The Flaming Lips at O2 Apollo, Manchester, 29 April 2023, from £55.50 - Book now
The Flaming Lips will perform their 2002 landmark album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, in its entirety at Manchester’s O2 Apollo on 29 April.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a sci-fi-themed quasi-concept album that cast The Flaming Lips’ most playful and profound songwriting in a wondrous swirl of ambient electronics, digital beats and psychedelic splendor. The perfect fusion of the band’s experimental urges and their pop instincts, it’s the sound of the Lips at the peak of their creative powers. Hearing it performed live will no doubt be pretty special – even more so because it’s the first time they’ve ever done this in England.
From their beginnings as Oklahoma outsiders to their mid ’90s pop-culture breakthrough to their 21st century status as one of the world’s most respected psych rock bands, The Flaming Lips have had a career every bit as surreal as their music. One that’s spanned 22 studio recordings, three Grammy Awards, and many, many furry animal costumes.
After a good decade spent in the underground, playing discordant, psychedelia-tinged garage rock to a relatively small circle of fringe-music heads, the band, masterminded by frontman Wayne Coyne, scored a major-label deal for the release of their 1993 album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. It spawned that year’s most unlikely Top 40 hit – the bubblegummy ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, whose lyrical absurdity was matched by the opportunities the song opened up for the band, including, very randomly, an appearance on the Fox TV teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210.
After their next album, Clouds Taste Metallic, commercially flopped, Coyne began a string of sonic and performance-art experiments. This ultimately led to the Lips releasing Zaireeka, a defiantly uncommercial ‘experiment in listener participation, using multiple sound sources’, whereby four separate CDs needed to be played simultaneously to hear the final mix. Nothing like this had ever been done in the music industry, and how exactly Coyne sold Warner on releasing the album is anyone’s guess. But the promise of a much more radio friendly record to come definitely helped…
Coyne and co held up their side of the bargain. In 1999, The Soft Bulletin crashed to earth like a beautiful alien ship. It showcased two sides of the band incredibly well: the endearing, intimate storytellers and the masters of experimental, confetti-strewn spectacle. You’d be hard pressed to name a more exciting and definitive opener than ‘Race for the Prize’, whose huge distorted drums, heavenly string synths and bittersweet, Neil Young-esque vocal melodies set the stall out for an album of infectious, electro-organic existential reflection.
But masterpieces like this pose a problem: how the hell do you follow them? The answer came two years later in 2002, with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which did the impossible by being ever more applauded than The Soft Bulletin. Ostensibly a concept album about, ahem, a Japanese warrior girl trying to fight killer machines, the album’s bigger than that, its songs centred around the more general struggle for hope in the face of despair – the pain of heartbreak, the cost of forgiveness, the search for meaning, and the threat of waking up to find the world has left you behind.
Dialling up the experimentalism without compromising those pop instincts, Yoshimi saw the band dig deeper into electronics and largely replace Drozd’s crushed-sounding drums with programmed beats – a liberation-via-limitation comparable to Radiohead’s Kid A. Again the opening track nailed it. ‘Fight Test’ is a gorgeously architected pop track packed with squelchy synths, bold orchestration and one hell of a vocal melody – which, yes, was cribbed from Cat Stevens, but if ever there was a better example of stealing like an artist… Other highlights include the timeless stargazing anthem, Do You Realise and the cosmic album-closer, ‘Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia)’, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
The Lips’ live shows had, by this time, developed a reputation for wild theatricality – a psychedelic circus that rendered the band as living cartoons. Think furry animal costumes, fake blood being sprayed into the audience, giant UFOs and endless confetti. After Yoshimi, they took this spectacle on tour with Beck, for whom they acted as both support and backing band, before pointing their experimental and pop impulses in wildly different directions – from releasing a collaborative album with Miley Cyrus to issuing an expression of existential dread with 2013’s The Terror. More recently they explored the loss of innocence on 2020’s American Head, an album that proved them to still be a force to be reckoned with at the top of their fourth decade.
It’s fair to say, though, that nothing has done since Yoshimi has made quite the same waves as that record, hence its expansive reissue in 2022 and the upcoming live tour of the album. Whether you were there when it was first released, or whether you’re a relatively new fan, expect a gig to remember at Manchester’s O2 Apollo on 29 April.