Artist: The Flying Lizards
Label: Virgin Records
Producer: David Cunningham
Cover art: Laurie Rae Chamberlain
RECORDED FOR THE princely sum of £6.50, The Flying Lizards’ breakthrough single “Money” may not prove that the ‘the best things in life are free’, but it suggests that they need not be expensive. The modest production values and absurd humour of this insanely catchy song and its predecessor “Summertime Blues” set the tone for the group’s debut album, which finds homespun fun in the avant-garde.
Driven by a stiff, echoed beat produced by hitting a bass guitar with a stick, and what sounds like a banjo but is actually a piano with various objects (rubber toys, a glass ashtray, a telephone directory) thrown inside, “Money” is as experimental as top ten hits get. But its inspired silliness quells any potential pretentiousness. Evans’ straight-faced delivery is backed by high, strangely muffled voices that recall a chorus of critters from The Muppet Show, and with a smattering of mad sound effects, odd instrumentation and wacky voices, much of the album scans as novelty music. In fact, The Flying Lizards were tapping into a tradition of whimsical nonsense in British culture that stretches back to The Goon Show, Monty Python, and beyond. As Evans described her approach to music making to Sounds magazine in 1982, The Flying Lizards sounds ‘like Lewis Carroll making records’.
The album’s inspired silliness is apparent in material like “TV”. Over shimmery guitar like something from a David Lynch movie and rinky-dink organ, Evans oozes icy sophistication while a feckless male voice, lost for words, struggles to pay her a compliment: ‘I think you’re very, very, very, very…’, he repeats, never quite able to finish his sentence. But Cunningham and company weren’t only playing it for laughs. “Money” is a satirical swipe at Margaret Thatcher’s infamously cold-hearted economic policies, and the group snuck feminist critique into the skewed pop tones of “Her Story” and “The Window”, both written and sung by journalist Vivien Goldman. Still, while they were far from apolitical, The Flying Lizards were not your typical protest act. Their stance is best spelled out in a line from “Russia”, in which a few lines in Sanskrit are followed by a chant worthy of The Residents: ‘I must explain, I’m not complaining, I’m just having fun’. As students of Dada and Fluxus, The Flying Lizards understood that creative rule-breaking could be a political act in itself.
If the album’s first side is pop twisted in the funhouse mirror, side two takes us through the looking glass into a world distorted by the anything-goes spaciness of dub. The familiar radio edit of “Money” mutates into a wobbly miasma of bass, heavy studio processing and echoed effects, plunging the album into murkier waters. Strongest among this material is “The Flood” – with its looped rhythm, tape manipulations and out-of-tune falsetto vocals, it channels the chaotic rhythms, grainy textures and wonky melodies of This Heat, whom Cunningham had produced and managed. Final track “The Window” brings us back into the world of pop, backed by eerie guitar noodling, whispered vocals and clattering crockery. Field recordings of footsteps, cars, and trains give the album a sense of movement, and while everything feels rather thrown together to capitalise on the success of the singles, there’s an uneven, off-the-cuff charm that is rare for material this self-consciously arty.
It’s strangely fitting that a cheaply recorded song about money would be the thing to bring The Flying Lizards success. Economic concerns run throughout their debut – from the underpaid and overworked sap in “Summertime Blues” to Evans’ ironic references to class, prestige and luxury items. The theme is signalled by the album’s opening, a ludicrously manic version of “Mandelay Song” from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical Happy End. Written during the economically disastrous period in Germany that preceded WWII, this operetta about rival gangs uniting to overthrow the rich is best remembered for the standout line, ‘Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one’. That sounds like the perfect justification for The Flying Lizards’ own little alternative-universe rock ‘n’ roll swindle, where punk and art teamed up to break into the mainstream and walked away with one of the most delightfully wacked-out albums of the eighties.
- “Mandelay Song” – 2:27
- “Her Story” – 4:37
- “TV” – 3:51
- “Russia” – 6:11
- “Summertime Blues” – 3:09
- “Money (That’s What I Want)” – 5:52
- “The Flood” – 4:57
- “Trouble” – 2:46
- “Events During Flood” – 3:25
- “The Window” – 4:52
Listen on Spotify
Also check out…
- The Residents – The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll (1976)
- The Flying Lizards – Fourth Wall (1981)
- The Flying Lizards – Top Ten (1984)
- The Flying Lizards – The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards (1995)