Thursday, December 5, 2019

Clean Cut DIRTY LOOKS [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981, by Julia Masi. The band ended up with two LPs, Dirty Looks (1980) and Turn It Up (1981). Note that this band should not be confused with the San Francisco-based heavy metal band with the same name that came afterwards. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019.
Marco Sin, Patrick Barnes, Peter Parker
It wasn’t long ago, two years to be precise, that Dirty Looks was living in relative obscurity in the sometimes forgotten borough of Staten Island, New York. Patrick Barnes wrote songs and played the guitar by himself, while he managed a health food store. The daily boredom that he experienced has served as a source of inspiration for his songs. A naturally optimistic person, Patrick tries to take the negative aspects of life and sing about them in a humorous light. With a repertoire of compositions like, “Take a Life” and “Drop That Tan,” he set out to form a band.

Patrick enlisted the aid of Peter Parker, a drummer posing as a longshoreman. Most people ask Peter how a longshoreman got into rock’n’roll, but Peter asks back, “How did rock’n’roll get into a longshoreman? The music was always in me.” He displays his affection for other bands on the lapels of a white leather motorcycle jacket that sports an impressive collection of buttons and enameled badges. Peter joined his first band, Black Horizon, when he was nine years old, playing covers of pop tunes – and he hasn’t put his drumsticks down since.

Marco Sin [aka Marcus Weissmann, d. 1995 – RBF, 2019], the brown-eyed bassman, completes the trio. Always determined to find a place in the spotlight, Marco looked upon his temporary day jobs “operating computers for rich corporations” as “something to keep the hands busy and the mind free for daydreaming.” But the daydreams became reality almost overnight as Dirty Looks started playing clubs in the New York area. Within a few months they had legions of fans and a contract with Stiff/Epic Records. They flew to England to record their first album, Dirty Looks. It received rave reviews on both sided of the Atlantic when it was released last Spring.

In the Fall, they jumped on the Stiff coach and embarked on their first major tour of the United States and Europe. At the Ritz, during December of 1980, on the last night of the “Son of Stiff” tour, they sat around the dressing room and talked about what it was like to get their first taste of international stardom.

“Paris might’ve been our best gig,” Patrick speculated, “and a great audience at the same time. Spain and Portugal were a lot of fun, but they were huge places. We played at sports arenas; kind of, like, indoor soccer places. And there was so much echo, whether we were playing tight or not, or we were out of tune, we wouldn’t know and neither would anybody else. We had a good time, but Paris was more like a place like (the Ritz).” He looked around, “Very similar to La Palace. They didn’t know anything about us ‘cause the record hadn’t been released there. And that’s a real good feeling when you totally win over the crowd. They don’t have any preconceived notions. At least they don’t have any positive ones. They haven’t been, kind of, told what to like, and they have to just decide on their own.

“It’s always exciting for us in New York, ‘cause it’s our home town. But in most of the big cities, sometimes you really have to win them over ‘cause they’re so jaded. They get to see everything.

“The worst reaction is nothing; that kind of boredom where people say, ‘Hmmmm,’ and they’re just thinking about us and not there to have a good time. To me, the idea is just let go and go crazy.

“We had bad press in England. They hate American rock’n’roll bands; they think we’re slick and shallow. Things turned around after we toured. One paper that was the most vicious against us actually had pretty much of a turn-around review. But when you’re right there, in England, it’s kind of weird. They really don’t get the right impression.

“They knew about us in Spain and Portugal. We’re on the radio a lot in Portugal. More people knew about us there than any place since we left New York.”

The crowds in Europe were larger than the band was used to at home. On the average, they were playing to three or four thousand kids per show. “They’re really enthusiastic. They’re not quite so,” he leans back in his chair and fakes a yawn, ‘Oh, another Stiff tour.’ They go crazy. It’s great. They’re,” he sits up straight, his body shaking slightly and his hands waving in the air, “’Another Stiff tour! Alright!’ A lot of times it’s like that in the States, in the smaller towns. And in Ireland and Scotland, they were enthusiastic. Whenever you play small smaller towns, you get that real feeling of excitement.

