Flaming Lips

Reinventing the Beatles: A Brief History of the Full-Album Cover

Garry Mullholland

By Garry Mullholland

on 11.17.14 in Features
‘There’s [an audience] who will absolutely hate it without ever hearing it, and want to come to my house and kill me for screwing with Beatles music. We take that as a great compliment.
— Wayne Coyne’

It begins as a cacophony of backwards guitars, gnarly electronic bass, and chattering alien voices, suddenly interrupted by a fiery cartoon explosion. But then, as the dust clears, a voice appears singing familiar words: “It was 20 years ago today/ Sgt Pepper taught the band to play…” And so begins With A Little Help From My Fwendsthe Flaming Lips’ full-length, track-by-track cover of the Beatles‘ 1967 masterpiece Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with Lips “fwends” such as Moby, J Mascis, My Morning Jacket, Tegan & Sara and Miley Cyrus along for the ride.

The resulting record is a mix of familiarity and strangeness, a dramatic remodeling of the Beatles original with echoing, dubbed-out production, eccentric vocal performances and a dark, sinister undercurrent. The poignant “She’s Leaving Home,” featuring Julianna Barwick and Phantogram, is reinvented with glitchy drum machines and bubbling synths. Miley takes the lead vocal on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which swings from faithful recreation to explosive, distortion-soaked climax. “With A Little Help From My Friends” replaces the original’s sunny harmonies with the fevered screams and rapid-fire drumming of Black Pus, aka Lightning Bolt‘s Brian Chippendale. Throughout, the album’s meaning is scrambled, but its LSD-influenced spirit remains intact.

This isn’t the first time the Lips have taken on a full album cover. Past efforts include 2009′s Record Store Day release The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side Of The Moon, a 2012 reworking of King Crimson‘s In The Court Of The Crimson King, and a 2013 take on the Stone Roses‘ debut entitled The Time Has Come To Shoot You Down… What A Sound, featuring Polica and Foxygen, but none of those sound quite as complete and confident as With A Little Help From My Fwends.

Wayne Coyne insists there’s no broader conceptual intent behind these reinventions: It’s all about blowing off steam. “We have our own studio which we’re in almost every day,” he says. “And sometimes, as a way of doing music that is not as stressful as doing your own, we all just pull together and say, ‘Hey, let’s try this song.’ There’s not the same stress and ego involved — it’s playing around with something that’s already there.”

The Flaming Lips aren’t the only band to experiment with the full album cover. It’s been an indie-rock stunt since as far back as 1986, when New York noise-rock group Pussy Galore, whose members included Jon Spencer (later of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and Neil Hagerty (later of Royal Trux), released a cassette-only cover of Exile On Main Street. Taking the raggedly glorious Rolling Stones classic and reinterpreting it with no-fi production, out-of-tune instruments and seemingly haphazard crash edits, the Pussy Galore version both locates and amplifies the original’s mood of chaotic, malevolent sleaze. “Sonic Youth were talking about recording The White Album by the Beatles, for some reason,” Hagerty once told an interviewer. “I suggested that we record Exile on Main Street instead, ’cause we’d rather be the Stones than the Beatles. And then we actually did it, which was good publicity.” (The Sonic Youth album never came to pass, although two years later they did release The Whitey Album, a lopsided tribute to Madonna and ’80s pop, under the name Ciccone Youth).

‘A lot of contemporary jazz is dangerously close to doing the same thing: playing something that’s already been done before in exactly the same way. If this album isn’t jazz then where is that line? How many musicians currently make music that is intentionally very similar to historical recordings, yet they say that it is creative music?
— Matthew Elliott’

If the full-album cover can seem like a stunt, the results are sometimes transformative. On 2007′s Rise Above, Dirty Projectors set out to “reimagine” the whole of Black Flag‘s hardcore classic Damaged using nothing but bandleader Dave Longstreth’s memory as a guide. Hearing the furious protest of “Police Story” reimagined with Roy Orbison-style acoustic guitars and cooing female harmonies is both poignant and disquieting; the furious adolescent angst of the original turned into something delicate and yearning. But Longstreth’s real achievement on Rise Above is that no one needs to be familiar with the original to enjoy it. In 1988, Slovenian industrial troupe Laibach covered almost all of the Beatles Let It Be as part of their ongoing assault on European fascism. “Get Back” performed in the style of an East German marching band gave a deliberately sinister edge to those cute McCartney lines about getting back to where you — immigrants? — once belonged.

Many full-album covers have transcended gimmick status to become proper commercial successes, like Easy Star All Star’s well-received dub reggae versions of The Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer. Others have won the acclaim of the artists they reinterpret. On Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, the erstwhile Decemberists violinist
performed the entirety of the Who‘s second album using only her own sweet voice. Pete Townshend was so impressed with the recreation that he said Haden’s effort made him feel “like hearing it for the first time.”

