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‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’: How The Flaming Lips Infiltrated Pop
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‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’: How The Flaming Lips Infiltrated Pop

A mix of sci-fi, hip-hop and neo-psychedelia, ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ became The Flaming Lips’ surprise breakthrough album.

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As the 90s came to a close, The Flaming Lips staged an unlikely career turnaround, shifting from anarchic noiseniks to purveyors of sumptuous dream pop. Their landmark ninth album, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, had channelled private reckonings with grief into a cathartic outpouring of emotion hailed as that era’s Pet Sounds. With their audience growing in tandem with their critical standing, the Lips entered the 2000s set on matching their neo-psychedelic excursions with the sounds then taking cutting-edge pop and hip-hop into the charts. More than completing their self-appointed mission, the group re-emerged in the summer of 2002 with Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

“We didn’t want it to sound like The Soft Bulletin at all,” Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told this author for an interview published in Record Collector magazine in October 2020. “We don’t really know how to make another one of those. And it wasn’t what we wanted to make.”

Listen to ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ here.

“It sounded like weird music disguised as music that could be on the radio”

Across lengthy sessions in producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios, in Cassadaga, an hour south of Buffalo, New York, The Flaming Lips availed themselves of advances in technology while they sought to harness their obsessions with sci-fi and Big Question themes – love, life, death and the human condition in a rapidly changing world – to a crossover sound that wouldn’t compromise their ambition.

Handing Fridmann a Timbaland remix of a Madonna song, Coyne told the producer, “I think we’re gonna try to make a record like this. Wouldn’t that be fucking fun?” As the singer recalled for Record Collector, Fridmann more than agreed: “I think he secretly was like – and we’re gonna fuckin’ really do it. We’re not gonna get Timbaland to make it. We’re gonna make it.”

With Fridmann himself hitting a peak across recent records by bands such as Mogwai, Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse, and his studio becoming better equipped by the month, the Lips were in the perfect place to realise their goal. “A lot of the programmes and the apps and all the things that were just beginning to happen, in the second that they were happening, Dave Fridmann was on it,” Coyne recalled. “So we’re making a really dense, fucking cool-sounding album, and it’s getting better and better. If we were in there last month, we would go in again, and we’d remix it two months later because there’s more new shit that can make it a little bit more blammo… Then the more that we would do it, it would sound like weird music but it’s sort of disguised as music that could be on the radio.”

“No one was stopping us. No one was telling us what to do”

Also on hand during the sessions was Yoshimi P-We, drummer with experimental Japanese group Boredoms, and a crucial presence on a record whose opening salvo of songs seem to chronicle a martial-arts battle with cyborgs – or what Rolling Stone later posited as: “If The Powerpuff Girls took on Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, who would win?” (Answer: “The listener.”) Yoshimi’s guest vocals led Coyne to the album’s title. “I thought, You know, it really sounds like she’s in some kind of fight or something,” he later told Rolling Stone. “So I just thought, OK, I’ll call it Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and that’ll be that.”

But while the name – and songs such as Fight Test and the title track – suggested that Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was a concept album, Coyne has consistently refuted the notion. Rather, as with David Bowie’s similarly star-gazing The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, any overarching story has been transposed onto the record since its release, with fans extrapolating from a few key songs at the start. Indeed, rather than limit the album to one narrative, for Coyne the title “really loosened the whole feel of what we were doing. A lot of times we get into these things that are philosophical and heavy, but there was a little bit of relief when we could just say, ‘Why does everything have to be death-oriented or existential?’”

Certainly, with its polished-chrome beats, futuristic synth washes and sci-fi soundscapes, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was, on the face of it, the Lips at their most upbeat. However, from album opener Fight Test onwards, it’s clear the group were still tapping into the existential crises that had made The Soft Bulletin so universally relatable.

“For the audience to embrace it… that’s otherworldly”

With a melody that nods to Cat Stevens’ Father And Son, Fight Club presents its own take on growing up – in this case, realising when it’s time to take a stand. And if Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.1 adds encouragement in that direction – “you won’t let those robots defeat me” – Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell is the downbeat lament of someone who failed to take action at a crucial moment: “I was waiting on a moment/But the moment never came/All the billion other moments/Were just slipping all away,” Coyne sings, his forlorn falsetto coming across like Neil Young during a celestial seance.

Despite its chiming bells, shimmering acoustic guitar and radio-ready key changes, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ lead single, Do You Realize??, offered listeners a reminder of why they should seize life before it’s too late: good things never last; the world will continue to spin without us; “everyone you know someday will die”.

Life-affirming rather than dispiriting, Do You Realize?? was immediately embraced as one of the best Flaming Lips songs. Speaking to this author, Coyne revealed that it had been quickly put together at the end of a recording session.

