning in a dramatic orchestral sweep, the listener couldn’t help but think that the ‘Lips were extracting the urine a little, while making a notable improvement on the original. More obvious was their choices of covering RADIOHEAD’s `Knives Out’ and touring partner BECK’s `Golden Age’.
Over the two decades up until now, The FLAMING LIPS re-vamped the odd rendition:- `What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love & Understanding’ (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ), `Thank You’ + `Communication Breakdown’ (LED ZEPPELIN), `Death Valley ‘69’ (SONIC YOUTH), `Strychnine’ (The SONICS), `After The Gold Rush’ (NEIL YOUNG), `All That Jazz’ + `Happy Death Men’ (ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN), `Life On Mars’ (DAVID BOWIE), `Ice Drummer’ (SUICIDE), `Chosen One’ + `Little Drummer Boy’ (SMOG), `Raindrops’ (BACHARACH-DAVID).
The ‘Lips were back in 2006 with their highest charting album of their career (US Top 20/UK Top 10): AT WAR WITH THE MYSTICS {*8} and its attendant Top 20 smash, `The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’. Released almost simultaneously with the sledgehammer protests of NEIL YOUNG’s “Living With War”, the album was a less overt but no less scathing verdict on W. Bush and his cronies, as well as the terrorists they claimed to be fighting. Groovy ‘Floyd-ian psychedelia was the vehicle for the message, road tested at assorted vintage checkpoints – dig the sample in `It Overtakes Me’, a track used for the Beck’s TV beer ad. Realising his dream, or indeed hallucination about the making of a movie, Coyne and his fantastical ‘Lips crew, joined hands around the mistletoe for their Eraserhead-meets-2001: A Space Odyssey flick, CHRISTMAS ON MARS (2008) {*6}; released on both CD and DVD format. The score was ambitious, but a nice sidestep to the otherwise weird and wondrous world of The FLAMING LIPS.
Back on Earth’s terra firma, umpteenth set EMBRYONIC (2009) {*7} transported the trio back from space to Top 10 territory, although Britain was losing interest in Wayne’s wayward antics and other astrological noodling. Clocking in at 70 minutes, the record embraced Krautrock, free-jazz and distorted dub, although several of the pieces fall short of their targets. A million miles distant from their classic set of a decade ago, the swirls and spacy turns highlighted at least a handful of good tunes in `Powerless’, `Silver Trembling Hands’ and `Gemini Syringes’.
If one’d ever wondered how PINK FLOYD’s cosmic 1973 classic would’ve sounded in the hands of another group, then The FLAMING LIP’s 2010 re-vamp of THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON {*7}, was its epic conclusion. Played in sequence and in its entirety with the help of Stardeath and White Dwarfs, HENRY ROLLINS and PEACHES, it was a dutiful companion piece and pleasant diversion to “Embryonic”.
On the back of a star-studded collaborative set, THE FLAMING LIPS AND HEADY FWENDS (2012) {*6}, comprising hard-to-obtain and rare joint efforts alongside BON IVER, NICK CAVE, YOKO ONO and ERYKAH BADU, the band’s comeback was complete in April 2013. Entitled THE TERROR {*7}, their momentous PINK FLOYD tapestry of delights (and a little via the sound of electro-rockers, SILVER APPLES) were not lost in the cosmic mix here. Darker than any moon mission, the set captured Wayne in a moody strop, having split with his partner; Drozd, too, had his problems with substance abuse. Augmented by fifth member, Derek Brown (guitar), its 55 minutes are clogged up by the 13-minutes of `You Lust’, recalling the “big boys don’t cry” mantra of 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love”, many moons ago. An album that will have its rewards after several listens rather a few, its more accessible moments for now are `Be Free, A Way’, `Butterfly, How Long It Takes To Die’ and the angular, `Look… The Sun Rising’.