“In Milan, it was funny,” Peter noted, “Whether they like you or not they’ll toss things at you. They toss these 100 lire coins. They’re about the size of a half dollar. I must’ve gotten hit by about twenty of them,” he mimed dodging the coins, “in the back of my head. I got hit by a Coke can on the back of my wrist. Thank God it was an empty Coke can. They had this huge sack of pamphlets, about this size,” he demonstrated with his hands about six inches apart. “And they just tossed them all at Marco. They just went like bumpf, all over him. By the time we left the stage it was covered with paper.” He continued to describe how the band was bombarded with a fleet of paper airplanes. “Their paper airplanes aren’t ordinary paper airplanes where you just fold ‘em up and that’s it. They really get into building them. They rip the little corners for the wind and everything else like that. And when they threw them,” he shakes his head and smiles in admiration, “boy, those suckers flew!”

“They stone bands there,” Patrick added. They throw little rocks. We were the last band on in Italy because we were the most known. And if they like you, they throw even more things. By the time we got on it was really ridiculous. The stage was this high,” he lifted his hand about a foot-and-a-half above the table, “with paper. It was filmed for Italian television and we were cursing out the audience. We thought, ‘This isn’t gonna be able to be used,’ but the Italian television people loved it. They’re really nice.

“Also, about 1,500 people pay for tickets, then certain people liberate the hall. They open the doors and let in another 1,000 people so it’s like, 3,500 people when 2,000 of them just broke in.”

The band really seems to love being on the road. “It’s lots of fun just being paid to go out and see the world. It’s a great job,” Marco boasts. And they only cited two real problems about the tour: getting their laundry done and finding good food. Patrick adheres to a vegetarian diet that posed a few problems in Germany and at roadside diners.

“A lot of people think rock’n’roll is just a lot of fun,” but according to Peter, “It’s like a regular job. We have to get up early, and we get to bed late.” And travelling by coach didn’t make it any easier. “You fall asleep standing, holding onto the railing. You train your body to sleep in any uncomfortable position you could ever possibly think of.”

“But I don’t mind,” Patrick interrupted. “It’s really fun. Other jobs where I had to get up really early, it was like – " he lowers his eyes, leans his head back and thumps down in the chair, letting out a deep sigh. “I don’t really mind getting up early when it’s just to get the bus to drive to Paris. I can handle it. I can sleep on the bus,” he snaps his fingers, “like that. You learn to when you have to.”

“What I liked,” remembered Marco, “was the fact that wherever we went, whatever new country it was, you know people were coming to see a show, coming to listen to some rock’n’roll and to have a good time, and that language or whatever didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered except the fact that it was a rock’n’roll show. It was good. I can’t wait to go to Australia, Japan and South America. I’ve never been there.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review: Anti-Nowhere League – We Are the League: How Deep Do You Want It? (Special Edition DVD and Soundtrack CD)

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League – How Deep Do You Want It?
Directed by George Hencken
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
103 minutes, 2019

Wikipedia lists the band as “hardcore,” but in my opinion, The Anti-Nowhere League (ANL, as they are commonly referred) were a cross between the hard-hitting pub band The Stranglers and the solid outrageousness of the Sex Pistols. But there’s no getting around the power of one of their anthems, “So What,” that is so filled with profanities and outlandish sex acts that it was not played in the States at all. They never really made it on this side of the Pond, and that is not surprising for that reason. People here were already nervous about bands like the Pistols, and the wilder the non-American group, the less chance they had of being played or booked.

Around 1983, I worked on a taping of New York-based cable access show “Videowave,” and one of their guests was the Anti-Nowhere League. Now, it’s been multiple decades and my memory may be shaky, but I remember it being sort of like when the fictional punk band The Scum of the Earth appeared on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” where they were somewhat polite until the camera came on, and then they went extreme. No, ANL didn’t destroy the set, but they were more aggressive until the cameras turned off.

