… I’ve always toyed with the idea that the Flying Lizards represented rock and roll from some sort of alternative universe.
David Cunningham, Zigzag magazine, 1984
Formed: England, 1976
Featured album: The Flying Lizards (1980)
THEY MIGHT BE remembered as little more than one-hit-wonders for their robotic cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”. But there’s more to The Flying Lizards than a novelty single, albeit a brilliant one. Straddling the creative ferment of post-punk and the commercial appeal of new wave, The Flying Lizards resist easy categorisation, joining the likes of The Residents and Devo as avant-garde pop deconstructionists of a most peculiar nature.
The Flying Lizards were masterminded by art-school student and amateur composer/producer David Cunningham, who self-released an album of minimalist pieces, Grey Scale, in 1977. Its playful approach to composition and use of prepared acoustic instruments would make its way onto a contemporaneous recording of Cunningham’s, a version of “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochrane. With its rickety, plodding rhythm, monotonous fuzztone riff and the detached public-school delivery of Cunningham’s Maidstone art college acquaintance Deborah Evans, “Summertime Blues” is stilted and stuffy, the archly amusing embodiment of the very tedium Eddie Cochran was railing against on his rockabilly original. After being shopped around to various labels, “Summertime Blues” was eventually picked up by Virgin and released in 1978.
Signing a two-single contract, the duo of Cunningham and Evans released “Money” in 1979, which climbed to number five in the British charts and the top 50 in the US. The single’s success enabled Cunningham to negotiate an album contract with Virgin that treated The Flying Lizards as a production company and gave him free reign to cherry-pick musicians and indulge his production ideas. Cunningham found the human resources he needed to bring his ideas to life through his association with the London Musicians’ Collective (LMC): a loose group of experienced players and punky amateurs with a penchant for primitivism and toy instruments. Among LMC members were experimental musicians David Toop and Steve Beresford; post-punk players Mark Perry (Alternative TV), Bruce Smith (The Pop Group), and Charles Hayward (This Heat); as well as painter Michael Upton and music journalist Vivien Goldman: all of whom appeared on The Flying Lizards’ debut album. Built around the two singles, the album extended Cunningham’s revolving-door approach to a number of wonky originals that sat alongside more exploratory, experimental fare with a prominent dub influence.
The Flying Lizards developed the experimentalism further on their 1981 album, Fourth Wall. Slicker and darker but less commercial than the debut, it featured guest spots by Robert Fripp of King Crimson and Michael Nyman on piano, while Patti Palladin replaced Evans’ received pronunciation with her pouty New York delivery. Fourth Wall was well-received critically, but didn’t yield any hits, probably because its only cover was a version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”. In an attempt to remedy this situation, 1984’s Top Ten consisted purely of covers bent to Cunningham’s absurd vision, now with vocalist Sally Peterson impersonating Evans’ flat intonation. The album included mechanised versions of James Brown’s “Sex Machine”, Larry Williams’ “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy”, and even a creepy take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”. The record is as clever as it is fun. But by foregoing original material the group staked its claim squarely in novelty-act territory, a locale from which they would never return.
The Flying Lizards project was shelved soon after, although a cover of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was recorded in 1992 for a documentary about David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch film. Cunningham went on to become a composer, instillation artist and soundtrack producer, while Deborah Evans has recorded music as Deborah and the Puerto Ricans and with producer Richard X, and now works as a psychotherapist. A compilation of dub instrumentals from 1978, called The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards, emerged in 1995.
Too commercial to be fully accepted by the press, and too eccentic to fully capitalise on their pop appeal, The Flying Lizards occupy a strange place in music history. While “Money” lives on in the public consciousness, popping up in TV shows and movies whenever an ironic statement on wealth is required, The Flying Lizards’ absurd approach can be felt in the novelty-skirting music of Ween and The Books, while their juxtaposition of stiff female vocals and genre-defying pop experimentation would be picked up by the likes of The Fiery Furnaces. Their inclusion in the Nurse with Wound list and Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again has ensured the group a certain longevity among freaks and music nerds. But The Flying Lizards are long overdue for critical reappraisal.
Performance of “Money” on Top of the Pops, UK (1979)
Interview on Countdown, Australia (1980)
“Lovers and Other Strangers” video from Fourth Wall (1981)