The following spring, the ‘Lips were minus Scurlock; the usual musical differences overriding alleged remarks and conflicting criticisms. Meanwhile, both Coyne and Drozd (plus Charlee and Chance Cook and Linear Downfall cohorts Will Hicks and Dom Marcoaldi) surfaced as ELECTRIC WURMS on the neo-prog half-hour trip, MUSIK, DIE SCHWER ZU TWERK (2014) {*6}. Bookended by the ORB-ish-titled `I Could Only See Clouds’ and a kaleidoscopic take of YES’s `Heart Of The Sunrise’, Krautrock was alive and flaming in the U S of A. Even more so for the freaky FLAMING LIPS’ next collaborative tribute venture, WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FWENDS (2014) {*6}, an acid-fried shocker that BEATLES/Sgt Pepper “fwans” might want to avoid. The inspirational brainwave to feature a post-Wrecking Ball MILEY CYRUS (with techno accomplice MOBY) on `Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and `A Day In The Life’ (alongside New Fumes), was probably the eclectic set’s saving grace. Didn’t the mighty RESIDENTS try all this weird and wonderful formula yonks ago? The FLAMING LIPS reciprocated the deal with CYRUS when they featured on her digital-only space-pop set, `Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz’ (2015), allowing the little lady in question credibility within the stifling alt-rock world.
The unlikely pairing re-emerged (Miley in cameo on `We The Family’) on the band’s more melancholy and eclectic work, OCZY MLODY (2017) {*7} – meaning “the eyes of the young” in Polish! If one can think of the whimsical PRIMUS without the pounding bass and off-kilter vox, Coyne and Co deliver an album of tripped-out Moon-based fairy tales for the already initiated. The mid-table chart returns on both sides of the Atlantic were again disappointing, but like everything else The FLs explore, they left behind some crackers in `Galaxy I Sink’, `How??’, the title track and, at a push, `Listening To The Frogs With Demon Eyes’. Some of the same tracks were re-awakened/re-imagined for a Record Store Day live mini-set/EP, ONBOARD THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION CONCERT FOR PEACE (2017) {*6}.
Lost in an abandoned star out with the playful prog-rock perimeters of one’s psyche, the part-narrative fantasy/fairy-tale KING’S MOUTH: MUSIC AND SONGS (2019) {*9} was a trip too far for fickle fans to undertake; thus its failure to crack the chart lists. Yet this was genius Wayne Coyne and Co’s return to project sanity in terms of amiable, experimental alt-rock, and anything else reviewers pinned on their lapels. Set apart by the spoken-word interludes of former CLASH/BIG AUDIO DYNAMITE icon Mick Jones, the otherworldly song-cycle concept recalled a breezy PINK FLOYD, The RESIDENTS, The MOODY BLUES, or even SPIRIT’s “Potatoland”. Would Yoshimi have approved after she’d fought off the Pink Robots? Probably. And if there was any underlying moral message about a King sacrificing everything for his people, it certainly ruled out one leader in particular. From the wondrous `The Sparrow’ to the sugar-coated `Giant Baby’ (mmm…); and on to the gloopy `Mother Universe’, the concept became clearer. Their reason to only initially unfetter the set on vinyl was its commercial downfall, but however exasperating, that was just simply Wayne’s way of toying with his listeners. The simplistic `How Many Times’ counted out its own chorus, whilst the SPIRIT/“Potatoland” mood swing of `Funeral Parade’, plus `Electric Fire’ and `All For The Life Of The City’, were as dramatic as they suggested. For ye olde/newbie progsters everywhere, it was worth checking out the fragile and technicolour dreamscapes within climactic pieces, `Mouth Of The King’ and the YES-like `How Can A Head’. A modern-day masterpiece to many, a tad twee and childlike for others not yet smitten by the indefatigable FLAMING LIPS, fans might be puzzling as to why it’s taken so long for them to get back on track.
© MC Strong 1999-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Apr2013-Jul2019

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