After seeing this film, I understand the dichotomy a bit more: they come from the mostly lovely Royal Tunbridge Wells, a suburban metropolis about 30 miles southeast of London (Jeff Beck and Sid Vicious are also from there). Like most towns, it has its dark side, and that’s where the four core founding members of ANL began and mostly wound up. They include Nick “Animal” Culmer (vox), Chris “Magoo” Exall (guitar), Clive “Winston” Blake (bass), and PJ (drums).

The juxtaposition of seeing the idyllic town centre and these rough and burly guys is a head scratcher, in a good way. The band started, essentially, on bravado and chutzpah, and that worked for them. At first a biker “gang,” they decided to try out as musicians after seeing the Damned. Animal’s description of this is quite amusing, going from “greaser” to “teddy” overnight (though would anyone argue that their look was still the former?).

Through persistence and a communication with Damned drummer Rat Scabies, they finagled an opening spot on a Damned tour as their first gigs. Quite brazen, but it worked. They couldn’t play very well yet, but it got them noticed. Scabies is also interviewed often on this documentary, and he has come out as sort of a punk guru master. When I saw the Damned a number of times in the 1970s at CBGBs, he was definitely a wild card, which is saying something since they were sharing a bill with the Dead Boys. But I digress…

ANL managed to hook up with a manager, John Curd of WXYZ Records, who released their single with the flipside of “So What.” After much controversy and censure by the government (not to mention the seizure of thousands of copies), they released their album, We Are the League, which is arguably one of the strongest grunge punk albums of the time, and certainly a precursor to hardcore (as were the Damned and the Dead Boys).

This is partially expressed in the behavior of the bassist, Winston, who would do things (described in disgusting detail here) that was certainly a foundation for the stage show that would become the oeuvre of GG Allin. Outrageous actions were hardly his alone though, as they debauched and “went off the rails” as Animal describes it.

One thing the documentary brings forward that was completely new to me is that they were the stars of an unreleased tour documentary called So What!, directed by The Police drummer (again with the drummers), Stewart Copeland for his first release as a filmmaker. Supporting ANL on the tour were Chron Gen and Chelsea. Copeland describes the experience, but despite his accomplishments, he comes across as preening and condescending here. This film is so obscure, it’s not even mentioned in the IMDB, though you can see some limited clips on YouTube.

Just as the Damned had successfully morphed into Goth (i.e., when they lost me), the ANL tried to change with the times (they refer to it themselves as “selling out”) with much less success. And at the two-thirds point of this film, as they morph into a more mainstream sound and personnel changes start to fly starting with the removal of PJ in the mid-to-late 1980s, the documentary starts to fall apart as well. As brilliant as the first two-thirds is, the last act becomes a bit tedious in their wallowing.

The Kent accents are thick as fleas and captions would have been a help for those of us non-Brits, so there are parts I had to play over to make sure what I heard was correct, but overall it’s not too bad (I find volume control helps), but overall the film was worth the watch. I personally wish ANL were less obscure here in the States, as they were a fun band. Also, I wish I could have seen them play live (they did limited tours of the States).

As for the extras there are a number of extended interviews, lasting from 1 to 11 minutes. During the PJ interview, I wanted to hear more about the trouble he had with prejudice going through customs and small townships, as an Iranian; this was discussed in part during the film, but by other bandmates. To me, this was a failing by the filmmaker, even if it ended up in the extras. For the rest, I understand why they were excised from the main release, but I’m also glad to have seen them. Also included is a slideshow of posters, live shots, etc., and the film’s trailer, along with a bunch of the Cleopatra Entertainment label film coming attractions.

Of course, the big extra is the 19-track CD of previously unreleased live performance material from 1982, which will show why they were so important at the time.

