Where To Start... The Flaming Lips
‘King’s Mouth,’ the new release from Oklahoman space cadets The Flaming Lips has rightly been heralded as a return to form by many. Featuring narration from The Clash’s Mick Jones, ‘King’s Mouth’ was designed to accompany a 2017 art exhibition from frontman Wayne Coyne.
Following an uneven few years that has seen the band collaborate with everyone from Kesha to Maynard James Keenan, not to mention releasing a continuous 24 hour long song on USBs encased in human skulls, ‘King’s Mouth’ suggests the band have rediscovered their love of music, drawing in the best elements of their successful records from the early 21st century and marrying them to the cosmic mind-bending tales they’ve always loved.
So what better time to take a look at the back catalogue of one of alternative music’s most interesting and storied bands?
These aren’t necessarily the best five albums in their repertoire, but if you want the story of how a bunch of misfits formed in the salad days of post-punk became a troupe of interstellar adventurers, here are the key touchstones on the journey.
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'Telepathic Surgery' (1989)
Even the most ardent of Flaming Lips album would admit their early output was patchy, and it often seemed they were making insular music with no thought to pleasing anyone but themselves and their drug buddies. Their first few records were scratchy in a Dinosaur Jr. way, with a liberal helping of acid-fried freak rock.
The first hint that the band might transcend the DIY scene came with ‘Chrome Plated Suicide’, a track which, although heavily indebted to ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine,’ showed a melodic gift that had been previously been obscured behind layers of feedback and noise.
‘Telepathic Surgery’ still had the kind of in-joke feel that makes 1980s Flaming Lips hard to truly love – ‘U.F.O Story’ is one part spoken word conspiracy tale and one part reverb-drenched guitar-wrangling before, bizarrely, a delicate piano coda which invents Sigur Rós – but for a glimpse of what The Flaming Lips used to be about, ‘Telepathic Surgery’ is the record to investigate.
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The band signed to a major (Warner Bros.) in the early 90s and even achieved a cult US hit with ‘She Don’t Use Jelly,’ but were still little more than a curio in the music scene. The group were becoming more interested in sound experimentation, organising ‘The Parking Lot Experiments,’ whereby forty cassette tapes would be played simultaneously in parked cars.
The only commercial release from this period was ‘Zaireeka,’ an album issued on four separate CDs, again all designed to be played at once. The concept was that each listen would be a unique experience depending on the fidelity of your sound system, location of your speakers and accuracy of your synchronisation (ever tried to get four CD players to start at exactly the same time?).
To add to the feeling of dislocation even further, individual sounds were sometimes cut across CDs meaning, if your set-up was skewwhiff, it was theoretically possible to hear the echo of a sound from one speaker before hearing the original sound from another.
Sure, it’s a novelty, but it’s arguably the closest the band have come to realising a fully immersive sound.
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'The Soft Bulletin' (1999)
Incredibly, it’s been over twenty years since The Flaming Lips’ masterpiece was released, yet time has not diminished its majesty.
Despite the fact they grew as band throughout the 90s, ‘The Soft Bulletin’ still seemed to come from nowhere. Within seconds, The Flaming Lips establish the blueprint that would define almost the next decade for the band with the distorted drum beat, upwards glissando and the floating riff that opens ‘Race for the Prize.’
The band mostly eschewed guitars in favour of cinematic orchestration, creating a record that’s equal parts bombastic and spellbinding. It’s also where Wayne Coyne’s reedy, off-kilter vocals finally find a fit, as his lyrics of childlike wonder gave a layer of humanity and vulnerability to a record that’s packed to the gills with musical flourishes.
An obvious choice for this list for sure, but it remains essential listening.
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‘The Soft Bulletin’ kicked off a run of unprecedented commercial success. Follow-up albums ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ and ‘At War with The Mystics’ were unabashedly more radio-friendly, and in March 2009, previous single ‘Do You Realize??’ was voted Official Rock Song of Oklahoma (an honour rescinded by the next state governor).
However, The Flaming Lips wrong-footed the world again with album number 12. Rather than build on their popularity, they created ‘Embryonic,’ a 70 minute sprawling opus that’s the darkest work the band have released to date. There’s nothing as joyous as ‘The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ here, as lyrics of optimism and wonder give way to fatalistic incantations.
In a way, it harks back to the fixation with psychedelia demonstrated on their early albums, but this time it’s paired with their widescreen production sensibility to produce something that’s equal parts unsettling and addictive.
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'Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz' (2015)
It’s technically not a Flaming Lips record, but the band do have credits on over half the tracks. An album whose key themes can be summed up by the words “stoned,” “sad” and “horny,” ‘Dead Petz’ came at an interesting time in Cyrus’s career. She’d just had worldwide smashes with ‘We Can’t Stop’ and ‘Wrecking Ball,’ so the decision to team up with an alternative band over thirty years into their career would have raised some eyebrows.
However, it’s an intriguing exercise to hear The Flaming Lips try to bend their warped worldview and collages of sound into a pop framework. Opener ‘Dooo It!’ is everything you hope a Miley Cyrus and Flaming Lips album won’t sound like, all look-at-me lyrics and no tune to speak of, but as the record progresses, the group’s otherworldly sonics add an element of unpredictability into some solid pop tunes, even if Miley’s constant mentions of smoking weed do get tedious.
However, most bands would kill to be this inventive, vital and surprising after having been around so long.
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'King's Mouth' is out now on Bella Union.
Words: Joe Rivers // @joeripcord
Photo Credit: Anna Smith
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