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Band History

The Flaming Lips

It is said that the Flaming Lips was a band born shortly after a gatecrashed party. 1983 was the year and Wayne Coyne, a $60 a week fish-frying employee of Long John Silver's, had finally saved up enough money to buy the Les Paul he'd been eyeing in a local shop window. The parents of a young Michael Ivins were out of town, people got drunk, and a guy called Mark Coyne arrived uninvited. Windows got broken, and this is where our story more or less begins, "..the next day Wayne shows up with a drummer guy and said, hey, I've heard you've gotta bass." Despite Michael's misgivings about his own skills, "I thought four strings would be easier. It wasn't," they got together and jammed, "We must have played the Batman theme about ten times." Looking back, Wayne remembers that, "I learned to play fairly well within a couple of weeks, and everyone thought I was going to be the next Hendrix or something. I never really got much better than I was after those first two weeks..." In a short while, they had got Mark, younger brother of Wayne, to do the singing, and they made a four song demo tape, featuring the by then ubiquitous 'Batman Theme', along with 'Anyway Anyhow Anywhere', and a couple of other songs - 'Killer On The Radio', and 'Handsome Johnny'.

Despite somewhat inexplicably deciding to call themselves the Flaming Lips (Wayne - "It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was definitely better than the Tijuana Toads. Besides, we always thought we would eventually change it."), they eventually scored a first gig. It was at an all-black bar, and they were supposed to be playing old time R&B of some sort. Against all the odds, they managed to earn two encores, each one consisting solely of the Batman theme, naturally. Not that Michael found the experience particularly easy - initially he had a few problems with being able to turn around and face the audience while playing. There followed a gig at a transvestite club in Oklahoma City, called the Blue Note. This was all pretty weird, but somehow fitting, for four skinny twenty-something (well, except for the drummer who was pushing thirty) straight white guys playing what they thought of as 'death rock'. Soon after all that craziness, the drummer guy moved on and (as far as anyone knows) joined the airforce.

More drummers came and went but by 1984 the Flaming Lips were settled into the line-up which would cut their first record - with Richard English now fulfilling the percussive duties, and the band practising regularly in a disused meat locker. A wily move of buying their own practice PA system opened doors for the band. Having the only PA in the Oklahoma punk rock circles that they found themselves moving in gave these four young men the opportunity to open up for all the hardcore bands of the time, in return for running the sound for everyone else. While opening for bands such as Husker Du, Black Flag and the Minutemen, the fast developing Flaming Lips were able to inflict their curious punk noise (they had moved on from the death rock by now) on various unsuspecting hardcore fans. "You weren't supposed to like Black Flag and Led Zeppelin, so we lied and said we loved hardcore," explains Wayne, "At those shows we usually ended up sat in the parking lot listening to old Bee Gees records." In actual fact, the band were playing a lot of Who songs, as well as throwing plenty of weirder covers in amongst their own very not-hardcore creations. Their desire to provide some 'proper' entertainment was also growing, and Wayne would usually employ various combinations of jumping around, lying down to play, and generally knocking things over.


Their very first record, entitled simply, 'The Flaming Lips' was self-released in February 1985, pressed on green vinyl, and recorded, "To make people take us seriously." The recording was facilitated by Wayne's Dad sending them into a local studio to use up his credit on the collapsing OKC trade barter system. The engineers, more accustomed to recording radio jingles, were somewhat nonplussed but the record fulfilled it's purpose when a good review in Maximum Rock'n'Roll upped the ante a bit. They continued playing shows locally and managed a few (short) tours involving, "Stupid amounts of driving" - a modus operandi that was never really left behind for the next fifteen years ("The tours just got longer!"). By this time they had to press another 1,000 copies of their record, with this run coming out on red vinyl in early 1986 and going to various distributors. Mark quit shortly after this, as he was getting married and his 'normal' existence was put under strain by one particular tour of the south-western states. Unperturbed, Wayne took over the vocals, singing the songs he had written, and the band kept on playing more shows, including quite a few along the West Coast. Someone from Restless Records finally happened upon one of the LA shows, and they were soon signed up, "Cos it wasn't like anyone else was beating down the doors." The band received $5,000 to record the first album, 'Hear It Is' in LA - "We thought it was a fortune and we could probably record for years with that amount of money." Reality soon set in, and the album was recorded in two to three days. It was released that same year, 1986, on white vinyl with a poster insert drawn by Wayne. They were now stuck with the name, having not even come close to getting around to changing it, and so decided to make the record live right up to their image of not being quite normal. The front cover featured an exquisitely wasted-looking Ivins in the foreground, with his freaky afro in full effect, while the rear cover featured a giant picture of Richard English's eyeball, with the lids pulled apart.