This is definitely a cock-heavy film, with almost no female presence, so amusingly at the end credits, there is a declaration that “This film refused the Bechdel test.” This made me laugh.

CD track list includes:
We Are the League
Can’t Stand Rock N’ Roll
For You
Streets of London
World War III
Wreck a Nowhere
Nowhere Man
I’m No Hero
I Hate…People
So What
Let’s Break the Law

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Fun with THE JONESES [1988]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1988
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Live photo © Robert Barry Francos, 2019
Other image and videos from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen 15, dated 1988, and written by Julia Masi.

What was especially wrong with the Joneses, in my opinion, is that they were pointed in the wrong direction to make it a success. While Julia somewhat correctly lines them up with the energy of the bands from the late ‘70s, their style was more hair metal with a pop flair, and that’s the wave they should have jumped on. Their locus in Hollywood was the center of that scene, so they could easily have been lumped in with Mötley Crüe or Guns N’ Roses, but I believe their marketing was looking backwards rather than forwards.

Are their songs sexist? Yeah, but there was a lot of that kind of stuff going on back then (note that I'm not excusing any of it). Even now, I get music from metal acts that put out material with lyrics that makes me cringe. Musically, their album Keeping Up with the Joneses is really a lot of fun, but I also understand their musical immaturity worked against them more than promoting them. Also thwarting their climb, they don’t sound like they take themselves too seriously, and that may be a factor why the members of the band kept changing, other than Jeff Drake. Of course, it also doesn’t help that some time after this interview, Jeff spent a few years incarcerated thanks to trying to rob a bank. Yep, you read that right. After he got out, the band reformed, as it were (i.e., Jeff and a new back-up), and took another stab at it. Considering how many of you reading this know of them shows their level of non-success.

I met Jeff and Steve at a taping of cable access show “Videowave” (as did Julia), and yeah, they were a bunch of smartasses. The trio of videos they talk about, as far as I can tell, never came to be. Listening to their music now (see links below), I still think they are a “fun” band, but even after all these years, it’s still hard to take them seriously. And there’s the rub. – RBF, 2019
Steve Olson and Jeff Drake on the set of "Videowave"
(photo by Robert Barry Francos)
The Joneses are just average, all-American boys who “rage for fun,” party in cemeteries, write double-entendre songs and aspire to become “The Geraldo Rivera of rock’n’roll.”

Occasionally, the boys are given to clichés, but not always in a negative way. For example, their album, Keeping Up with the Joneses, on Doctor Dream Records, is a rowdy, raunchy collection of material including “She’s So Filthy,” “Look So Bad, Feel So Good,” and “Ms. 714” that fails to find anything serious in the banality of the basic boy/girl relationship.

Fun is the band’s favorite pastime and the only adjective they use to describe their music. Fans agree, but sometimes the people they love most – women – attack them for their tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

Hiding their eyes under black, opaque aviator glasses and wrapped in tight, somewhat shredded jeans, the boys – Jeff Drake (vocals) and Steve (I don’t know his last name; he didn’t’ tell me his last name, but I didn’t’ tell him mine [Steve Olson, who was also a professional skateboarder at the time – RBF, 2019]) – try to look menacing. But smiles to supresses their laughter gives them away.

Jeff is the quiet one (as compared to Steve, that is). He’s a Lakers fan given to saying things like, “A drug-free America comes first in our book!” He could easily be mistaken for a Disney World prototype of a rock’n’roll robot if he didn’t declare, “Women are my favorite sex object” whenever he’s forced to say anything profound.

Steve emerged from the womb searching for the spotlight. He works at throwing female interviewers off-track by asking personal questions. Although you can ask him anything, all of his answers related back to the topic of sex. But so does their music.

“I wanted to put a liner sheet in there,” Jeff explains as a certain reporter throws the album cover as if it were a Frisbee. “But the record company wouldn’t do it. They thought that some of the lyrics might be offensive. I don’t think any of it is offensive. The songs are actually very upbeat, so if you use a little vernacular, it’s okay.”

