The Flaming Lips in Retrospect: 1983-1989.
"Boy you play so loud that you could wake the dead." If one could wake the dead with music, The Flaming Lips first three albums probably came pretty close.
The fact that The Flaming Lips have endured for thirty years is a true testament to the passionate staying power of Wayne Coyne’s cerebellum assaulting band of musical misfits. Thirty years of never knowing what to expect next. They’ve released fourteen studio albums to date, and a fifteenth will be released this April. They’ve excited, frightened, and enlightened us. They’ve left their mark on the rock and roll landscape. They’ve blown our speakers and our eardrums. They certainly are different, and they’ve been that way for a long time.
The Flaming lips did not magically appear in 1999 with the release of “The Soft Bulletin.” That is when they kicked the door to mainstream success open for good. They nudged the door a bit with the single “She Don’t Use Jelly” off of their 1993 album “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart,” but it didn’t begin then. The strange journey of The Flaming Lips dates back to 1983.
The history of the Flaming Lips is extensive. With such a robust catalog of music, it’s difficult to apply appropriate attention to each distinctive phase of the band all the time. Things get shelved. Songs collect dust. Set lists grow and evolve with the introduction of new material into the catalog while older material is all but forgotten. The Flaming Lips certainly did not alienate their original fan base. They’ve grown and invited the fans to grow with them. With only two original members in the band and, in my opinion, six distinct phases of line-ups, representing each period isn’t really a top live performance priority. Add the fact that they didn’t have a hit until 1994 and one might be lead to believe that they aren’t sure how well the old songs are known by their current audience. Finally, consider their experimentally euphoric and cosmically melodious symphonies nowadays and their early acid punk type jams might throw off the vibe a bit. There is a lot of speculation as to why The Lips only sporadically play an early song live. They cannot, however, be accused of trying to distance their name from their past. Wayne Coyne obviously likes the old stuff. The old records have all been rereleased individually on vinyl, as compilations, and as box sets. The documentary “The Fearless Freaks” provides excellent information and commentary on the early years. Artists don’t typically rerelease material that they are ashamed of. Maybe there isn’t a reason. Nostalgia hits everyone differently, I suppose. My nostalgic affection for early Lips records is probably different than that of The Lips. This historical perspective will hopefully appeal to old fans and pick at the curiosity of newer ones.
The Flaming Lips released three albums in the 1980’s after their eponymous debut EP that featured the cynically enthusiastic anthem “My Own Planet.” Original singer Mark Coyne left the band in 1985. From that point until 1989, the line up consisted of Wayne Coyne on guitar and vocals, Michael Ivins on bass guitar, and Richard English on drums. They recorded their full length debut album, “Hear it is” in 1986. To listen to “Hear it is” in contrast to the band’s most recent album “Embryonic,” is akin to listening to two different bands from separate genres. “Hear it is” is very much a punk album. It is similar in sound to Husker Du’s later albums mixed with some Replacements and a psychedelic experience. The Lip’s first three albums have been released on a two disc collection entitled “Finally the Punk Rockers are Taking Acid.” That is the best way to describe them, especially as the eighties progressed. The Lip’s got, well, weirder. “Hear it is” is actually the tamest of the eighties albums. The content pushes a few song structure envelopes, but the three piece relied heavily on standard distorted guitars, bass, and drumming that bordered on spastic. The studio effects and instrumental experimentation that the Lips have come to be known for wouldn’t prominently appear until the release of “In a Priest Driven Ambulance” in 1990, which introduced producer Dave Fridmann, and a more polished sound ensued on 1992’s “Hit to Death in the Future Head.” Without deep pockets with which to pour into recording, mixing, and producing, the Lips had to get creative with the resources that they had for their first three albums. Songs like the cathartic “She is Death” and the mind bending “Charlie Manson Blues” off of “Hear it is” would be staples at their live shows for years. From 1986 until around 1989 or 1990, the live performances low budget pyrotechnics and effects included a bottle of lighter fluid and a book of matches. Wayne would flip a crash symbol, fill it with fluid, set it ablaze, and commence beating it with a mallet in the center of the stage. This is a far cry from their modern space bubbles and confetti cannons. The Lips have never been concerned with whether or not they should, rather, if they could they did. Carbon monoxide poisoning was probably a very real threat at those early shows, especially when they decided to rev a motorcycle engine on stage in a cramped concert venue setting.
