The Flaming Lips have been active together for over thirty years now. Wayne Coyne and his gang of misfit mind-benders have dedicated three entire decades, and a majority of their lives, to this mysterious band. Some may ask what the mystery is. We’ve grown to know and love the antics of America’s greatest modern pysch band over the span of their career. There have been several lineups and vastly different sounds from The Flaming Lips. They’ve become so familiar, yet, they have always had a knack for working like chameleons, transforming at a whim. Experimentation is the heart and soul of the band; it’s always been what kept pushing them forward. In fact, in the latter half of those thirty years, The Flaming Lips never once did anything twice. Coyne and co. always stayed ahead of the curve, setting the trends. Maybe not trends. But what they have set is the standard for pushing a band’s creative boundaries. From parking lots full of stereos, fields full of beach balls, to islands of cosmic isolation, the band has spent the last fifteen years in wild sonic venues. True innovation from a band is rarely seen because in the music industry it is hard to strike gold; so why ruin a good thing, they ask. It is a question that The Flaming Lips have never seemed to understand. So walk through the past fifteen years and watch the Lips transform, battle Pink Robots, celebrate Christmas on Mars, drop acid with Ke$ha, and everything in between. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Suddenly Everything Has Changed: ‘The Soft Bulletin’ is released, and a new era begins.
1999. Our heroes have caught lightning in a bottle once before (1993’s “She Don’t Use Jelly”), but have struggled to repeat. They have just lost their guitarist, and depending on who you asked, it could have been the final blow. A lack of guitars was a blessing in disguise; the band invited new orchestral sounds like strings and synths. People involved with the making of ‘The Soft Bulletin’ have said the feeling was that it was a last ditch effort, and that no one believed they would get the opportunity to follow the release.
But ‘The Soft Bulletin’ was released, and (you guessed right) they were certainly allowed to follow it. It was a massive underground success, and the band’s first cohesive album. The songs have a strong character that was nowhere to be found before, while Coyne’s shaky singing leads the Lips and listeners everywhere through soundscapes of tension, love, and paranoia.
Fight Test: ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’…and wins.
2002. Success and opportunity! Likely the first feeling of security in the business our heroes have felt since the explosion of “She Don’t Use Jelly”. ‘Yoshimi’ deals with questions similar to the ones posed by ‘Soft Bulletin’ but on a grander scale, lyrically and musically. Where Coyne once sounded small and fragile during moments of weakness on ‘Soft Bulletin’, on ‘Yoshimi’ he is loud and inspired, presenting not a narrative, but a majestic setting. ‘The Soft Bulletin’ was an introspective ode to the emotions of the band in a time of uncertainty, but here, they reach for the stars with new life. This album engulfs listeners in a world that is shiny and unexplored. Noises like robot burps and jujitsu yelps paint the picture around the lush instrumentation and presented the Lips’ most polished work to date.
Goin’ On: ‘At War With the Mystics’ sings pretty pop songs, chews them up, and spits them out.
2006. Grammy’s and critical acclaim. By now, our heroes have proven that they have arrived and aren’t going anywhere. They’ve just delivered what will eventually be considered their magnum opus in ‘Yoshimi’, and have enjoyed more success through their past two albums than the eight earlier releases combined. With ‘Mystics’, the Lips understandably find their bright side and assemble their sunniest record to date. Their funkiest, catchiest head rattler enjoys fun and games, with their most radio-accessible work (“The W.A.N.D.”, “Free Radicals”, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”). ‘Mystics’ is often bouncy and goofy, but the Lips never let you forget who is throwing the party. Electronics blip and bloop through the singles, inspired by dreams and drawings by Coyne. Even the non-single sing-a-longs have the band’s classic flavor, ending hip shaking diddies with church organs and emergency sirens.
Your Spaceship Comes From Within: ‘Christmas On Mars’ scores a half-decade’s worth of filming.
2008. Mainstream stability is at our heroes’ fingertips. No matter what, people are going to know The Flaming Lips now. Not everyone is lucky enough to enjoy that kind of tenure; at this point in your career, you can stand to take some wild chances. But for Coyne, this was never a worry. He had been shooting and directing his film Christmas on Mars since 2001 when the time and place allowed it. Here, the final project is finally completed, and has the new found star power of the band to see release. The film was debuted at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington, and the film and original score were released to the public soon after. It is often overlooked in the greater picture of their albums for being a film score, but its triumph lies in the band’s opportunity to flex their muscles. The Lips had always had an ear for interesting noises and instruments, but on ‘Mars’, their experimentation really breaks daylight.