It seems strange that feminists take their music seriously, or even listen to it in the first place. Of course, that might relate to the title of “Look So Bad, Feel So Good,” but it seems ridiculous that they actually write to the Joneses and give them a hard time. They wrongly accuse the boys of being sexists! (Female readers, please gasp.)

“It really doesn’t bother us,” Jeff continues. “Our songs are written pretty much in the language that we speak, so there’s words in there that might be taken out of context and thought of as that. But if you’re gonna take them apart… I write them I about five minutes and it would take them more than that to pick them apart.”

The bulk of their reviews are favorable. And it did take a considerable amount of digging through clippings to find that one obscure article that labeled them “moronically misogynist.” When asked to defend themselves, they confessed they had no idea what it meant. A quick explanation rendered them speechless and pale. It seemed like a good time to call in the paramedics, until Steve interjected, “I don’t know where they got this information. I am the opposite!” (Female readers: please sigh.)

We are about to take a turn for the worse as the Joneses try to convince me that in addition to sex and romance, Chekov is among their major influences. (Come on, boys! How dumb do I look? No wonder the feminists pick on you.)

“I think they just misinterpret us,” interjects Steve. “We’re just about having fun. Life is fun. Boy meets girl. Boy equals F. Girl equals F. Life is fun. It’s sexist fun.”

And for more sexist fun, the band can dabble in video. They have a trilogy written for “She’s So Filthy,” “Look So Bad, Feel So Good,’ and “Ms. 714” that they were trying to put together in New York at the time of (but not during) this interview.

“We’ve been doing some casting out here,” says Jeff, “getting some models up to the crib for auditions and tryouts. Since it’s “She’s So Filthy,” we want to get some really filthy girls to lend some honesty to the whole thing. It’s gonna be trashy.” And exactly how do the Joneses conduct their little star search? “We say, ‘Show us. Here’s the song. Act it out’,” explains Jeff.

“We want to make it real-to-life. Why cover it up?” asks Steve. They carry out a little repartee about making two versions, one for commercial consumption and the other a home version for limited release.

Trying to get them back to the subject of their music, at this point, is nearly impossible. And it takes the slightly drastic measure of kicking off a spiked-heel shoe in pseudo-feminist mock anger for the boys to get the point. (By the way boys, real feminists wear sensible shoes.)

Quickly changing the subject, Jeff describe the record as “a party album” and winces at comments (no matter how complementary) that it’s a throwback to the good old days of 1977-79, when live bands had raw energy. “If you can overlook the trap they got caught in, then I think they’re really great,” said Steve, referring to the chemical and financial problems that hovered like a black cloud over that scene.

“It comes from the roots of rock’n’roll,” Steve muses. His love of old rock’n’roll is so deep, he used to visit the grave of one of his heroes, Eddie Cochran so frequently that he has dozens of stories of partying on his grave.

When an analogy is made to the way Jeff sometimes mumbles his lyrics and the fact that other bands of their genre frequently condemn commercial success, Steve chides, “That’s because Jeff is afraid of success. He’s really a great singer and he tries to mix it down.” Steve, of course, is fearless in the face of fame. “When I was 17 or 16, I would go up to Hollywood and there was just a very small amount of people into this New Wave thing.

“People like X, and even people who are big now; these people were dressed up and having fun. And it was like everyone was in this little clique. There was one in San Francisco, there was one in L.A., and there was that London scene, with all the prima donnas from England that ripped off America anyway.

“I was having a great time. And I was a very successful kid at a young age. It’s ridiculous to be so narrow-minded.

“Success is what? Just being happy. It isn’t just how much money you have or – If you’re content with yourself, it depends on how you hold success in your eyes.”

