Forty years ago today, on February 22, 1983, the Flaming Lips performed their very first show at Oklahoma City’s Blue Note Lounge. But if you could take a time machine back to that moment, chances are, you wouldn’t recognize the band onstage. None of the qualities we now associate with this band — the kaleidoscopic pop anthems bursting with positive vibes, childlike wonder, and a shit ton of confetti — can be detected in early setlist standards like “Bag Full Of Thoughts,” which sounds like a group of stoned misfits trying to figure out how to play Echo And The Bunnymen’s “Do It Clean” and coming up with a sludgy goth-garage jam of their own. Even the group’s most instantly identifiable characteristic — Wayne Coyne’s fragile, folksy voice — was nowhere to be heard; lead vocals back then were handled by his brother Mark, whose voice teeters on the edge between humorously dazed and genuinely disturbed.
Though spurred into action by the DIY circuit sprouting up across America in the early ‘80s — when the Oklahoma City area became a strategic pit stop for nascent indie-rock bands traveling to or from Texas and California — the early Flaming Lips were outsiders among the outsiders: too steeped in acidic psychedelia and classic-rock mythology to appeal to hardcore kids, and too downright bizarre and disturbing to ever court a typical midwestern rock audience. And right from the jump, this group had to get used to finding the inspiration in instability: shortly after the Lips released their self-titled EP in 1984, Mark left the group. But on that EP’s final track, he left us with an anti-social mission statement that would double as this band’s roadmap to a brighter future: “I want my own planet.” From that moment on, the Flaming Lips have never stopped seeking it out: With the naturally charismatic Wayne at the helm, the Lips would undergo numerous iterations en route to becoming an American alt-rock institution and perennial summer-festival favorites, all while developing a uniquely playful and perverse style of psychedelic pop that’s clearly not of this Earth.
Over the past four decades, Planet Lips has grown into a highly complex biosphere comprising 16 official albums, numerous EPs, a couple of soundtracks, and countless side-project curios and collaborations — so it’s nigh impossible to distill their history into just 10 songs.The process of drafting a definitive Top 10 list is further complicated by the fact that, as a band that’s gone through so many different phases, the Lips have many different fanbases who’ve tuned in and out over the years, so true consensus is more elusive. For some fans, such a list would seem woefully incomplete without all-timer anthems like “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize??”, but those songs are basically the “Happy Birthday” and “Auld Lang Syne” of the Lips catalog at this point, so you don’t need us to remind you of their eternal, life-affirming qualities. Other Lips enthusiasts would be equally justified in listing off 10 tracks from The Soft Bulletin and calling it a day. But for this survey, we’re going to forsake the band’s most popular songs in favor of the under-streamed gems, lost classics, and unheralded breakthroughs that lit the fuse for the Lips’ big-bang moments.