The Flaming Lips and Cover Tune Madness
‘Fight Test’ is a cultural tide pool of the unexpected: pink robots, plagiarism and…Kylie Minogue?
After earning beaux psych-rock cred with The Soft Bulletin in 1999, The Flaming Lips returned in 2002 to claim stardom with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The band released each of the album’s four singles on CD with B-sides, remixes, cover tunes and more of the weird illustrations for the album’s central tale. The release featuring “Fight Test” is seven tracks spanning over 30 minutes, so it’s a single that amounts to an EP and is often classified as such. In true Flaming Lips form, it’s delightful, strange and poignant.
Yoshimi was the second of two consecutive big breaks for The Flaming Lips. The band had been around since the mid-Eighties, when its members were “mediocre musicians” with “no real skills,” according to lead singer Wayne Coyne in liner notes for A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording…By Amateurs (1998). I remember the whimsical “She Don’t Use Jelly” getting some airplay on college radio in 1993, but the band wouldn’t become critical darlings until The Soft Bulletin. When Yoshimi came along with its narrative of a city employee using karate to fight people-eating machines, a narrative only explicit in some of the tracks, many listeners considered it the concept album they never knew they had needed. For a while afterward, the music press heralded each new release from The Flaming Lips as a major event.
“Fight Test” was the third single from that album. It’s one of several tracks that touch on themes rather than portray Yoshimi’s story lyrically or musically. Coyne sings about how sometimes it’s necessary to stand up and “be a man,” possibly in the context of winning a woman’s heart. It has an affecting chord progression that Cat Stevens claimed he came up with first for “Father & Son” (1970), and even Coyne has admitted the resemblance. According to Billboard, a settlement led to the band splitting royalties with Stevens. It may have been unintentional, but the resemblance is obvious.
Similar to the cover art for the album, the EP’s cover shows Yoshimi battling the pink robots. She stands, energy bubbles around her head, facing down her enemy. A Japanese motif runs through the album, so some of the aliens look cephalopodic, a traditional Japanese conception of aliens, while one hovers in the air like a tiny flying saucer. In the booklet, people watch as a giant robot strides through a futuristic city. These are part of a series of paintings and lithographs, attributed here and there online to Coyne and sometimes his then wife J. Michelle Martin. They adorn the album, singles, EPs and related products. An EP insert shows a couple of the illustrations on a picture disc and asks, “Got Lips?”
The EP’s only other track from Yoshimi is a remix of “Do You Realize??” The original version is the musical and philosophical high point of the album. I still remember when the lyrics first hit me. It’s nothing new for musicians to comment on the universality of death or specific deaths, but this song circumscribes a scale somewhere in between, to powerful effect: “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” Not nameless people out there, not you, not people close to you…but everybody that you know. Nonetheless, the remix has difficulty competing with the surrounding material.
That’s how good some of the tracks are. “The Strange Design of Conscience” and “Thank You Jack White” are filler, but the live covers of Radiohead’s “Knives Out” (2001) and Beck’s “The Golden Age” (2002), the latter off the artist’s breakup album Sea Change, are solid renditions of songs that were among the best that top artists of the early aughts had to offer. Instead of old tunes, familiar or obscure, The Lips bravely tackled recent releases whose original versions would be fresh in everyone’s minds. The band’s sweetly melancholic style perfectly fits them.
The headscratcher is a cover of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” (2001). The original is a nu-disco jerk-and-bop that Minogue often performed with an avant-garde sci-fi vibe, first in the music video and then in stage performances. The Flaming Lips slow it down into something mournful akin to E.L.O.’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” (1974), whose narrator can’t forget a glimpse of the ocean’s daughter. Kylie can’t get you out of her head because you’re so sexy and she wants to sink her teeth into you, while The Flaming Lips sound like they can’t forget someone dear and now lost, perhaps because deceased. For me, an avowed Minogue fan, it’s the highlight of the EP.
The next single from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” and it too got the EP treatment. The cover art of that one shows a group of people confronting what looks like pink goop escaped from an interdimensional lava lamp. Uncommon robots indeed, but The Flaming Lips is an uncommon band, and even side releases like the Fight Test EP display the band at its most creative.