I Can Be A Frog: ‘Embronic’ erupts with new, freak out jam-rock.
2009. A new trail is blazed. It is clear that our heroes are no longer the ones we’ve come to know. While they always wore a different disguise, a different cape from project to project, ‘Embryonic’ quite literally implies a new birth. These Lips sound like an alien-led jam band grooving through the galaxies, and this album a journal of their cosmic journeys. Songs describe mythical powers and monstrous settings, often providing a context of astrology. The lyrics often scrap graceful melodies in favor of something like urgent warnings. Still, these paranoid cries take a back seat to instrumentation on ‘Embryonic’. The drums and bass have never sounded this forceful from the Lips, pumping out mechanical grooves like factory clockwork. Sound sits front and center, with an emphasis on atmosphere for the record.
Eclipse: ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ pays homage and passes the torch.
2009. Soon after a journey through groovy space, an unexpected stop is taken at the ‘Moon’. Yes, in this moment our heroes become self-aware of their titles and decide to honor the legends before them. Pink Floyd is a well known inspiration for the Lips, as it has been cited in several interviews. It was a perfect opportunity to pay tribute while inviting up and coming pysch bands (Stardeath, White Dwarfs, Henry Rollins and Peaches) to join in the celebration. Covering ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ made the most and least sense for the Lips to do. It is a beloved album that lives on as an epic classic in pop culture. And The Flaming Lips want to come in and mess with that? The songs are played differently, often swapping the organic flow of the Pink Floyd original for jagged, clunky space rock. Although some were offended by altering a classic, this was clearly a sincere effort from the band to honor one of their biggest influences while giving opportunity to newcomers.
That Ain’t My Trip: ‘The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends’ do drugs, and let us listen.
2012. You Must Be Upgraded. That’s the first declaration of our heroes and their collaborator, Ke$ha. ‘Heady Fwends’ is on par with the Lips’ infamous ‘Zaireeka’ in terms of experimentation. The Flaming Lips recorded with several of their favorite artists and bands to create this mind-boggling, head-turning, hazy mess. Artists such as Yoko Ono and Erykah Badu all the way to Nick Cave and Biz Markie make appearances, often spinning their typical conventions into classic Lips head-scratchers. The result may shock those interested to see their favorite artist’s cameo; ‘Heady Fwends’ is a strung out, panic of an album bordering on over dose. But hearing these caliber of artists contributing to the Lips’ Record Store Day release was a testament to how far they had come.
Turning Violent: ‘The Terror’ isolates a new sound from a haunting world.
2013. If ‘Heady Fwends’ was our heroes’ drug escapade, imagine ‘The Terror’ as the paralyzing, sober after effects. This is not a happy album. It is not a jam album. It is an album stripped of joy and hope. It was a concept that Coyne had addressed himself, describing it as the world without love. Because, as he points out, life will go on regardless. The album art paints a picture of the listening experience perfectly. ‘The Terror’ leaves the listener stranded, sun-baking in humming abyss. It is the moodiest record by the Lips and inspired an entirely new concert experience for the band. Gone were the days of giant Coyne hands and bubbles. The Lips now arrive in space outfits, surrounded by neon wiring and holding deformed infants. While ‘The Terror’ is quite unsettling, it shows range from the already impressive Lips and their ability to pin their listeners exactly where they want them.
And here we are.
Fifteen years later. Through the arms of uncertainty to galactic conquests and back, The Flaming Lips have never bored us. For years, they have worked to create music and experiences of love and expression out of respect for real creativity. It has always been a staple of the band. I first became aware of the band during a VH1 Rock Honors honoring The Who, in which The Flaming Lips paid tribute with a medley of The Who classic ‘Tommy’. While the other bands picked individual songs to play precisely, the Lips did just the opposite. An entire work was packed together in a new presentation to honor the ones responsible for the inspiration. I have watched the band closely ever since, seeing them transform at perhaps their highest rate, and have enjoyed every turn. And I will continue to do so as long as the band chooses to perform, because it will always be interesting. Our heroes are always moving forward, and always freaking out.