The Over/Under: The Flaming Lips

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The alt-rock world has produced very few acts as willfully weird, deliciously different, long-lived, ancient and justified as Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips. Regardless of the band’s lineup or era, frontman Wayne Coyne and whomever was around him at the moment (Michael Ivins and a ragtag band of fugitives from normal society who’ve darted in and out of the act during its two-plus-decade run) have created a body of work that—at once—stupefies in its lysergic brilliance, baffles in its Beach Boys-from-Mars juxtapositions and translates to perhaps the most memorable live experience of the past 20 years. The typical Flaming Lips performance features everything from fur-covered costumes, balloons, puppets, video projections and stage lighting that would make Pink Floyd blush with envy to giant hands, barrels of confetti and a man-sized plastic bubble in which a Dolce & Gabbana-white-suit-rocking Coyne communes with, and passes over, his audience. (All of which makes perfect sense when you consider that the band made its live debut in a transvestite club using instruments stolen from a local church hall). The Lips have suffered through their share of drama over the years—members who’ve left to pursue their spiritual calling, one (current multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd) whose decade-long struggle with heroin addiction saddled the band with a weighty psychic anchor and one (Ivins) who was the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident in which a wheel from another vehicle pinned him in his car—but have endured to become, perhaps, the elder statesmen of the indie era. The sort of act whose frontman responds to media questions with rejoinders such as “If someone was to ask me what instrument do I play, I would say, ‘The recording studio.’” Ladies and gentlemen, oh my gawd! … the Flaming Lips. And their five most overrated and five most underrated songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Flaming Lips Songs
1. “Do You Realize??” (2002)

It may now be the official rock song of Oklahoma—an honor the Lips won in March, beating out J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” (co-written by an Oklahoma schoolteacher), among other worthy contenders—but when you really listen to it, “Do You Realize??” is basically John Lennon’s “Mind Games” with different, more morbid lyrics: some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil, doing the mind guerilla, just like Lennon said. Big ups for featuring so prominently in a Hewlett-Packard ad, though; who’d have thunk the brainfry boys responsible for “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” would help sell PCs to the soccer-mom massive?

2. “She Don’t Use Jelly” (1993)
You can debate this tune on its (relatively slight) merits—it’s silly, kind of an alt-rock campfire song for the Lollapalooza crowd—or you can recall that back in the day, these guys made a surreal lip-synch appearance promoting the track on cheeseball teen drama Beverly Hills 90210, which prompted Ian Ziering’s eternally trying-too-hard character Steve Sanders to proclaim, “I’ve never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!” Guilt by association/epic fail.

3. “Race For The Prize (Remix)” (1999)
The Soft Bulletin may very well go down as one of “best albums of the ’90s” as so many have suggested (although not MAGNET; it didn’t even make our top 10 in 1999), but did the Lips really need an R&B remix to crack the airwaves? Were they that desperate for a hit? Evidently they must’ve thought so if they went to the trouble of bringing in Peter Mokran (whose credits include remix work for such luminaries as child-rapist R. Kelly, Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, Billy Ocean and perma-bent former TV host Paula Abdul) to give this track a spin through the wash. The musical tale of scientists taking on god and/or one another in a quest for glory could just as easily be Yes as the Flaming Lips. Ugh.

4. “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. I” (2002)
At the time this album came out, I couldn’t get my head around its concept-ness and wrote a review that raised the ire of at least a few readers (MAGNET staff, too?) by suggesting that it was little more than Coyne adopting “faux-Power Rangers horror-movie shtick … puzzling and disappointing.” These days, I think it’s cool that the Lips had the huevos to name an entire album after Boredoms Yoshimi P-We, who also contributed to it sonically. And I also marvel that the album may or may not be, in the online words of one fan, about “a girl in a Japanese all-girl’s band that has cancer (pink robots) and her fight to survive the chemo and treatment.” Whatever. The song’s still D.O.A. by Lips back-catalog standards.

5. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” (2006)
Lips labelmeister Warner Bros. has recently taken to calling the band’s recent (some might suggest, welcome) return to weirdness, Embryonic, a “man, what’s going on?” moment in their catalogue. The assessment is probably more hyperbole than fact given the group’s first decade worth of work, but this particular ditty came at the tail end of the band’s decade-long “blatantly commercial” period, to the point where Kraft actually used the track for a salad-dressing commercial (advantage: Flaming Lip$). I’m pretty sure At War With The Mystics completely slipped by my range of field awareness when it was released—you can call the Lips a lot of things, but “boring” usually isn’t one of them. Paul Simon for the oughts?

:: The Five Most Underrated Flaming Lips Songs
1.“Turn it On” (1993)

Back when it first poked its head above the grunge lite surrounding it, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart was the CD that accompanied my subway ride from the Upper West Side to Midtown—all the better to prepare myself for the bizarro world of Manhattan-based Corporate America, ’90s-style. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how the album’s lead track, “Turn It On,” escaped the notice of radio programmers (who did try to grab someone’s interest, albeit, unsuccessfully) or, more importantly, the indie kids themselves, who gave it a big miss despite its vast superiority to “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the album’s flukey hit single. “Turn it on and all way up, in the houses when you wake up,” Coyne sang before ending the affair with a giant dose of squalling feedback of the sort the band had been expertly conjuring for a decade or so. Awesome.

2. “Mountain Side” (1990)
In A Priest Driven Ambulance was probably the first Lips album that could truly be called classic; in hindsight, it stands as one of the group’s top three releases, a work so completely prescient in its acid-fried magnificence that the entirety of Mercury Rev’s career can be laid at its feet. (Which stands to reason, when you consider that Rev mainman Jonathan “Dingus” Donahue was a card-carrying Flaming Lips guitarist during this timeframe.) A rip-roaring, slash-and-burn bit of amphetamine hotrodding, with Coyne singing and playing as if his hair is on fire and the alt-nation watching every crooked move, waiting in the wings for their turn.

3. “The Sun” (1992)
The Lips have churned out a ton of b-sides over the years that probably better qualify as “underrated” (or hell, at least, “under-known”), but Hit To Death In The Future Head remains the least likely major-label album I’ve ever heard before or since. Carole King ripoff “The Sun” (replete with its tremolo-infected guitars, Magical Mystery Tour warped strings and catchy-as-hell verse-as-chorus) is absolutely, positively the loveliest bit of Syd Barrett-issue pop these guys have ever recorded. Not necessarily stoned, but … beautiful.

4. “Christmas At The Zoo” (1995)
Hey, Bob Dylan: If you’re going to record a Christmas song (oh, that’s right, you already have), you could do one helluva lot worse than this number from the hella underrated Clouds Taste Metallic, the Lips’ flopperoo follow-up to Transmissions From The Satellite Heart that was equal part Pet Sounds and All Things Must Pass. You’ll find me under the tree December 24th singing lustily along (probably with an egg nog or four around me) to one of the Lips’ finest moments: “There wasn’t any snow on Christmas Eve, but I knew what I should do/I thought I’d free the animals all locked up at the zoo.” Rumors that John Tesh is considering recording this prime bit of Lips-meat for an upcoming holiday album are, so far, unsubstantiated.

5. “Zaireeka” (1997)
Long before the uber-geeks at Wired magazine first coined the term, the Flaming Lips were already well acquainted with the concept of crowdsourcing. Zaireeka (the word is a combination of “Zaire” and “eureka,” which Coyne made up to symbolize the fusion of anarchy and genius represented by the band’s so-called “parking lot experiments” shows conducted in ’96-’97 in which he would create 50 cassette tapes to be played in synchronization, then invite fans to bring their cars to covered parking lots to play the 20-minute composition in unison, creating a decidedly Lips-like “surround sound” experience) is a four-disc album meant to be played at volume, on four different machines, to disorienting, dizzying effect. While the whole thing qualifies as a mindblowing journey to the center of your mind, “Riding To Work In The Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)” is everything The Soft Bulletin and its follow-ups wanted to be, but ultimately weren’t. Find three friends, get the disc and a half-rack and have yourselves a night of it.
“Riding To Work In The Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)”:

—Corey duBrowa

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