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Messing With Perfection: Why The Flaming Lips Took On 'Sgt. Pepper'

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips speaks to NPR's Arun Rath about his band's new album, With A Little Help From My Fwends. (Courtesy of the artist)

Rolling Stone called it the greatest album of all time — and for some, that's an understatement. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, raising the standard of rock 'n' roll and challenging their peers to catch up. For just about anyone who cares about rock music, this album is unassailable. And yet, one band — with a reputation for being contrarian — is testing the waters.

The Flaming Lips are about to release a song-by-song re-recording of the entire album called With A Little Help From My Fwends. The Lips have developed their own proud tradition of layered psychedelic sounds and studio wizardry, but even they know they're treating on hallowed ground.

"It's in the realm of the gods," says bandleader Wayne Coyne, in an interview with NPR's Arun Rath. "But for people that make music and record music, you almost have to get in there and go, 'How did they do this?' And so that [idea] of it being this untouchable thing — you know, to us, it's just the opposite. The better it is, the more you want to touch it."

The album features guests on every track, the most attention-getting of which has been Miley Cyrus, who handles vocal duty on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Coyne says her relationship with the band began early this year when, to his complete surprise, she tweeted at him to wish him happy birthday. He responded by inviting her to meet them in the studio.

"We didn't have an idea of doing Sgt. Pepper, but we had the 'Lucy in the Sky' track. So we asked her: 'Hey, let's try this,'" Coyne recalls. And her take on it, her vibe or whatever she brought to it — it was just a great, simple surprise. So I think after that, we thought, let's just put this out. And more logical, reasonable people around us suggested, 'Well, why don't you just try to do the whole record? Wouldn't that be great?' "

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Rolling Stone called it the greatest album of all time. And for some that's an understatement. The Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1967, raising the standard of rock 'n' roll and challenging their peers to catch up. For just about anyone who cares about rock music, this album is unassailable. You cannot top the Beatles' versions of these songs. And yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND")

THE FLAMING LIPS: We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show.

RATH: The Flaming Lips are about to release a song-by-song re-recording of the entire album. The Lips have developed their own proud tradition of layered psychedelic sounds and studio wizardry. But obviously they recognize they're treading on hallowed ground here. I asked band leader Wayne Coyne why?

WAYNE COYNE: I mean, there's lots and lots and lots of music out there that is in that realm of, like, it's, you know, it's masterpiece and it's, you know, it's in the realm of the gods. But for people that, you know, that make music and record music, you almost have to get in there and go, how did they do this? And so that thing of it being this untouchable thing - you know, it - to us, it's just the opposite. It's like the better it is, the more you want to touch it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS")

THE FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song. And I'll try not to sing out of tune.

RATH: Leaving aside the sacred cow status of "Sgt. Pepper," I think one of the challenges would be - it's a very idiosyncratic album. How do you approach something like "Within You Without You" or "For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" and something that's kind of weird to begin with?

COYNE: Well, see, I think this album probably more than the others, there's, you know, there's very much some songs that are Paul McCartney songs, and there's very much some songs that are John Lennon songs. You sort of stand away from a Paul McCartney song because you know he's such a great songwriter. These little emotional nuances in his chord changes and even the range of his singing is - it's - well, he's Paul McCartney. I mean, so it's intimidating. But what happens with John Lennon, he makes it sort of seem like oh, this is no big deal. Anybody can do this. You know, it's rock 'n' roll, just do it, you know. So you always approach his songs like yeah, he's the dude. He's just going to be doing this off-the-cuff, and his are even more complicated and he does all these just weird little time changes that you can't even explain.

RATH: Where's an example of that on this album?

COYNE: Well, I would say the "Good Morning" song. That one is, I mean, when you're driving around in your car listening to it, you can easily skip over what's, like, a little quarter note. It doesn't matter because The Beatles are playing and you're not, you know? But when you go to play it, these little things are like oh my God, what are they doing there?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING")

THE FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) After a while you start to smile, now you feel cool.

COYNE: It seems so effortless, it seems so simple and it ain't.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING")

THE FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) Nothing has changed, it's still the same. I've got nothing to say but it's OK. Good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning.

RATH: You've got a bunch of guests on this album. I think you're probably getting the most attention, obviously, for working with Miley Cyrus. And she's on this track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS")

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) Picture yourself in a boat on the river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

RATH: Now, before you were working together, I don't think there'd probably be a very large number of people who have been to both a Flaming Lips show and a Miley Cyrus show. How did you meet?

COYNE: Well, we had known for a little while that she was a fan of The Flaming Lips. And we probably still called her Hannah Montana back then, you know. Last January 13, which is my birthday, she did a tweet that said happy birthday, Wayne. You're one of my favorite artists of all time. And when someone of the status of a Miley Cyrus on Twitter says that, about 100 people will text me and say Wayne, did you know that Miley Cyrus is wishing you a happy birthday? And I had started to get to know Miley Cyrus. She came to Oklahoma. And...

RATH: You live in Oklahoma.

COYNE: I live in Oklahoma - Oklahoma City, yeah. And we sort of organized that we would all - we would go to a studio there. It's actually a studio by the group Hanson, whose kind of - you know, it's funny that Miley Cyrus and The Flaming Lips are recording in Hanson's studio, for people who know that group. And we didn't have an idea of doing Sgt. Pepper's, but we had the "Lucy In The Sky" track.So we asked her hey, let's try this. And her take on it, you know, her vibe or whatever, you know, want to say - whatever she brought to it - it was just a great, simple surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS")

CYRUS: (Singing) Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile - the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Lucy in the sky with diamonds.

COYNE: So I think after that we thought let's just put this out. And then I think it was an element of just more logical, reasonable people around us suggested well, why don't you just try to do the whole record? Wouldn't that be great?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A DAY IN THE LIFE")

THE FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) I read the news today, oh boy.

RATH: That's Wayne Coyne. He's the singer and founding member of The Flaming Lips. Their song-for-song cover of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" comes out on Tuesday. It's called "With A Little Help From My Fwends." Until then, you can check out every track at our exclusive First Listen. That's at nprmusic.org. Wayne, it's been really fun speaking with you. Thank you.

COYNE: Thanks a bunch for having me. You guys are great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A DAY IN THE LIFE")

THE FLAMING LIPS: (Singing) I saw the photograph. He blew his mind out in a car. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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