“We’d already been doing a bunch of stuff and so we sort of threw it onto this song – there’s these funny Wizard Of Oz vocals and bells and things that we would do on almost every song and then take them out,” he recalled. But though the Lips initially felt that Do You Realize?? was neither more nor less remarkable than any of the other songs they’d recorded for Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (“We all knew it sounded like a great Flaming Lips song. But it wasn’t 100 and everything else was 20. It was 100, and everything else was like 95”), their record label’s response taught them otherwise.

“They go absolutely crazy for Do You Realize?? and start to point out that this is a special thing,” Coyne said. When the single was released, in August 2002, a month after the album, the public also took the song’s message to heart.

“We weren’t used to people talking about our music,” Coyne admitted. “We don’t like the idea that music is important – it’s just music. And people would come up to me and say, ‘Your song got me through this and that,’ and little by little we learned that it is important. And it’s important that we listen to them.

“The stuff that happens to songs like Do You Realize??, that really is up to the audience,” he continued. “That’s not something that the songwriter gets to have much say in. But for the audience to embrace it and say, ‘This song means this to me,’ that’s otherworldly.

“It was a complete surprise that people embraced it like normal music”

Released on 16 July 2002, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was hailed by Rolling Stone as “the most beauteous of Lips albums” and by Uncut as “astonishing… even by their standards”. With Pitchfork anointing Wayne Coyne as “a genius, equal parts Thomas Edison and PT Barnum” and praising the album for being “bold and inventive… brimming with ideas and sublime moments of brilliance”, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots became The Flaming Lips’ first Top 50 hit on the Billboard 200 while also scoring the group their greatest UK success to date when it peaked at No.13. Uncut would later place it at No.11 in their run-down of the best 2000s albums and call it the greatest record released since the magazine launched, in May 1997.

Despite Coyne’s objections to its reputation as a concept album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ themes – what Billboard heard as “a sombre rumination on love and survival in an unfathomable world” – comfortably lent themselves, in 2012, to an adaptation for a stage musical which also pulled in songs from The Soft Bulletin and the Lips’ 2006 album, At War With The Mystics. Of the story that tied the songs together on stage, Coyne explained, “This girl, the Yoshimi character, is dying of cancer. And these two guys are battling to come visit her in the hospital. And as one of the boyfriends envisions trying to save the girl, he enters another dimension where Yoshimi is this Japanese warrior and the pink robots are an incarnation of her disease. It’s almost like the disease has to win in order for her soul to survive.”

Two decades on from its release, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots has clearly emerged victorious. “No one was stopping us. No one was telling us what to do,” Coyne told this author in 2020. Recalling how shocked the group were by the album’s reception, he added, “We were making our own records. We were making them our own way, and it was a complete surprise that, by the time we were done… people embraced it like normal music.

“It’s luck that the time that we did it, and who we were at that time, allowed it to be this cool thing instead of a torture.”

‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Fight Test

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots enters the ring with this coming-of-age song, Wayne Coyne reconsidering a long-held belief that pacifism ensures the upper hand in conflict. “I thought I was smart, I thought I was right/I thought it was better not to fight/I thought there was a virtue in always being cool,” he sings, before realising that, sometimes, you just have to roll up your sleeves and defend yourself. Refusal to do so has cost the protagonist of Fight Test his girlfriend, but there’s a wider message here – not only about standing up for what you believe in, but also about taking responsibility for your own destiny (“And I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life/It’s all a mystery”). More cosmic connections abound: Fight Test’s melody shares DNA with Cat Stevens’ Father And Son, another song sung from an older, wiser perspective, with teachings about the importance of remaining true to oneself.

One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21

Though there is no strict narrative to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, a loose concept threads through some of its songs, as the album’s titular hero finds herself pitted against a killer robot who, as Coyne explains in the liner notes, “is engineered specifically to destroy its opponent in a gladiator style fight to the death”. Over skittish beats and a warm bassline, Coyne sings of cyborgs replicating feelings in a way that presages the AI era (“One more robot learns to be/Something more than a machine”), while, in The Flaming Lips’ alternate universe, the mechanical assassin falls in love with Yoshimi and, rather than kill its human adversary, chooses to self-destruct.

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt.1

When Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was adapted for the stage, the automatons were reimagined as cancer, and Yoshimi as a character fighting for her life in hospital. The protagonist of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt.1 holds on for a positive outcome (“Oh, Yoshimi, they don’t believe me/But you won’t let those robots eat me”) amid a retro-futurist soundscape woven from electronic and acoustic instruments, including a rising keyboard line that strikes an almost hymnal tone towards the song’s end. Wayne Coyne blesses the results with one of his most emotive vocal performances.

