I didn't care for The Flaming Lips when I first heard them. In the mid '80s, the Oklahoma City-based group seemed more like a quartet of stoners with a pile of sloppy tunes than a hot, up-and-coming band to watch. And they looked more like a straggly Australian garage-rock band. Although their lo-fi guitar-based sound resembled some of the college radio fare of the time, their noisy guitars, acid-groove drum beats, and nasal singing didn't quite fit anything that was happening in my little high school record collection.
A friend who worked at the old Manifest Records shop in West Ashley was the first one to play me some Lips music: from a cassette copy of the band's 1986 album Hear It Is, a disc featuring the original lineup of guitarist Wayne Coyne, his lead singer brother Mark Coyne, bassist Mike Ivins, and drummer Richard English. "They're kind of like Dinosaur Jr., but much more jangly," he told me. It didn't grab me that way. I told him the guitar tones were cruddy and the singer could barely sing. He responded, "I could say the same for your Minutemen and Meat Puppets records."
The Lips stayed on my radar through the next few years, though. I took notice as their musical tangle of '60s pop, psychedelic rock, and '70s pre-punk aggression started shaping into a uniquely broad but unified sound of their own. By the time indie label Restless Records released a small pile of Flaming Lips material in the late '80s and early '90s, the band's music swung from scuzzy, brain-assaulting rock to downright dreamy and pastoral pop. It drew me in.
With an adjusted lineup of Ivins on guitar and bass, Wayne Coyne on lead vocals, Ronald Jones on guitar, and powerhouse drummer Steven Drozd, the Lips grabbed the attention of Warner Bros. in 1992. The band had practically reinvented itself. Coyne's bizarre lyrics told wild, otherworldly tales. The guitars shared sonic territory with tape loops and clever synths and weird sound effects. Drozd's Bonham-esque backbeat and fills propelled it. This was not amateur garage fare.
The Lips' developmental period between 1983-'93 led them to a major turning point. I finally started to get it and appreciate their originality and the technique and method behind the madness.
Released in 1993, right in the middle of the grunge/alternative-rock surge on commercial radio and MTV, Warner Bros. pushed hard behind the band's quirky album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. The single "She Don't Use Jelly" (a novelty pop song with a strummy chorus of, "She uses Vaseline!") quickly became an alt-rock staple on MTV and FM radio. The success of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart launched the band into a rigorous routine of international touring, including huge festival concerts and TV appearances. Fortunately, the band took advantage of their success in the best way, avoiding the typically corruptive distractions and staying focused on artistic goals. Released in 1999, the uncommercial Soft Bulletin presented another creative step forward.
By the early 2000s, the Lips were at full steam with a stable lineup solidified by auxiliary drummer Kliph Scurlock (the band's former roadie). I finally caught them live at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga. Touring on their masterpiece Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, they put on an elaborate and theatrical show. Enhanced with a multimedia presentation and a slew of tasteful audio samples, the band sounded massive. Coyne's ringleader antics complemented the copious array of confetti, fake blood, and stuffed animals around the stage.
Approaching their 30th anniversary, the Flaming Lips continue to grow more ambitious with each step, and they still deliver mind-blowing performances. This year, they're back on the road, armed with a new composition entitled "Two Blobs F*cking" and the box set Heady Nuggs: The First 5 Warner Bros. Records 1992-2002. Clearly, their ever-evolving musical and theatrical instincts are in overdrive. Any newcomer to the Lips world should get it right away.