As Jeff puts it, “We just want everyone to have a good time and we’ll be the conductors.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Three Important People to Befriend at Work

Three Important People to Befriend at Work
Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen Productions, 2019
Images from the Internet

As one makes their way through a work environment, it is normal to encounter many different levels of people, from management to the custodial staff. Each one of them will, at some point, serve your needs, or require you to attend theirs.

Getting on the good side of coworkers and those in charge is obvious. And as a side-note, always remember to give the credit for work to the right person, and be willing to take the blame for your own mistakes, rather than point at others. This honesty will more often than not reflect positive on you, and endear you to the management. Also, if you’re honest about the little errors you make, when a big one comes along that is not your fault, there is a better chance that they will believe you if you have a history of being truthful. When complemented for your work, do not be embarrassed to ask the person to send an email to your immediate supervisor reflecting this, as it will go into your file for the next evaluation. If I receive an email thank you, I will respond and “CC” my boss.

That being said, there are three people (or groups) to keep companionship with, even if they are not your favorites within the company.

The first is the person at the Front Desk, who is usually the Administrative Assistant. S/he is the hub of everything that goes on in a company, and by being attentive to them, you will get to hear about the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly when it comes to those at the workplace. On some level, they are the hub controlling everything, even if they don’t make the decisions. Most management will rely on that person to do their work for them, because they have their own business to do that usually affects everyone. By befriending the person out front, they most likely are happy to share their frustrations and you can gain insights to the workings of the company, and especially who to seek for mentoring, or to avoid at all costs.

While I have found that most of the Administrative Assistants are quite nice and friendly, which makes this all the easier to accomplish, sometimes they can be withholding and grumpy. I worked for a company where this latter was true, and yet I bought her coffee a couple of times a week, made sure to ask how she was doing, and even make small talk about the weather. Before long, I was her confidant, and I heard all the news about everything and everyone. There were even times I knew who was going to be promoted or fired before they did. This way, I was able to keep my pulse on the going-on in this corporate draconian company.

The second person(s) is whomever is in charge of the mail. While most companies now rely more on email than the physicality of letters, don’t think that they are no longer vital to include in your group. This is important for the two-way direction of mail. For example, one company I worked for, I was able to send any letter/package I wanted without having to go to the post office. I would hang around (at slow times) in the mail room, and somewhere in there be sure to put my letter/package in the bin. They saw it was from me, and they just let it slide. At the time, I was active on an auction site, and was able to mail off what I had put up for sale without having to pay for the postage. This last thing works better in a large corporation than a smaller company.

In the other direction, for a while I was getting packages that were disappearing from my mailbox. Most companies will not let you receive personal mail at work, but I did not have an issue with that, because I hung out in the mailroom occasionally, befriending the people there, especially when they let me know I had something to pick up.

The last person or group is whomever is in charge of IT/Technical Services. The stereotype of the IT person (e.g., think Jimmy Fallon on “SNL”) is someone who is impatient with staff who know less than them, but it’s important to remember that everyone knows less than them. If you have trouble with your computer, especially in a large company, it may take a while until they can get to you to fix the problem. In one company, I became good buddies with the IT person (even beyond the front doors), and he was always quick to answer when I was dealing with issues; I am an end user, but know nothing about the running of the machine. The analogy I tend to use is that I can drive the car but can’t fix the motor. One time, I had an IT person fix my personal laptop that I brought in before he serviced the Vice President’s workstation.

Here’s another small but interesting note in that often, the place where the IT person(s) are stationed is in a faraway room, and often windowless. They get bored being so confined, so tend to be willing for companionship. Also, it’s a good place to hide when you don’t want to be seen and need a break from too much work (most people just go to the bathroom and occupy a stall).

It’s important to remember not to abuse any of these people or situations; for example, don’t spend too long schmoozing because they also need to do their jobs, and may come to find you a distraction more than a friend. It’s a fine line, but one worth exploring.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: Systems Pilot of Flying Lizards [1980]

Text by Daryl Licht / FFanzeen 1980
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2020
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue 4, dated May/June 1980. It was written by Daryl Licht, whose name was a pseudonym, but for the life of me I can’t remember for certain whose it was (though I have an idea by the references that are made throughout).

