The Flaming Lips - Born again
From narcotic haze to surreal crowd pleasers via drive-in musicals and sci-fi movies, The Flaming Lips are true musical originals, Mark Robertson explains why
You know that bullshit cliché about artists going down the path less trodden in the name of artistic endeavour? Well The Flaming Lips didn’t even make it onto the path. They didn’t even know it was there. And it didn’t matter, they made their own route from the ‘burbs of Oklahoma City out into their own inner and outer space, constructing musical technicolour odysseys that sound and feel like no other.
This month they return with a new platter than matters –Embryonic – an album which illustrates the limitless possibilities of The Flaming Lips. A sideways step away from the day-glo electro pop of 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (the album that thrust them into the mainstream gaze), Embryonic is a nocturnal trip into the dank, weird corners of the band’s collective psyche, taking a few detours to reach morsels of idyllic pop fluff and some theatrical rock chest beating. Yes, there may be a big gong involved.
Formed in 1983, as a punk rock act who fused the unhinged joys of 60s psychedelia with the energy of early 80s post punk and the stadium rockisms of The Who and Led Zeppelin, they thrived in the murky underworld of American alt.rock for nearly a decade before hitting relative commercial pay dirt with single ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ in 1992, being carried along with MTV’s grunge affections of the time. They’ve indulged in a number of brave experiments along the way: from their festive feature film Christmas on Mars to a series of live shows in parking lots where people brought their cars to play special cassettes like some auto orchestra and Zaireeka, a four-CD album that had to be played simultaneously.
They came into their own with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin a breath taking mix of effervescent joy and cosmic melancholy. This upward trajectory continued with 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and their live shows increased in scale, drama and spectacle to the point when audience members became costumed parts of the show – groups of aliens, superheroes, forest animals, Santas, even Jesuses – to add to the confetti strewn mayhem.
The Flaming Lips’ willingness to trade in the unconventional in part explains the number of hairpin bends in Embryonic. In an interview with Pitchfork.com this month frontman Wayne Coyne explained that the band battle between writing conventional songs and just jamming, randomly, it was the fruits of the latter that produced this breathtaking long player. They can be a twisted pop outfit one moment, a dark cerebral trip the next.
In their time they’ve faced up to their demons – death, drug use, paranoia, aging, human frailty – head on, with a candour and frankness that belies their standing as rock top billers. Wayne Coyne cheerily admits there’s lack of self-awareness only adds to their appeal. He told Pitchfork: ‘We played with Coldplay in these stadiums in September, playing to 65,000 teenagers who all love Chris Martin – an audience that really had no idea who we were. And we would collect dancers [for the show], and they’d be on stage with us. I’d talk to some of these girls backstage, and they’d say, “I don’t know your songs, but I really like that nasty song that you played the shakers on.” And that’s ‘Convinced of the Hex’ [from Embryonic]. And I would think, “That’s a weird song for a 16-year-old girl to like.” But I believe them.’
O2 Academy, Glasgow, Sun 15 Nov.