Flaming Lips, The

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Formed: 1983, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Members: Wayne Coyne, guitar, vocals (born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 17 March 1965); Steven Drozd, drums, vocals (born Houston, Texas, 6 December 1969); Michael Ivins, bass, vocals (born Omaha, Nebraska, 17 March 1965). Former members: Marc Coyne, vocals, guitar; Jonathan Donahue, guitar; Richard English, drums; Ronald Jones, guitar, vocals (born Angeles, Philippines, 26 November 1970); Nathan Roberts, drums.

Genre: Rock

Best-selling album since 1990: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (1993)

Hit songs since 1990: "She Don't Use Jelly," "Waitin' for a Superman"

For some bands, success is a million seller or a hit single. For Oklahoma's restlessly creative Flaming Lips, success is found in the cracks and creases other bands dare not explore, such as a symphony written for forty automobile tape decks. Over the course of a decade, during which the band toiled in obscurity with the love of a cult audience, the Flaming Lips's often unruly explosion of psychedelia, rock, pop, experimental music, and pure noise shifted and mutated in wholly unexpected, singularly creative, and exciting ways. In the second decade of their career, the Lips grew from an unprincipled band of rank amateurs to studio wizards capable of conjuring masterful symphonies of pop pleasure.

Taking Off

Founded in Oklahoma City in 1983 by singer/guitarists Wayne and Mark Coyne and bassist Michael Ivins, the Flaming Lips were a rock and roll tabula rasa: admittedly amateur musicians who knew nothing about the art of making music. After hiring a string of drummers, the group settled on Richard English and recorded their self-titled debut in 1985, which they released on their own Lovely Sorts of Death labelon green vinyl, no less.

The low-fidelity, dirgelike songs paid homage to such early 1980s gothic rock bands as the Jesus and Mary Chain, while indulging in the echo- and feedback-drenched sound of late 1960s garage rock. Mark Coyne left the group a year later, thrusting his brother Wayne into the spotlight as the lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter. It was his vision that led the band into uncharted waters.

The next year brought Hear It Is, which married the psychedelic wanderings of Pink Floyd with folk, punk, and walls of guitar feedback, often in one song, as in the epic freakout, "Jesus Shootin' Heroin." In addition to developing a reputation for their risqué, bizarre song titles and lyrics ("Charlie Manson Blues," "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning") and wild stage shows, the group was slowly progressing from unprincipled amateurs to studio-savvy rockers.

Following the release of Oh My Gawd!! . . . The Flaming Lips (1987), another tangled web of meandering, psychedelic rock with druggy lyrics, the group met the concert promoter Jonathan Donahue, who signed on to be their sound technician. English quit the band halfway into the tour in support of Telepathic Surgery (1988), forcing Coyne and Ivins to soldier on as a duo with Donahue filling in on guitar. For their final album with Restless Records, Coyne cooked up a bizarre, pseudoreligious epic, In a Priest-Driven Ambulance (1990).

Major-Label Success

As a joke, Coyne and Ivins began harassing various A&R (artist and repertoire) scouts at Warner Bros. records in an attempt to land a recording contract. To their surprise, Warner Bros. signed the group, releasing their major-label debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head, in 1992; it was yet another passel of psychedelic pop, augmented by trumpets, violins, autoharps, samplers, timpani, flugelhorns, and power tools. Donahue quit the group to focus on his own band, Mercury Rev, and was replaced by guitarist Ronald Jones. The band hooked up with a new collaborator at the same time, producer Dave Fridmann, who helped to expand the group's sound into previously unimaginable shapes.

Despite sharing concert bills with such popular bands as Porno for Pyros and the Stone Temple Pilots, the band's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (1993) garnered little notice upon its release. But a low-budget video for the quirky song "She Don't Use Jelly," in which a helium-voiced Coyne sings about a girl who dyes her hair with tangerines, slowly gained momentum on MTV and on the radio in 1994. Unafraid to place their music in the strangest of places, the Lips seized on the unexpected hit single's popularity by filming a notorious guest shot as the house band on the Fox teenage soap drama Beverly Hills 90210. The album also marked the debut of new drummer, Steven Drozd, who quickly emerged as the yin to Coyne's musical yang.