Following the release of the album, a chance soon arose to go and support the Jesus and Mary Chain in San Francisco. The Lips typically threw the audience for a loop by closing with a cover of the decidedly unhip Pink Floyd - "We just thought Wish You Were Here was a really cool song." Around this time, Michele Vlasimsky took up the management reins as the Lips continued to play further afield and both coasts were fully explored - some of it under the wing of the (then very scary) Butthole Surfers. In no time at all, the Lips had also zoomed back through the studio to make another record. Spending almost two weeks in May 1987 to use up the $10,000 Restless gave them, "We booked ourselves into the biggest, most sophisticated studio we could find," they ended up with "Oh My Gawd..." and a definite shift in sound. While some pointed at some kind of revivalist rock label, the reality was that they had ("accidentally" they claim) made a quite strange sounding record. Realising that they could do a lot more than simply recreate their live sound, the band added lots of multi-tracking and some moments of increased restraint to contrast with the usual bombast. Thus began a great tradition of a change in emphasis for every record, with the defining highlight 'One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond on A Sunday Morning' seeming quite far out for 1987.

By this time, the band were building themselves a formidable reputation as a live act - they had bought two smoke machines, and were certainly not afraid to use them. They also developed something of a reputation for playing very loud and vigorous versions of various Led Zeppelin songs. Eventually, the band's notoriety meant their travels took them to Buffalo University in the state of New York, where a young man promoting shows was keen to book them, paying enough money to make the long drive well worthwhile. Despite the fact the band tended to arrive red-eyed and stinking from driving 20 hours straight, they struck up a friendship with Jonathan Donahue and repeat visits were made over the next few months into 1988. Good times were had after the gigs, with odd nights spent partying and, later on, jamming with Jonathan and some of his other musician friends. It was around this time that, when back home, Wayne was scaring local Rainbow Records employee Scott Booker by regularly coming into the store still wearing his motorbike helmet, complete with blacked-out visor, "The first time I saw him, I thought he was going to rob us."

Subtractions and Additions

For the next record, 'Telepathic Surgery', Wayne and Michael had dreamed up a concept of making an entire side of noise collage ('Hells Angels Cracker Factory' was later reduced to a CD bonus track). They were also indulging themselves by conducting what they refer to now as "Unscientific experiments" to investigate whether 30 hours without sleep would lead to hallucinations. Richard English was not so keen on either indulgence, and the working relationship started to deteriorate, to the extent that when the band went back into the studio to record two additional tracks, Richard's involvement was minimal. Just a few days into the tour to promote the record, with Donahue now in the van doing the mixing for the shows, English decided to quit the band. Wayne and Michael went on and played as a twosome - aided by Jonathan's adept mixing, until they were joined by new sticksman Nathan Roberts. It was on this leg of the tour, in Canada where things had not been going so well, that Donahue came on stage with the band to play some freaky noises on a second guitar. A few more experiments of this nature, and Jonathan became something of a fixture. The possibilities for new sound were fairly quickly recognised and, for a while to come, the band was then built on the concept of being a four piece.

When the 'Telepathic' tours drew to a close in 1989, the four players returned to Oklahoma, moved in together and began to concoct tunes together on Jonathan's four-track recorder. The feeling was that their time with Restless Records was almost up, with the contract coming to an end and Restless looking in danger of folding anyway. Wondering if this truly was the end, since another contract wasn't necessarily just around the corner, the band wanted to create one last triumphant record. For once, the songs would carefully arranged beforehand and the studio time spent on making the sound just right. Restless duly stumped up some cash, and the band headed into the studio with David Fridmann and Keith Cleversley in tow to help produce and engineer their grand musical statement. 'In A Priest Driven Ambulance' was recorded over a longer time than previous efforts, with parts of the first Mercury Rev record ('Yerself Is Steam') recorded on the Lips' days away from the studio. Over several studio stints and a couple of months, the Lips (and Fridmann) explored new ways of arranging and recording their songs, while living off a $10,000 publishing deal Wayne has been known to describe as "ludicrous". The end result has been variously described as "the epitome of cool" and "almost perfect". The Flaming Lips had succeeded in their lofty aims to carve a totally new sound in the shape of their sonic vision, with only one slight problem: Restless Records was essentially being wound up. When the band showed up to support the Soup Dragons' US tour, no one knew they were coming, and they rapidly ended up going home. Michele Vlasimsky was no longer their manager and the future looked bleak. Mostly they just played around OKC and tried to persuade A&R type people to come and watch them.