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt.2

Rising up out of the ominous synth squelches that bring its predecessor to a close, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt.2 is an altogether more aggressive proposition. Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd is given the floor for this near-instrumental, switching between rapid-fire fills and thunderous, John Bonham-like assaults on his drum kit, and laying an arsenal of synth effects on top to simulate the clash between Yoshimi and her aggressors. The screaming, meanwhile, is courtesy of Yoshimi P-We, drummer of experimental Japanese rock band Boredoms, who inadvertently inspired some of the album’s core songs. “You know, it sounds like Yoshimi is either being killed by or having sex with the robot,” producer Dave Fridmann observed to Coyne in the studio, leading to a lightbulb moment for the group. “And all of us kind of went, ‘It could be,’” Coyne told Red Bull Academy. “And we knew this idea of the pink robots was a very Flaming Lips thing, that it’s a robot but it’s pink and it’s soft… It spurred us into making the next three or four songs that we knew were intended to be on the record.”

In The Morning Of The Magicians

The Flaming Lips have already sought answers to some of the world’s big mysteries on Fight Test, and with In The Morning Of The Magicians, which takes its name from a French study of occultism and paranormal phenomena, published in 1960, Coyne turns to the unknowability of love. “Is it a concept – is it real – what is love??” he asks in the album’s liner notes, before tying the question to some of the themes explored elsewhere on the record: “If a person believes they are loved, either by another person, by God or an animal or even by a machine, they are loved – what is the proof??” On this song, guitars shimmer like aurora borealis and synth strings create a feeling of weightlessness beneath Coyne’s voice, which floats on top as he contemplates the emotional states of being that keep the world turning.

Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell

From heart to head, and the danger of letting ego convince you that better things are around the corner – even when what you want has been right in front of you all along. “I was waiting on a moment/But the moment never came,” Coyne sings on Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell, sounding tiny amid the whirring and chirping sounds of infinite possibilities passing him by. Love, too, withers in the face of inaction (“All the other love around me/Was just wasting all away”) as Coyne ruminates on the perils of failing to seize the moment, the song emerging as a spiritual cousin to Fight Test.

Are You A Hypnotist??

A solid Steven Drozd beat provides the centre of gravity for this twinkling interrogation into the mind-control powers seemingly wielded by someone whose poor behaviour Coyne repeatedly forgives – albeit against his own will. His inability to keep a firm grip on his feelings ultimately leads him to lose his sense of self (“I thought I recognised your face/Amongst all of those strangers/But I am the stranger now”), his voice echoing in a cosmos of synth washes and falsetto backing vocals which ask, with wraithlike despair, “What is this?/Are you some kind of hypnotist?”

It’s Summertime

Coyne’s vocals have become increasingly submerged in sound throughout Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, but on It’s Summertime they have a fresh clarity that befits the song’s intentions. “It’s summertime/And I can understand if you still feel sad,” he sings, acknowledging that brighter days aren’t always a cure for inner turmoil. And yet, as a cyclical guitar motif and a motorik beat are joined by birdsong effects, Coyne also proffers hope and the lived insight that, like the seasons, feelings change, and better times do lie ahead.

Do You Realize??

Wayne Coyne once claimed that every Flaming Lips song is a Christmas song, and while the group have been responsible for some of the best alternative Christmas songs of all time, the form’s maximalist tradition is also stamped through the Lips’ signature tune, Do You Realize?? Soaring strings, swooping synths, chiming bells and judiciously deployed key changes keep things festive, even as Coyne delivers a frank yet thoughtful home truth: “Do you realise/That everyone you know someday will die?” Yet rather than prompt despair, the song encourages listeners to be at peace with their smallness in the universe, and to share with loved ones the moments they can. “We play it every night, and I know in the audience there are people that this is their song… this is their mother in this song, this is their sons and daughters,” Coyne told Yahoo. “It’s like a piece of magic.”

All We Have Is Now

Picking up where Do You Realize?? left off, All We Have Is Now sees Coyne glimpse a future self, travelling through a rip in the fabric of time to impart a simple message: “You and me were never meant to be part of the future.” A stargazing melody and retro-futurist synths add to the B-movie sci-fi of Coyne’s mini-narrative, the song briefly increasing in tempo towards the end, as if itself attempting to outrun time. Yet Coyne’s repeat assertion of our finite existence becomes reassuring: we may not be able to change the laws of the universe, but, as songs such as Fight Test and Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell have made plain, we can choose how to make the best of the life we have been gifted.

Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)

A heavily reverbed guitar holds a steady course through sound effects that fizzle and flicker all around; a horn fanfare sends out a warm greeting; wordless vocals rise up like some intergalactic echo of Clare Torry’s turn on The Great Gig In The Sky, from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon album. Is this the afterlife, or a vision of the future we won’t live long enough to see? In closing Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots with an instrumental piece, The Flaming Lips allow for a moment of reflection on all that has passed on one of the best 2000s albums. Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia) would go on to win the group a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance – a future they may not have predicted, but one which they wholeheartedly embraced as their career entered a whole new orbit.

Buy ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ anniversary reissues here.

Original article: 16 July 2022

Updated: 16 July 2023. Extra words: Jason Draper

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