Hidden Gems: The Flaming Lips’ “The Flaming Lips”

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

Before they brought their exploding psychedelic orchestras to the masses—everywhere from 90210 to SpongeBob SquarePants—the Flaming Lips were just four weirdoes in the heart of middle America, trying to bridge the gap between punk rock and the trippy ‘60s pop they grew up with. Their self-titled debut EP owes as much to Black Flag as Jefferson Airplane, and it kick-started the journey of our generation’s greatest band.

The story of the group, and all those involved, is as all-American as you can get—hoping to give their children a better future, Tom and Dolly Coyne moved away from the coal mines of Pittsburgh to Norman, Okla., in 1961. They were a large working-class family with five kids, with Wayne only weeks old when they trekked across country to their new home. Wayne, along with little brother Mark (who came a year later), spent his formative years playing football with the older Coyne boys, soaking up the sounds of their Zeppelin and Who records like little brothers are supposed to.

As he grew older, Wayne became more interested in music and painting, using the money he made from working at Long John Silver’s and selling pot to buy a guitar. Mark Coyne became the star quarterback of the high-school football team, but he wasn’t your stereotypical jock. Wayne has described him as “a very intense person … He has boiled and drank his own blood. Has rescued countless animals … He consumed over a hundred doses of LSD one summer when he was 13 years old.” With Wayne on guitar, Mark on vocals and their friend Dave Kostka on drums, the boys started their own band, but still they knew that something was missing.

Michael Ivins grew up only a few blocks away from the Coynes, attending the same school as Mark, but they had never met before. Michael was an extremely shy kid who became fascinated with the punk and new wave of XTC and the Buzzcocks. After decking himself out in punk gear, even sporting a bleach-blonde afro-mohawk, Ivins bought a bass from a local pawnshop with the hopes of starting a band, though nothing ever came of it. By chance, Michael’s little brother threw a party in late ‘82, which Mark Coyne and his friends had crashed. After spotting Michael’s strange getup, Mark struck up a conversation, and invited him to jam with the nascent band.

A few days later, Ivins arrived at their practice space—an old grocery store, which now housed Tom Coyne’s office supply business. The boys took up shop in a former meat locker in back, where they crudely jammed on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and garage-band standard, Neil Hefti’s “Batman Theme.” For the next few weeks, they would practice relentlessly, while Wayne started writing and demoing the group’s first songs.

Their early sound combined their love of hardcore punk with the psychedelic sounds of Pink Floyd and the Beatles, but the y were ecstatic when they heard other bands accomplish what they set out to do. One night while tuned in to Oklahoma University’s radio station, Wayne heard Hüsker Dü’s cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” describing it as “a forceful, searing, religious spasm of melody and energy so out of control that the music is overwhelming even those who are playing it … I thought, ‘Finally, the punk rockers are taking acid!’”

Now even more inspired, Wayne and the boys started gigging around town, anywhere from black clubs to tranny bars. Though they almost named themselves the Tijuana Toads, the group dubbed themselves the Flaming Lips, which, despite many rumors, was purely a nonsensical title. Their live shows were raucous fun, if only for the band themselves. The audiences in the few clubs around were less than enthusiastic; the group was too trippy for the punks, too punk for the hippies and way too strange for everyone else. Eventually, Kostka left the drum kit, and after a few temporary substitutes, he was replaced by Richard English, who would stay with the band until ’89.

Over the next few months, the Lips became very serious about making a real recording, and as luck would have it, they landed a chance to do just that. Benson Sound, a gospel recording studio in nearby Oklahoma City, had owed Tom Coyne for some office supplies they had received. Since the local economy was so bad, and the studio was broke, they offered Tom some free recording time in exchange for the supplies. Tom helped the studio out by accepting the offer, and since he had no use for it, offered the recording sessions to his sons’ band. It was here that they previously recorded their first demos to send out to clubs for prospective gigs, but since they had a bunch of new material, they recorded five songs in late ‘83.

The self-titled EP opens with the droning “Bag Full Of Thoughts,” featuring Wayne’s high-end guitar hypnotically repeating two chords, while Ivins crunchy bass holds the song down. The influence of Joy Division is duly noted, with Mark’s soulless vocals echoing Ian Curtis, all the way down to English’s drum sound, which seemingly imitates Martin Hannett’s production as best as they could.

You can almost picture the bemused faces of the Benson Sound engineers while listening to the debut, from “Out For A Walk” sampling the French national-anthem intro of “All You Need Is Love,” to echo-laden noise freakouts to the repeated fade-in/fade-outs on “Scratchin’ The Door.” The Lips knew what they wanted and started their fascination with experimental studio techniques.

For those used to Wayne’s scratchy, yet emotional, singing style, brother Mark might take some time to get used to. Although their voices are somewhat similar in tone, Mark sounds lifeless, occasionally teetering on the pitch. But oddly enough, that works perfectly for the eerie psychedelia of Wayne’s lyrics. Instead of “Forever Is A Long Time” becoming a cheap knock-off of lower echelon Nuggets groups like the Peanut Butter Conspiracy or the Nightcrawlers, Mark turns it into something more freighting; “Forever is a long time, explodin’ in your mind” is less of an existential idiom and more of an ominous warning.

But Mark comes alive on the EP’s closer—and highlight—“My Own Planet.” Taking the downstroked power chords of the Ramones and adding the trippy anger of the Butthole Surfers, the Lips created a punk anthem that stands up to anything coming out of SST or Dischord at the time. “I want my own planet,” vents Mark. “The human race/I can’t stand it!” It was the band’s first great song, and it exposed the fun energy, and explosive potential, that the group would later utilize.

The Flaming Lips was self-released on green vinyl, and it become a local cult hit, receiving glowing reviews in numerous punk zines, including Maximumrocknroll. Though they toured around the country, even recording new demos, Mark decided his heart wasn’t in it anymore, and he left the band in 1985 to get married. Instead of recruiting a new singer, Wayne took over vocal duties, and the band became a three-piece, a configuration that he and Ivins more-or-less stuck with ever since. The songs they demoed with Mark would eventually turn up on 1986’s Hear It Is, their equally excellent full-length. (Those interested in the Flaming Lips’ early days should pick up 2002’s fantastic three-disc compilation, Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, which compiles the EP, their first three albums, demos and live recordings.)

In The Fearless Freaks, the 2005 documentary about the band, Wayne describes the early incarnation as a “no-talent derivative of some kind of ‘hillbillies-gone-punk’ version of the Who.” While that might be true, it’s also a little harsh. The Flaming Lips have certainly gone on to do bigger and better things, but they had a unique sound even at the beginning: the perfect blend of pop weirdness, raw-punk energy and a hell of a lot of fun.