When Indie Goes Top 40, #2: The Flaming Lips

After the release and subsequent success of Nevermind in 1991, the major record labels cherry picked bands from labels like Sub Pop, Twin/Tone, SST, and the like, and so-called indie bands already signed to these labels got a major push. This happened especially to those bands who'd been name checked by Kurt Cobain in one of his various interviews. Some of these bands even managed to squeeze out a major hit or two on the radio.

This is their story.

The Flaming Lips

Long before they were singing about battling pink robots and waiting for Superman, these acid heads from Oklahoma City were delivering their Butthole Surfers-inspired live shows (often featuring various kinds of pyrotechnics) and experimental neo-psychedelic rock to rock clubs around the Southwest. By the time they released their Warner Brothers debut in 1992, the Lips had already been around for nearly a decade, crafting their sound. While their WB debut, Hit to Death in the Future Head was a leap forward, their next album, 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart was when the band hit their stride, and one that would be a harbinger of the new sound they were crafting. Their sound had progressed from psych freak-out noise-rock to a more pop-based sound without the band having to pull any punches as far as weirdness goes (there's a song called "Oh, My Pregnant Head (Labia in the Sunlight)" for chrissakes). They jsut made themselves a bit more listener friendly.

In fact, it was so listener friendly that they garnered a hit from it--the insanely catchy "She Don't Use Jelly," a song about people's individual bizarre quirks (the title comes from a a verse about a girl who prefers Vaseline to jelly on her toast), with a memorable chorus break led by a catchy pedal steel, with periodic bursts of distorted guitars. File this unlikely hit under "novelty". Its appealing in the same way Loudon Wainwright III's "Dead Skunk" or Frank Zappa's "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" were in the '70s--it's weird and a bit gross, but more in a Nickelodeon way than a Farrelly Brothers way, and its simply fun to sing along to. The lyrics almost sound like the sort of nonsensical song little kids might sing while playing patty cake. It was destined to be a left-field hit.

The Lips made the most of their short success, appearing on late night shows like The Jon Stewart Show, and even making a soon-to-be forgotten appearance at the Peach Pit After Dark on Beverly Hills 90210 (er, the original), in a performance so good it led one Steve Sanders to exclaim "These guys rocked the house!"

"Is that The Flaming Lips?"
"Well it's not Michael Bolton"

The follow-up, "Turn It On," was the lead off track on Transmissions and a brilliantly simple and catchy alternative rock song; a slightly harder-edged version of the sound the Lips would follow on subsequent albums, but proved that "Jelly" was clearly the fluke on the album. That isn't to say that the rest of the album isn't good (it's great, actually), but the hit single (like so many other '90s hits) was far from being indicative of the rest of the album, which is far more sonically expansive and ambitious than the singalong "Jelly" might suggest. "Turn It On" was a fine follow up and the second most radio-ready track on the album, but alas, lacked the same novelty of "Jelly" (thank god). Somewhat inevitably, the second single tanked.

No worries. The Lips may have have been pushed out of the pop radio game, but they would go on to release a string of classic albums like Clouds Taste Metallic, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that make Transmissions--as good as it is--look pedestrian.

And unlike some of their contemporaries, they actually didn't get dropped by their label after their follow up album failed to gain the same amount of attention as their hit. Warner Brothers must be smarter than they look.

Chart Positions:
1st single: "She Don't Use Jelly" US Billboard Hot 100 #55, US Modern Rock #9
2nd single: "Turn It On" did not chart

The Flaming Lips - She Don't Use Jelly
The Flaming Lips - Turn It On

Official Store