The success of "She Don't Use Jelly" seemed like even more of a fluke when the band's next album, Clouds Taste Metallic (1995), failed to yield a hit single or match the sales of its predecessor. The album, however, is an intriguing blueprint of the band's second life, with sweeping, multilayered, highly melodic pop epics built around Drozd's athletic, bashing drums, Coyne's keening vocals, and swaths of ambient noise, sound effects, and walls of guitars and angelic vocals. It is no wonder, though, that despite beautiful, challenging arrangements, songs such as "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles," "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saves the World," and "Placebo Headwound" were not candidates for radio hits.

With an already well-established reputation for energized live concerts featuring confetti canons, thousands of spinning Christmas lights, puppets, and strange films, the group was dealt a double blow: departure of Jones shortly after the album's release and the fracture of Drozd's wrist prior to a tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in late 1995.

Rather than take the departure as a setback, Coyne seized on the opportunity. Having mounted several "parking lot experiments" over the previous few years (in which he distributed cassettes of the band's music to forty or more cars in a parking lot and "conducted" a car symphony), Coyne somehow convinced Warner Bros. to release the four-CD Zaireeka (1997) set with promises of a more commercial album to follow. Meant to be played simultaneously on four stereos for the full effect, the album was a daring experiment and just a hint of what was to come.

The Soft Bulletin and Beyond

Prior to the release of The Soft Bulletin (1999), Drozd nearly lost his hand after being bitten by a spider, Ivins was involved in a nearly fatal car accident, and Coyne's father was dying of cancer. The trio took all the pain, confusion, and suffering and spun it into their most accomplished work to date, dispensing, in Coyne's words, with the spaceships and aliens of the past and focusing on matters of the heart. Featuring an utterly unprecedented style of pop music, the work was many critics' choice for album of the year.

Although the product of just the core trio, the emotional, symphonic pop of the album sounds like the work of several orchestras, anchored by Drozd's thunderous drums, Coyne's plaintive vocals, and sweeping string arrangements. Tracks such as "Race for the Prize," about Coyne's desperation to find a cure for his father's illness, and the album's emotional centerpiece, "Waitin' for a Superman," deal with death and despair without maudlin sentiment. In such songs Coyne transforms his anxiety into celebrations of life and strength. "Is it getting' heavy? / Well, I thought it was already as heavy as can be," Coyne sings in the latter, his helium voice juxtaposed with church bells and a stuttering, soulful, funky drum beat.

Employing a series of drum loops and special effects, the Lips trio took their show on the road in support of the album, adding a number of new oddball aspects to their live showtwo dozen audience members in animal costumes, huge rotating disco balls, and madcap filmsin time for the release of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). Like its predecessor, Yoshimi works a startling array of drum loops, orchestral flourishes, and over-the-top arrangements into the band's sound, slightly reversing the turn toward more serious material but still focusing on the healing powers of love. The group served as both the opening act and backing band for the alternative rock hero Beck during his 2002 world tour.

By defying convention and constantly exploring the boundaries of their sound, the Flaming Lips matured from a ragtag group of musical pranksters to envelope-pushing mavericks with one of the most unique sounds in rock.


The Flaming Lips (Lovely Sorts of Death/Restless, 1985); Hear It Is (Restless/Enigma, 1986); Oh My Gawd!!! . . . The Flaming Lips (Restless/Enigma, 1987); Telepathic Surgery (Restless/Enigma, 1989); In a Priest-Driven Ambulance (Restless/Enigma, 1990); Hit to Death in the Future Head (Warner Bros., 1992); Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (Warner Bros., 1993); Clouds Taste Metallic (Warner Bros., 1995); Zaireeka (Warner Bros., 1997); The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros., 1999); Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros., 2002).

gil kaufman