Even within the eclectic world of alternative rock, few bands were so brave, so frequently brilliant, and so deliciously weird as the Flaming Lips. From their beginnings as Oklahoma weirdos to their pop culture breakthrough in the mid-'90s to their status as one of the most respected groups of the 2000s, the Lips have ridden one of the more surreal and haphazard career trajectories in pop music. An acid-bubblegum band with as much affinity for sweet melodies as blistering noise assaults, their off-kilter sound, uncommon emotional depth, and bizarre history (packed with tales of self-immolating fans and the like) firmly established them as true originals.
The Flaming Lips formed in Oklahoma City in 1983, when founder and guitarist Wayne Coyne allegedly stole a collection of musical instruments from an area church hall and enlisted his vocalist brother Mark and bassist Michael Ivins to start a band. Giving themselves the nonsensical name the Flaming Lips (its origin variously attributed to a porn film, an obscure drug reference, or a dream in which a fiery Virgin Mary plants a kiss on Wayne in the backseat of his car), the band made its live debut at a local transvestite club. After progressing through an endless string of drummers, they recruited percussionist Richard English prior to recording their self-titled debut, issued on green vinyl on their own Lovely Sorts of Death label in 1985.
When Mark Coyne soon departed to get married, Wayne assumed full control of the group; in addition to remaining its lead guitarist, he also became the primary singer and songwriter. Continuing on as a trio, the Lips released 1986's Hear It Is, followed a year later by Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips. While touring in support of the Butthole Surfers, they played Buffalo, NY, where they were befriended by concert promoter Jonathan Donahue; after a jam session with Donahue's nascent band Mercury Rev, he and Coyne became close friends, and Donahue eventually signed on as the group's sound technician.
After recording 1988's difficult Telepathic Surgery, English exited, reducing the Lips to the core duo of Coyne and Ivins; after adding drummer Nathan Roberts, Donahue adopted the name Dingus and became a full-time member in time to cut 1990s stellar In a Priest Driven Ambulance while simultaneously recording the brilliant Mercury Rev debut, Yerself Is Steam. Following a series of hopeful phone calls to Warner Bros., the company signed the band in 1991, and in 1992 their oft-delayed major-label debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, appeared to little commercial notice; Donahue soon exited to focus his full energies on Mercury Rev, followed by the departure of Roberts.
With new guitarist Ronald Jones and drummer Steven Drozd, they cut 1993's sublime Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which they supported by playing the second stage at Lollapalooza and touring the nation in a Ryder truck. Initially, the album stiffed; however, nearly a year after its initial release, the single "She Don't Use Jelly" became a grassroots hit, and against all odds the Flaming Lips found themselves on the Top 40 charts. They took full advantage of their requisite 15 minutes of fame, appearing everywhere from MTV's annual Spring Break broadcast to an arena tour in support of Candlebox to a memorably surreal lip-synched performance on the teen soap opera Beverly Hills 90210, where supporting character Steve Sanders (portrayed by actor Ian Ziering) uttered the immortal words, "You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!"
After the 1994 release of a limited-edition sampler of odds-and-ends titled Providing Needles for Your Balloons, the Lips returned in 1995 with Clouds Taste Metallic, a strikingly mature and diverse collection highlighted by the singles "Bad Days" (also heard in the film Batman Forever), "This He re Giraffe," and "Brainville." Despite the inclusion of the remarkably melodic "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles," "Christmas at the Zoo" (rumored to be under consideration for inclusion on an upcoming John Tesh holiday record), and the epic "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World," the album nonetheless failed to live up to the commercial success of Transmissions, and the band was once again relegated to cult status.
In 1996, the Lips' world went haywire; first, Jones disappeared to undertake a spiritual odyssey from which he did not return, then Drozd's hand was almost needlessly amputated after he was bitten by a spider. At about the same time, Ivins was the victim of a bizarre hit-and-run accident after a wheel came off of another vehicle and slammed into his car, trapping him inside. Ironically, Coyne was having car problems of his own when rumors of his latest sonic foray -- conducting an orchestra of 40 automobiles, all with their tape decks playing specially composed music at the same time -- prompted fan discussion of his possible psychological collapse. "I would try to tell people what I was doing and found that I couldn't explain it very well," Coyne later remarked about the project, dubbed the Parking Lot Experiment. "Plus, I had a sore on the side of my tongue for a week and it made me talk kind of weird. I'm sure they thought I was retarded."
By the following year, the Flaming Lips (who continued as a trio, opting not to attempt to replace Jones) were back in the studio, recording an album that, according to Coyne, would be "so different and exciting it will either make us millionaires or break us" -- in short, 1997's Zaireeka, a breathtaking and wildly experimental set of four discs designed to be played simultaneously. A previously unreleased track, "Hot Day," also appeared earlier that year on the soundtrack to Richard Linklater's film SubUrbia. A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording...by Amateurs, a retrospective of their Restless label material, followed in 1998, and a year later the Lips returned with a breathtaking new studio effort, The Soft Bulletin. After a three-year absence from the shelves, 2002 brought several new releases, including the new record Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and a two-volume retrospective of the Restless years. Yoshimi won the group even more popular and critical acclaim than The Soft Bulletin, which the group maximized by spending half of 2002 appearing with Beck on his Sea Change tour as both his opening act and backing band. The Lips kept busy over the next two years by touring in support of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and working on their movie Christmas on Mars. They returned to the studio in 2004 and spent much of 2005 recording; that year, the Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks and VOID video collection were both released, whetting fans' appetites for the band's 2006 album, At War with the Mystics. In 2008, the band's long-awaited, seven years in the making film Christmas on Mars made its debut at that spring's Sasquatch Festival in George, WA; that fall, the movie and its soundtrack were released as a CD/DVD set.
- Jason Ankeny, AMG