Time certainly flies. Late last year, The Flaming Lips released a deluxe edition of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots to mark the 20th anniversary of that landmark album. When it first came out in 2002, it gained the Oklahoma, US-based band, which had been around for nearly 20 years by then, widespread popularity, proving to be a breakthrough moment for the outfit led by the talented, charismatic and ever-energetic frontman Wayne Coyne.
Coyne, now 62, and his band are currently on tour, playing Yoshimi in its entirety at some of the gigs. It remains their most popular album and they have been revisiting it regularly at their gigs over the years.
For many rock lovers, The Flaming Lips have stood out as one of the post-punk era’s most adventurous, delightfully bizarre bands. In part, their weirdness comes from their spectacular live shows: Many of these have storms of light and massive amounts of confetti shooting out of cannons, as well as the spectacle of Coyne surfing over audiences in a huge, transparent hamster ball.
That’s not all, however. The Flaming Lips, who have 16 studio albums to their credit, stand out. On Yoshimi, the band embraced a more electronics-charged sound, with the trio—Coyne (who, besides writing and singing the songs, also frequently paints the album covers and produces the band’s records and gigs), Steven Drozd (a multi-instrumentalist and composer) and Michael Ivins (a bassist and keyboardist who is no longer with the band)—melding a computer-generated, generally upbeat atmosphere with darker, inner-meaning lyrics that portray humans pitted against machines.
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Against the backdrop of the current discourse about the risks of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its import for humanity, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots may take on a different, more relatable relevance. When it came out in 2002 though, not long after the 9/11 attacks had changed the world, it was widely considered a concept album.
The Flaming Lips may have had no issue if their fans (and many critics) received Yoshimi as a concept album but they never intended it to be one. In various interviews, Coyne himself has demurred about the “concept album” theory. In fact, Yoshimi’s battles against the pink robots in Part I and Part II, two songs with the album title, are believed to be about a young woman bravely battling cancer. The band has never directly alluded to this but has not disputed the interpretation either, leaving it to critics and listeners.
Nevertheless, it became their most popular album, with one song on it, Do You Realize??, instantly becoming an earworm. In the era of music streaming, Do You Realize?? has more than 75 million hits on Spotify. For a band that is hardly mainstream, that is not bad at all. For a song whose recurring line disturbingly says, “Do you realise that everyone you know will someday die?”, it could even seem surprising.
Although The Flaming Lips came together in the early 1980s, it took them time to break into the mainstream: In the early 1990s, the heydays of alternative rock, they got a major record label contract and their first commercially successful album, Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, was released in 1993. The most popular song on that album, She Don’t Use Jelly, is an odd little song with nonsense lyrics about the eccentric habits of people.
What sets apart The Flaming Lips is Coyne’s and Drozd’s unending desire to experiment—with electronics, orchestras and live performances. In 1999, the Lips released a multilayered and intricately composed album, The Soft Bulletin, which was aurally luxuriant. The experiments have continued. In 2009, they released a collaborative album, The Flaming Lips And Stardeath And White Dwarfs With Henry Rollins And Peaches Doing The Dark Side Of The Moon, a re-imagining of the legendary Pink Floyd album. More recently, Coyne sang with pop star Miley Cyrus on one of her albums as well as on one of the Lips’ albums.
Although the band tours extensively, its latest studio full-length, American Head, is nearly three years old. The songs are exquisite melodies with intricate, almost delicate arrangements that have become their trademark but the mood and theme are about the loss of innocence. There are autobiographical references and introspections about Coyne’s early years growing up with siblings who led carefree and sometimes wild lives. The album also has songs with direct references to psychedelics (Mother I’ve Taken LSD). Psychedelia has always been associated with The Flaming Lips and their hypnotic shows but this was probably the first time the band alluded to it in a song.
Yoshimi, however, remains the band’s most compelling album, owing particularly to its theme and lyrics. Recently, in an interview with The Guardian, Coyne was quoted as saying: “From the beginning, we would meet people who told us about playing Do You Realize?? when their mother was dying in the hospital or their brother had been in a car accident. We didn’t know what to say. In time, we were able to have some distance and let down our guard. We wrote the song, but what we made is not what it’s become. We’re so grateful, lucky, and blown away to have one of those songs that people play at heavy, heavy times, the heaviest you can endure.” It’s true. I have played it at heavy, heavy times, and it helps.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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