Monday, February 21, 2011
If you're of a certain age, you likely remember the band's big mainstream hit from 1979, an eccentric, avant-pop take on Berry Gordy's "Money". What was originally recorded as somewhat of a prank became a surprise international hit for both the band and Virgin Records, and they were soon put in the studio to record a full album to capitalise on said hit. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here...
The brainchild of the Flying Lizards is David Cunningham. Born in Ireland in 1953, he moved to London in the early '70s to study music w/ the hopes of making a career as an experimental musician. Falling in w/ a motley crew of avant musos of the day (folks like Steve Beresford and This Heat's Charles Hayward, Michael Nyman and the perennial David Toop), he released a solo LP in 1976 called Grey Scale on his own Piano imprint. When punk hit proper for all to see in 1977, he saw the floodgates and music's possibilities open considerably. He recorded a totally deconstructed minimalist/dub version of "Summertime Blues" with Deborah Evans on vocals at the time and shopped it around. Virgin bit and the single was released in 1978. It didn't do a whole lot of business, though the follow-up, "Money", did. Virgin wanted an album and they got it, though possibly not the album they expected.
The Flying Lizards peaked in the UK at # 60 and received mixed reviews, an understandable reaction, as it's an album not fit for all musical appetites and one which, despite the backing of Virgin and a Top 10 hit in its grooves, doesn't really belong in the pop world. Strip the label logo from its sleeve and listened to w/out any surrounding context giving you hints and you'd swear this LP was released on Rough Trade or a similar imprint at the time. The Flying Lizards was Cunningham and anyone else he pleased. So for "their" debut he not only roped in Toop and Beresford to help out on instrumentation, but also journalist Vivienne Goldman and the likes of Bruce Smith (The Pop Group; Cunningham recorded their demos) and Charles Hayward of This Heat, a band he was producing at the time (and a band I really should write about one of these days, since they were a unit who tore the roof off my brain back in the '90s).
All this is rather fitting, as musically the debut is very much caught in a musical nexus of '79-period Rough Trade agit-rock (think Raincoats/Red Krayola/Scritti Politti anti-rock & roll), the aggro white funk of The Pop Group and rampant, anything-goes experimentalism of This Heat. In 1978, Cunningham listed his influences as "Surfaris, Talking Heads, Jonathon King, 10CC, LaMonte Young, Alternative TV, pornography, XTC, Dadaism, Siouxsie & the Banshees, video, John Cage and Joe Meek", a list which speaks volumes of where is head was at - mixing up the avant-garde with punk rock and surreal pop music - and one which was similarly a sign of the times (something tells me you wouldn't get away w/ noting "video" as being an influence in the year 2011). But all this is trainspotting. What you do need to know is that the debut is a fine thing to behold, and to hear. Critics at the time thought Cunningham's bubble had been burst, that the fluke single, viewed as a novelty hit, couldn't possibly see the "band" release a cohesive long-player when the band really didn't even exist. You could say that's partly true, in the sense that Flying Lizards isn't ten songs which resemble "Money", but also you could say that "Money" was the anomaly in Cunningham's catalogue, the rest of his output being much more representative of the music he wished to make, for the rest of the LP is hardly song-based at all. It's mainly made up of repetitive drum beats, both electric and acoustic, atmospheric electronics and occasional forays into actual song. Track # 2, "Her Story", most definitely sounds like it coulda been lifted off of The Pop Group's For How Much Longer... LP, or This Heat's debut: fitting, considering members of both bands play on it. On this CD reissue, you also get a few different versions of "Summertime Blues" and "Money", and by the third time you've heard either you'll likely want to press "eject", but that's okay as it means you can then stick disc 2 in.
On that silver platter, you'll find the Flying Lizards' 2nd LP, Fourth Wall, originally released in 1981. For some unknown reason, Virgin figured there to be still a remaining pulse of commercial shelf life in Cunningham's project and gave him the go-ahead to record another disc. The reception of the long-player was even more muted than that of the first album, though it has subsequently, as w/ all Flying Lizards product, become a cult item for admirers of pop music's oddballs. The "novelty" cover this time around is a version of Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" (a version which sounds like a studio toss-off, at best), a single which sunk w/out a trace at the time, though Cunningham dragged in a load of famous and infamous friends to help him out: Robert Fripp (his guitar tone instantly recognisable, w/ that thick, dense sound he mastered on discs like No Pussyfooting and Here Come The Warm Jets), Snatch's Patti Palladin, The Pop Group's Gareth Sager, Michael Nyman, etc. The end result is something even more abstract than the debut, being largely electronic sketches than fully-formed "songs", but something those w/ an open pair of ears will find most palatable.
Cunningham continued the name for a few more years, even releasing an LP of covers on the Statik label in 1984, but mostly since then he's stuck to producing and collaborations w/ all manner of avant-gardists. Much like his pals in This Heat, the project known as Flying Lizards were a strange mix of old-school and new-school players and sounds: ostensibly it's viewed as music belonging to a "post-punk" universe, though Cunningham's musical roots predate that world by a few years; they're also, more or less, seen as a band operating within the world of rock & roll, yet as w/ This Heat, Toop, Beresford, etc., Cunningham appeared to be a foreign traveller mixing in the world of populist music almost by accident. Regardless, the music he made under the name Flying Lizards is certainly worth an earload. Anyone whose output can, track by track, traverse a world of sounds which has me thinking of Joe Meek-style novelty-pop one minute, then spikey Brit post-punk the next, whilst in between venturing through improv, krautrock, No Wave, minimalism and beyond has to be doing something right. Nice package here, too - lotsa photos and extensive liner notes from Cherry Red - making it quite the deal. Discover or re-discover: whatever your choosing.