Pussy Galore, 'Exile on Main Street'

And last month, New York jazz ensemble Mostly Other People Do the Killing released a fastidious “note-for-note” recreation of the iconic Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, renamed simply Blue. The group took great pains to replicate the sound of the original as far as possible, transcribing carefully and striving to mirror both technique and technology, right down to the texture of the tape hiss. “By making this album, we took some ideas about historical jazz performance to their logical extreme, and at the same time brought out the elements of music that are impossible to copy,” says bassist Matthew “Moppa” Elliott. Because they’ve removed all elements of improvisation completely, Elliott asserts that Blue is “not jazz,” though, he adds, “we are celebrating the elements that make jazz and spontaneously improvised music great.”

Not all critics appreciated their efforts. “Why bother replicating a masterpiece that already exists? There’s only one original,” jazz writer Dan Morgenstern told the Wall Street Journal, speaking for many who believe that it’s the duty of artists to strive for originality. But Elliott is bullish in his defense of the project. “I would argue that a lot of contemporary jazz is dangerously close to doing the same thing: playing something that’s already been done before in exactly the same way. We just pushed it to its extreme. If this album isn’t jazz — and it’s not — then where is that line? How many musicians currently make music that is intentionally very similar to historical recordings, yet they say that it is creative music?”

In truth, the faithful reinterpretation of a song, passed from person to person, predates the idea of albums. “I like the thought of the music that we listen to now becoming almost like folk songs, repeated over and over again, passed down from generation to generation,” reckons David West, the co-owner of the Exeter, U.K.-based Art Is Hard Records. Last Record Store Day, they released Jam Kids — an album that brings together friends like PAWS, Flamingods and the Black Tamborines in a full-album cover of Pavement‘s much-loved second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

While the Flaming Lips album is a widescreen work by artists who know how to organize the seemingly random and chaotic, and Blue is a cool, almost academic project, Jam Kids — named after a Pavement B-side — is full of ramshackle joy; the sound of kids who are just plain delighted to blast away at tunes they love. Nevertheless, says West, some of the Art Is Hard roster couldn’t bring themselves to take part. “There were some bands who we really wanted on the compilation but unfortunately they had to pull out because they weren’t sure they were going to be able to create something substantially different.”

And the phenomenon of the full-album cover isn’t showing any signs of slowing: Albany, New York’s Magnetic Eye are currently running a Kickstarter, to fund a full-album cover of Jimi Hendrix‘s Electric Ladyland in a metal style, with the likes of Earthless, Mothership and Ironweed involved. Beck‘s Record Club is a series of “informal meetings” convening heavyweight collaborators like St. Vincent, Devendra Banhart, Thurston Moore and Feist. To date, they’ve completed five full albums, from the cool (The Velvet Underground & Nico, Skip Spence‘s Oar) to the commercial (INXS‘s Kick) to the possibly ironic (Yanni Live At The Acropolis).

‘The fact that no matter how hard we try, we cannot copy Kind of Blue is what makes that album great. — Matthew Elliott’

But the approach is not without its limits. When I ask Elliott if Mostly Other People Do The Killing might follow up Blue with a note-by-note A Love Supreme, his response is emphatic. “No. No one should ever do this. One of the major points I am trying to make is that historical performance in jazz is a difficult thing to do, and that the most interesting and rewarding elements in music are the individual human nuances great musicians bring to music. The fact that no matter how hard we try, we cannot copy Kind of Blue is what makes that album, and jazz in general, great.”

Wayne Coyne is perhaps more sanguine. Toward the end of our conversation, he casually announces that after hanging up the phone he’ll be listening to Dave Fridmann‘s first mix of the new Flaming Lips Christmas single: a cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Yoko Ono on lead vocals. The way Coyne speaks about Yoko, you feel like it’s a point of honor for him to place her right back at the heart of The Beatles. “When I read about Beatles music there’s always a couple of enemies that people speak of, and one of them is Yoko. But if you were with her for five minutes you would absolutely change your mind and see why someone like a John Lennon would want to be with her. “Cause she is the things that she says.”

There are moments where you worry on behalf of Wayne Coyne: Has he spent so long inside other people’s masterworks that he’s starting to get lost inside them? But if there is a liberating aspect to this sort of exercise, it’s in watching the Flaming Lips prove that no aspect of rock ‘n’ roll history is off limits. “There are so many dilemmas that you run into when you’re messing with sacred ground,” he confesses. “But it’s not sacred to us. We asked ourselves, ‘Who is the audience for this?’ and divided them into three categories. The first is an audience who are very much like us: they know Flaming Lips music and everybody on the record and they also love the Beatles. And for them, it’s just another interesting…thing. There’s a second audience who don’t have a clue who any of us are, except Miley Cyrus. They’re 15 years old, they don’t give a fuck about the Beatles or the Flaming Lips, and I think they’re just gonna have their minds completely blown. And then there’s a third who will absolutely hate it without ever hearing it, and want to come to my house and kill me for screwing with Beatles music. We take that as a great compliment.”