During the 1980s, The Flaming Lips conceived of themselves as “some sort of no-talent, derivative, hillbillies-gone-punk version of The Who,” Wayne Coyne says in the documentary The Fearless Freaks. The proclamation makes some sense when you listen to the band’s long-neglected first three albums, released on Restless Records between 1986 and 1989. The music is light years removed from the polished psych-pop masterpieces for which the band later became known, but it doesn’t have much in common with explosive and accomplished ’90s releases like Clouds Taste Metallic either.
In Reagan’s America, the Lips played fast, loud and sloppy as hell, with Coyne singing in an unrecognizably gruff warble and chaotic drum fills supplied by a Keith Moon-worshipping fellow named Richard English. And yet however hard the Lips tried to depict themselves as satan-worshipping Oklahoma freaks—bashing out tributes to Charles Manson or revving a motorcycle onstage full throttle—Coyne’s underlying vulnerability flickered through, particularly on quiet cuts like “Godzilla Flick” and “Love Yer Brain.”
In time for the band’s 35th anniversary, Rhino and Warner Bros are reissuing the three albums Hear It Is, 1987’s Oh My Gawd!!!...The Flaming Lips, and 1989’s Telepathic Surgery—on vinyl (to be followed by 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance and a double-LP rarities collection in September). This is good news for diehards (or any fans aware the Lips made records prior to 1992), especially considering the releases have been remastered from original sources by post-’80s Lips producer Dave Fridmann, who successfully clears up some of the aural murkiness. (These reissues, thank God, also restore the original cover art after some ill-advised vinyl designs from the early 2000s.)
The first album, Hear It Is, arrived in early 1986, shortly after Coyne replaced his brother Mark on vocals. While admittedly amateurish, it is also surprisingly fun and purposeful in the way of debuts by young bands unsure if they’ll ever get to make another. The songs boast loud, crude, bashing riffs (“Unplugged,” “Trains, Brains, And Rain”) and endearingly off-key vocals; the lyrics already exhibit Coyne’s enduring fascinations with Jesus, religion, evil and mortality. To its additional credit, Hear It Is contains two early Lips classics: the eerie, blasphemous “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” and the deranged “Charlie Manson Blues,” with its cult-like “Hoo-ha! Hoo-ha! Hoo-ha!” chorus. College radio was impressed, and the band got to make another.
The second album, Oh My Gawd!!!, was released the same year as classic American indie underground releases from Dinosaur Jr., The Replacements and Sonic Youth yet seems to have emerged from an entirely different universe, in part because of Coyne’s fetishistic obsession with druggy iconography—the tripped-out album art, coupled with titles like “The Ceiling Is Bendin’,” seemed to suggest that this band swallowed acid for breakfast each morning. (Not so: Coyne’s interest in drugs was primarily aesthetic.)
But what also separated the group from its SST and Twin/Tone peers was an unabashed reverence for classic rock heroes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which wavered between homage and outright imitation. (Even the band’s best work flirts with well-intentioned plagiarism, such as a Floydian drum intro on Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, or when Coyne famously nicked a melody from Cat Stevens.) Oh My Gawd!!! opens with a snippet of The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” devotes nine minutes to a foggy Pink Floyd epic (“One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning,” which is fun but strains Coyne’s compositional abilities), vaguely references a Led Zeppelin ballad (“Thanks to You”), and ends with a loop of John Lennon’s voice.
There is plenty of the band’s hooky hillbilly-punk in between, yet Oh My Gawd!!! remains the group’s most eclectic early offering. After the aforementioned Floyd wannabe, we get satanic tape-collage experiments (“Ode to C.C. [Part 1]),” entertaining studio gimmickry (check the drum trickery on “The Ceiling Is Bendin’”), simplistic folk-rock (“Can’t Exist”), and a plainly vulnerable love song sung by the drummer (“Thanks to You”). Coyne was skeptical of English’s heartfelt contributions, “but he was willing to say, ‘Hey man, it’s all shit; let’s just throw your songs at the wall with everything else,’” the drummer recalls in Jim DeRogatis’s Lips biography, Staring at Sound.
Thankfully, Coyne’s own vulnerability breathes through on the finale, a wonderful ballad called “Love Yer Brain,” apparently inspired by a friend of his who committed suicide. The song is musically primitive (English, who supplies the descending piano pattern, was no Steven Drozd) yet strangely affecting, thanks to Coyne’s budding brand of aw-shucks wisdom: “Man, I’m not no drug addict,” he admits, “but a person’s gotta have something to keep him from going insane.” In typical Lips fashion, this concludes with the sound of the upright piano being demolished. In recent years, it’s become the rare Restless-era Lips track to reenter the band’s setlists (sans piano demolition).
It took two years for the Lips to produce a follow-up. Longer, heavier, and easily the spottiest of the band’s early records, Telepathic Surgery was initially intended to center around a 30-minute avant-noise sound collage. (Should’ve taken that “Revolution 9” sample as a warning.) Coyne and sidekick Michael Ivins were evidently inspired by an increased recording budget (and some bizarre sleep-deprivation experiments) to lean into their experimental fantasies. “I still felt like we were trying new things in the studio, and we didn’t care if the songs made sense,” Coyne says in Staring at Sound.
The sound collage in question, an endless noisefest of motorcycles roars, backwards vocals, and cacophonous jamming titled “Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory,” actually clocks in at 23 minutes, grows tiresome after about four, and only appeared in full on the CD edition. Now it’s been restored to its rightful place in the track listing, which is good news for purists but hardly a benefit to the album itself. Even Telepathic Surgery’s quote-unquote “songs” emphasize wacky studio trickery: an excessive stereo pan on an otherwise neat guitar riff (“Right Now”), a roaming radio dial (“Miracle On 42nd Street”), a Mussorgsky sample (“Shaved Gorilla”). I like the three-part “U.F.O. Story,” which begins with a spoken-word witness to the supernatural and concludes with a Tubular Bells-esque piano coda. The lone classic is an amiable “Sweet Child o’ Mine” rip-off titled “Chrome Plated Suicide.”
Telepathic Surgery was greeted with little enthusiasm, and up until the band’s self-indulgent 2010s output, it remained the only album on which the Lips’ ambitions far outpaced their abilities. During a dismal 1989 tour, tensions heightened, English quit following a squabble, and Coyne and Ivins briefly considered giving up. “We were starting to wonder if maybe we wouldn’t ever be able to make music the way we heard it in our heads,” Coyne told DeRogatis. Instead, they teamed up with Fridmann and guitarist Jonathan Donahue, a brilliant sculptor of shattering feedback, and trekked to upstate New York the following year to make their first masterpiece. And thus Coyne discovered the key to realizing his psych-rock fantasies: surrounding himself with musicians more trained and gifted than himself.