At least at the beginning, the Flying Lizards were not so much a band as an avant-garde experiment in Pop Music conducted by musical and visual artist David Cunningham and a rotating handful of experimental musicians.
The Flying Lizards landed in the UK music charts in 1979 and were seen on TOTP performing a rather bizarre rendition of The Beatles song “Money”.
They’d already had their debut single, another cover version, that of the Cochran classic “Summertime Blues”.
As a tween buying these singles and appreciating the uniformity of those yellow and blue sleeves, my interest waned after the single “TV”.
So, forty years on, what has reignited my fascination and admiration for a band who, at the time, no-one could take seriously?
This for starters.
The Secret Dub Life Of The Flying Lizards was a surprise and a pleasant one at that and would have fitted in well anyway at a time when I was listening to the likes of Augustus Pablo, The Scientist and King Tubby.
It could be considered a hidden gem but at least it inspired this post and caused me to dig through their album catalogue to find out just what else had been going on. Here’s a mini-bio of the band, taken from the AllMusic archives.
The band were the brainchild of David Cunningham, a well-respected avant-garde composer, producer, and visual artist, and it became one of the first salvos in a long and fascinating career. Cunningham was born in Ireland in 1954, and once told a reporter he first took up music in school as a way of avoiding playing rugby with his schoolmates.
Cunningham later developed a keen interest in both music and visual art, and he left Ireland when he was accepted at the Maidstone College of Art in Canterbury, Kent, where he studied film and video installation. While in school, Cunningham began doing live sound for rock bands playing on campus, which led to an interest in recording and music production.
In 1975, Cunningham self-released an album of minimalist music, Grey Scale and using borrowed gear he recorded a deliberately harsh and minimal version of the old Eddie Cochran hit “Summertime Blues,” with art school chum Deborah Evans contributing flat, tuneless vocals. Cunningham claims the low-tech single cost just 20 pounds to make, and after it was turned down by a number of labels, Virgin Records picked it up for release in 1978, under the assumption that it was inexpensive enough to recoup its costs quickly.
Released under the name the Flying Lizards, “Summertime Blues” attracted enough press attention to sell a few thousand copies, putting the project solidly in the black, and Cunningham decided to take another stab at reconfigured pop.
With its clanking prepared piano, crashing percussion sounds (a combination of tambourine and snare drum), and another monotonic vocal by Evans, “Money” was considerably more manic than “Summertime Blues,” through the recording budget was similarly cheap, and the single became an unexpected chart hit both in Europe and the United States.
Cunningham’s deal with Virgin was for only two singles, but with “Money” climbing the charts, they signed him to a new contract, and the Flying Lizards’ first album soon followed, which featured dub-style audio experiments with improvisational musicians Steve Beresford and David Toop bent interpretations of pop music constructs along with the two freak hit singles.
The album sold just well enough to justify Virgin financing another Flying LizardsLP, but 1981’s Fourth Wall put its focus on the eclectic experimentalism of Cunningham’s music, and despite the presence of another bent cover of a pop classic (in this case Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up”) and contributions from Robert Fripp, Patti Palladin and Michael Nyman the album was a commercial disappointment though it received strong reviews. By this time, Cunningham was devoting much of his time to producing other artists (including This Heat and Wayne County and after releasing 1984’s Top Ten which combined Cunningham’s eccentric take on pop with sleek electronic textures and the vocals of Sally Peterson — Cunningham retired the Flying Lizards.