The Over/Under: The Flaming Lips


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

13 replies on “The Over/Under: The Flaming Lips”

Great list. Hit to Death & Priest Driven have always been my favorites. I question if modern Lips fans(1999 to present) go back and search these out, even now that they have been reissued.

Normally I’m of a live and let live mentality for the overrated selections but this one is so predictable that I didn’t even bother reading the explanations. We get it! “The kids” don’t know the old stuff but c’mon.

Corey, my man, you are right on the money here. Admittedly I can’t remember a couple of the songs on the 2nd list, but they’re pretty good albums. The over rated ones were well described. I haven’t liked or respected the band since the pink robots things, which I listened to once and gave away. I heard the Yeah3 song and REALLY hated that. Hit To Death and first EP Hear It Is are still myfavorites. I got a chuckle from this Amazon reviewer’s comments about the box set of early stuff…

4 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Oh come on!, March 26, 2004
By A Customer
THIS is the Flaming Lips, more than the latest two albums. The FLips are punk rock guitar pioneers and if you don’t know that (and you can’t tell it from Pink Flamingo Robot Sushi or whatever it is), then you might like Super Tramp too. Please, bring the guitars next time, Wayne.

My secret wish for the tour behind Embryonic — the first Lips record I’ve liked in a decade — is that the band would lock up the furries, put away the light show, walk out on a bare-ish stage and open with ‘Turn it On.’ It is becoming abundantly clear that my wish is not going to come true. Flaming Lips shows have gone from being a circus to that sad late-summer carnival that sets up at in a suburban shopping mall parking lot.

jk, i have the same wish. the last configuration of the lips that i remember loving was 1994 when it was the band with a few xmas lights, a little bubble machine, and they just ripped it up.

I was a fan of the band from around 1988 (I actually have huge hand made posters that wayne made for shows, etc)…and I own every record until clouds taste metallic (even UK singles, etc).

honestly, I haven’t even payed attention to them since they turned into an easy listening band, and influenced hoards of crap adult contemporary/easy listening bands masquerading as indie & cutting edge. I find it all a bit boring compared to when they were really innovative in their earlier years.

As you stated, we’ll probably never see the band freak out and play a raw, energy-filled set. They are kind of like a broadway show now. People want to see the show, not the band or the music…

“Zaireeka” isn’t a song, and nothing is more annoying than a lazy Beach Boys comparison in regard to the Flaming Lips’ aesthetic. I wish the author would have dug just a little bit deeper to get to some truly weird and/or accessible pop gems.

soooo glad you mentioned Mountain Side. I was seriously obsessed with that album for a long time- it didn’t help that I saw the band perform most of this album live in the middle of a field, with Donahue reproducing the guitar fx from the album faithfully. Talk about sonic holography. And thanks for the props for Zaireeka- one of their best imho- so true about “Riding to Work” being what Soft Bulletin was trying to be.

“Turn It On” rules. “Yeah Yeah Yeah song” sounds like a completely different band with none of the Lips charm. “Mountain Side” sorry to say should have stayed in the vaults. I never hated on the way “Soft Bulletin” was bookended by the Mokran mixes. I think they are solid and deliver the right statement in the mix. For under-rated I would have put “EVIL WILL PREVAIL” probably my favorite Lips song from the “1st commercial period”.

Thanks for the reminder to break out my Zaireeka discs!

Also, compare the way the flanger effect makes Wayne’s voice more musical in “Race For The Prize”, while the earlier tracks all put his off-key warble out in front clashing with the music. I can appreciate Dylan and Malkmus and early Coyne, but Soft Bulletin definitely marks the era when Wayne’s ears improved dramatically and because of this the albums are much better for repeat listening. I think it’s insulting to call it “easy listening”, but hey whatever floats your boat. It’s cool. Hopefully an old performance will surface on a nice DVD so I can really see this “old school” raw Flaming Lips that the hipsters miss.

The overrated list is pretty obvious choice wise. “She Don’t Use Jelly” is a cool song though, as is the remixed version of “Race for the Prize.” I agree with the dude that said “Evil Will Prevail” should be on the underrated list. That song absolutely destroys “Christmas at the Zoo” which is kinda hokey. “Lightening Strikes the Postman” or “Bad Days” would have been a better choice as well. God the second half of that album is killer. Could have included pretty much the entire new disc on the underrated list, even though “Gemini Syringes,” “Powerless,” and “Sagittarius Silver Anouncement” are some subtle masterpieces. And to anyone who bitches about the Lips’ live shows, go stand in a corner with your arms folded and watch Grizzly Bear play a boring ass live set. There ain’t nothing wrong with actually putting on a show at a rock concert.

Just noticed that Broadfield Marchers banner ad to the right. That quote from the review covers all the Not-Lame bases perfectly….Big Star, REM, Rasberries, and Badfinger all name-checked. Gee, I’ve never heard a band mentioned in Magnet which has those influeneces. The power-pop kiss of death…

These lists are so predictable and this one is no exception. Always a guarantee that the band in questions most popular song will be on the overrated list. Why not lie to at least stir up some real debate!

Every single time, these over lists are so painfully, shamefully, embarrassingly predictable. A parody of the more-of-a-fan-than-you ubergeek’s backlash lists. The under-lists, on the contrary, are often good.

But just try for once to come up with an over-list doesn’t parrot what two fans repeat to each other over and over every time they encounter each other. It’s like a virtual line outside a show. Same old, tired old, bullshit.

Jo Jo, I think the spirit of the over-rated section is to tap into that “two fans in line” moment. I’ve never stood in line for half of these bands (not being in a destination city during their active tours) and missed out on the fan cliches.

If you really look at these lists over the last year it’s a pretty consistent shortcut to what’s burnt out in a band’s catalog, and what the hardcorefans love most. I feel like I can trust the Over/Under to get me through a band’s discography WAY better than the pointless bickering on Amazon or iTunes reviews, or the outdated overviews at allmusic. Definitely my favorite feature of the Magnet site.

Let’s get some of the Ipecac all-stars up there…

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