Just lippy, lippy, lippy

The flaming lips won’t be extinguished

by Nathan Hall

A crusty old punk friend of mine has a theory on chemical abuse that, although I do not completely support it, certainly applies in the case of the Flaming Lips. It goes something like this: Recreational drugs are not for everybody, but some people are infinitely more creative with them; therefore, the world is better off for their excess.

When you skim through your CD collection, it is difficult not to notice that drugs played a pivotal role in many of the best recording sessions. The world will likely never know what these bands sound like on the straight and narrow, but few can argue that life is not a tad more tolerable thanks to the Flaming Lips’ hallucinogens dealer.

Perhaps best known for penning the infinitely hummable “She Don’t Use Jelly,” the Lips were formed in 1983 in Oklahoma City by Wayne Coyne, who bears such a striking resemblance to comedian Dennis Miller that someone ought to investigate immediately. The curious name might refer to any number of things such as pornography, drugs or a dream in which Wayne made out with the Virgin Mary in the back of his car.

Debuting at a local transvestite bar, the group made connections with Mercury Rev while touring with the San Antonio-based Butthole Surfers. This eventually led to a surprisingly generous deal from colossal Warner Brothers Records. The band’s one-hit wonder status allowed them the opportunity to, among a great deal of other forgettable things, appear on MTV’s Spring Break party, open for the faux-grunge, flash-in-the-pan Candlebox, and even lip-synch their signature tune on “Beverly Hills 90210.”

Although the follow-up single “Bad Days” popped up conspicuously during the 1995 film “Batman Forever,” the band appeared doomed to toil away in dreaded “cult” status. This led to an almost constantly revolving door of band mates, which began to take its toll on the perpetually stoned but optimistic band members.

By 1996, guitarist Ronald Jones had disappeared in the middle of a spiritual quest, drummer Steven Drozd’s hand was almost amputated because of a spider bite and bassist Michael Ivin was incapacitated due to a freak car accident. An obsessed fan supposedly set himself on fire. Rumors swirled that Coyne had been declared legally insane. But a year later, they all proved the naysayers wrong with the release of “Zaireeka,” a beautifully bizarre four-CD set designed to be played simultaneously.

The subsequent tour found the band encouraging fans to show up with old-school jam boxes in the parking lot to expand on their idea. Album sales began to rise, which helped finance the awe-inspiring “Soft Bulletin” shows that featured wireless headphones for all ticket holders. (Sorry, man, I just cannot talk right now. I am listening to the music.) Beck asked them to be his backup band, they played live on the BBC with Justin Timberlake, and they are about to release their first full-length feature film, “Christmas on Mars.”

That leads, in a roundabout way, to the Flaming Lips’ recent Grammy win for 2002’s Best Rock Instrumental with “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloons (Utopia Plantia),” which comes off the well-received “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” Their latest disc is the magic-mushroom-saturated “Fight Test EP,” a hodgepodge of covers, live cuts, dance remixes and B-sides that only a completist could love.

Coyne works Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Outta My Head” to the edges of psychedelic excess while squeezing some sunshine out of the otherwise dreary numbers such as Beck’s “Golden Age” and Radiohead’s “Knives Out.” The live-from-the-radio-control-booth mixes don’t stretch any new boundaries, and the techno versions are borderline forgettable. However, new songs such as the title track and “The Strange Design of Conscience” delve into poignant boilerplate wailings of love tragically lost, a trait that is quickly becoming their new-trademarked specialty.

The EP is worth checking out, if for nothing else, for the giddy closing number “Thank You Jack White (For the Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me).” Revisiting familiar themes of blasphemy, country living, loneliness and LSD, the band focuses on its specialties and does not disappoint for a moment.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]