1987’s “Oh My Gawd” is a brilliant punk album. The word “punk” could be viewed a misnomer for the Lip’s early music, but it is the only recognizable term that I, and many others, can use to attribute to their sound. Categorize them with the early Butthole Surfers or Chainsaw Kittens albums if you will, but trying to categorize a genre to fit them in is a frustrating task. They’ve influenced so many bands to date that it’s hard to distinguish between their contemporaries, their influences, and those they’ve influenced. They had the symptoms of a garage band with a twist of Pink Floyd like psychedelic ambition. “Oh My Gawd” revealed maturation in the song writing style of “Hear it is.” The songs became more dynamic, heavy, and for lack of a better word, catchy. While “Hear it is” was certainly a catchy album, the flow of the album was a bit choppy. The concept of the album as a fluent piece of work was nearly absent, but the songs were all great, which is typical of a promising band that is still discovering its sound. Nearly thirty years later, it’s obvious that the band never settled on any one sound. Every phase of the band is mind bogglingly unique. “Oh My Gawd” kicks off with the extraordinary track “Everything’s Exploding.” “Boy you play so loud that you could wake the dead” Wayne sings in the opening verse. He is undoubtedly singing about himself. It is a perfect blend of powerfully distorted bar chords and explosive drumming, with a soft bridge-like interlude that launches back into the final chorus. Other highlights from the album include the lovers lament “Can’t exist,” the galloping “Prescription: Love,” the introspectively dark “Love Yer Brain,” and “Ode to C.C. (Part II),” which reveals “hell’s got all the good bands anyway.” (The latter two songs have been played numerous times throughout the past ten years, I’ve heard)
The Flaming Lips released a third and final album with Richard English in 1989. There second to last offering with Restless Records, “Telepathic Surgery” was initially intended to be a concept album. That plan never came to fruition and the songs were traditionally tracked. The Lip’s began experimenting heavily with sound collages on “Telepathic Surgery,” and while this new approach sometimes yielded results that were pretty wild and require a strong palette for the bizarre, there are moments of brilliance and beauty that are evident in the track “UFO Story.” The piano melody that comprises the latter half of the song is entrancing. Songs like “Fryin Up,” Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon,” Begs and Achin,” and “Chrome Plated Suicide” follow the verse chorus verse method mostly and reaffirm The Lip’s knack for writing intuitive and catchy songs. “Chrome Plated Suicide” is often suggested to be the first example of a vocal style shift from Coyne. His voice is more peaceful and harmonic on later Lip’s albums. His pitch is slightly higher and his delivery is less gruff. His Midwestern accent also seems to fade a little.
By the time The Flaming Lip’s released “In a Priest Driven Ambulance” in 1989, Richard English had left the band. His vocal ability in addition to his drumming deserves a nod of attention. His replacement Nathan Roberts favored a more structured approach to drumming. Gone forever would be the crazy fills, rolls, and symbol assaults that English perfected. To listen to the modern Lip’s is to understand that we probably never will see “Everything’s Exploding” played live. For their fourth album, Jonathan Donahue joined the band on second guitar. This alleviated some of the stress of playing as a trio. It also meant more input from more people. Punk rock ceases to be truly punk rock the more complicated it gets. The ethos may still be influential, but the sound of a three piece is gone when it becomes a quartet. Although The Lips were still a rock band until 1997 (the departure of then guitarist Ronald Jones is credited as the catalyst for ending the band’s run as a traditional rock band with traditional performances), the evolution of the band from its first three albums to its fourth bade farewell to the acid punk era even though they would continue to heavily incorporate early material into their sets until the “Zaireeka” “Soft Bulletin” era.