For the Benefit of Mr. Coyne

The Flaming Lips’ bold remake of Sgt. Pepper forces listeners to separate challenging art from its hard-to-like creator

Rolling Stone calls the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the most important rock & roll album ever made.” In the internet age, however, Sgt. Pepper sits 100­ percent ­context-­free alongside the countless blatant rip-offs recorded in subsequent years by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Panic! at the Disco. The Flaming Lips seemingly take this one step further on With a Little Help From My Fwends, a track-for-track remake of the album. If Sgt. Pepper is the Mona Lisa, Fwends functions like Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., reproducing an idol with the express purpose of defacing it. Like Duchamp, Lips founder Wayne Coyne seems more interested in exploring the idea of violating an untouchable icon than in rediscovering the artistic merit that made the work iconic in the first place. In lieu of scribbled facial hair, Fwends features EDM beats and the artist formerly known as Hannah Montana, but the effect is pretty much the same: The defacement becomes the focus. Unlike Duchamp, Coyne and co. haven’t stopped at simple graffiti. In recreating the album, they’ve gutted and restitched it inside-out to create a masterpiece of misappropriation, warping another artist’s signature work into something unmistakably the product of the plagiarist. In short, Fwends essentially does with Sgt. Pepper what Erykah Badu accused Coyne of doing with her voice and image a couple of years ago: unapologetically exploits it to ends never originally intended. Fortunately, the result in Fwends’ case is infinitely less nausea-­inducing than the music video Badu disowned: Sgt. Pepper is not a person but an icon, and icons can be scribbled on.

In essence, Fwends is a thorough and artistically useful dismantling of a redoubtable classic that was, in RS’ terms, “rock's ultimate declaration of change.” Would either album even have been attempted by artists who actually considered (or cared about) society’s interpretation of their actions? John Lennon, who co-shepherded Sgt. Pepper to its dizzying creative heights, was the kind of guy who’d offhandedly tell reporters that his band was “more popular than Jesus” in 1966, who met his songwriting partner’s schoolboyish complaints about uncool teachers in “Getting Better” by confessing to hitting women. Fwends, made great by exactly the caliber of arrogance that probably makes Coyne unbearable IRL, only confuses the issue by easily being the most interesting full-length album the Lips have released since 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

The album opens by aping the original’s orchestral tune-­up/crowd­-chatter ambiance, but 15 seconds in, when the first of countless syncopated synth blips begins to bubble, you might already begin suspecting the Lips of musical trolling—especially if you’re familiar with Coyne’s history of offstage assholery, or, for that matter with the band’s recent musical output, which includes not one, but two, poorly executed covers of another classic rock icon, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, one of which “improves” the wall of chiming clocks in “Time” by adding a bunch of lasers to it.

For its first few minutes, Fwends sounds like another collection of laser blasts, guest collaborators, and quite possibly every GarageBand effect ever created (though the tracklist is identical, the Lips’ version of Sgt. Pepper runs more than 10 minutes longer than the original). The Fab Four themselves, who were just figuring out how to use two four-track recorders as an eight­track in 1967, would’ve probably found this kind of post­Girl Talk maximalism as incomprehensible and unlistenable as big­band fans once found psychedelic rock. There is a Rosetta Stone, though: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” In 1967, the song’s drug accompaniment was LSD, but in 2014, the severely screwed Fwends version is probably best enjoyed while sipping sizzurp or maybe, as often advocated by guest vocalist Miley Cyrus, puffing medical marijuana.

Photo by John Biehler/Flickr

But, as with the original, the use of mind-altering drugs is not required to enjoy the experience. The song’s lyrics are every bit as silly and innocent as the children’s drawing that Lennon claimed inspired it, and the same can be said for almost every song on the album. With the exception of scattered allusions to domestic violence (“Getting Better”) and suicide (“A Day in the Life”) made all the more disturbing by their brevity and seeming randomness, Sgt.Pepper is a revolutionary album on which little of consequence happens, lyrically at least. A hole is fixed. A meter maid is catcalled. The minutia of an average Englishman’s daily routine is detailed not once but twice.

Photo courtesy of Paille/Flickr

Yet this lyrical banality caused some critics to write-off Sgt. Pepper as mere studio wanking. Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein panned the original Sgt. Pepper, claiming the album was no musical revolution but “an elaboration without improvement” on what came before. Goldstein’s earlier, more negative takedown in The New York Times alleged the album was largely ruined by its overuse of “special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent.” Pitchfork’s dismissive Fwends review charges the Flaming Lips with similar crimes, of “tripping up the songs’ rhythmic momentum and weirding up the basic melodies with hammy vocals” and of having “little regard for thematic resonance or big-­picture atmosphere.”

Both criticisms seem to miss the point of Sgt. Pepper’s appeal as an auditory funhouse, a celebration of musical form over lyrical content, a cosmic abstraction anchored to the deliberately mundane and quotidian. Both albums trigger pre­language pleasure centers that most pop artists don’t even know exist. For better or worse, this headspace is somehow both shared and subjective, redefined and redecorated by controlled substances (whether they’re taken by the listener or the musician seems almost immaterial). This visceral give-and-­take between artist and audience is the real secret to Sgt. Pepper’s infinite appeal and it defies critical intellectualization.

With the monoculture long since dead and rotting, the Flaming Lips have no hope of equaling Sgt. Pepper’s success, but by scouting out a comparable headspace in 2014 with the likes of Cyrus, Phantogram, and Foxygen in tow, Fwends could have more impact on the future of psychedelic pop music than a tribute album recorded to benefit a regional animal rescue organization has any right to.

That’s an issue for anyone seeking easy dismissal of a problematic figure like Coyne, or for that matter, Lennon—whose homophobic statements to Rolling Stone in 1971 are enough to make us want to tell the “Give Peace a Chance” writer to shut up and sing. The internet’s unblinking gaze at celebrities’ every move creates a weird familiarity that can sometimes border on contempt when we feel they’ve disappointed us, and media sites fan the flames of the feud du jour. But while holding douchebags accountable for their actions is rarely a bad thing, the internet’s instant outrage machine makes it increasingly difficult to separate challenging art from the hard­to­like people who sometimes create it. Fortunately for the likes of Coyne and Lennon, music that defies intellectualization also seems to circumvent our resistance to its unsympathetic creators, even if we find it impossible to relate to them outside of Pepperland.