The Flying Lizard’s big song was a cover of the first Motown hit, “Money.” Personally, I thought it annoying, but I will totally admit I sold out for printing this extremely long piece since I had met David Cunningham at a cable access show “Videowave” taping, and was sucked into agreeing to it because I believed at that time (being a relative-kid) that it may lead me to getting bigger interviews with bands with whom I was more interested. While in hindsight I guess I don’t mind it being there, afterwards I was a bit more firm (though I did get tricked into putting in a band or two I thought went against the direction of the ‘zine), and turned down a few big names, such as an interview with Duran Duran (I’m still not sorry about that one), rather than go against my focus for the ‘zine.

What I really like about this interview is that while it’s obvious the interviewer knew his stuff and did his homework about Cunningham, he also doesn’t pander to him and asks some really smart and pointed questions. This is hardly a shallow discussion.

David Cunningham went on to be a record producer and has a sporadic solo career. – RBF, 2020

David Cunningham is a 25-year-old record producer and conceptual artist. He is also the man behind the Flying Lizards, a mysterious aggregation that, last year, provided us with two strange minimalist singles in their covers of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues and Berry Gordy’s “Money.” The Lizards (actually Cunningham and some friends having fun in the studio) have recently released an album of songs that are every bit as weird as the previous singles.

The following interview took place in a secluded room in the New York offices of Virgin Records on a rainy Tuesday in February. As the interview was quite long, it was necessary to exclude some of it, but all of the good parts (with the exception of Cunningham physically imitating Thin Lizzy, which the tape missed) are here.
* * *
FFanzeen: First of all, General, Strike and Goldman get writing credits on the Lizards album. Who are these people in relation to the instruments, the album and things in general?
David Cunningham: The structure is one of working with friends. I don’t have a group; don’t have a lot to do with groups as such. I’m not really interested in the idea of having a permanent group. And it seems interesting that the situation can be generated by different people and them involved in something, or a combination of different people together; one uses those people and I have a few friends who are, some of them, excellent musicians, and some, maybe not so excellent, but certainly interesting musicians, and I tend to use them in that way, as a group, writing together and performing together in the studio. Vivian Goldman is a journalist in Melody Maker and also a close friend since before Melody Maker.

FFanzeen: Does she do some of the vocals, like some of the vocals that are sung as opposed to Deborah Evans’ (“Money”) vocals?
David: Yes; she sings on “Her Story” and on “The Window,” the latter of which she wrote, as well.

FFanzeen: “The Window” seems so ominous to me. Is there any particularly interesting story behind that song, or is it something that you just came up with and thought would be interesting to do?
David: No, it was written on the spot. It was in reaction to the situation. We started off with a rhythm tape, then added background voices which, at the time, were the foreground voices. And it was this Joni Mitchell-type thing, just a little tape going on with these voices harmonizing against it. And gradually, we added more and more instruments, and it took the shape it does as a song. It’s just what was obsessing Vivian at the time.

FFanzeen: What do you actually play, instrument-wise? I know you were in a band called Les Cochons Chic. [There is no mention of that band on David’s Wikipedia page. – RBF, 2020.]
David: Yeah, that was a joke group. Well, it wasn’t a joke group; it was a systems group that, very roughly, turned into a joke group as more and more people used to join. The first public performance was a 13-piece group and the whole idea was that there were two musicians’ roles: you were either one of the rhythm people or you created the surface over the rhythm, and everyone who was a surface musician went through a delay thing whereby the music was built up into a very dense texture. At the first gig, the machines broke down and everything went wrong. There were far too many people there.

FFanzeen: Were they musicians and non-musicians?
David: Very much so. It was a horrible, sporadic mess of people and the concert was great; it was a competition and there were all these rock groups who took themselves too seriously coming on and doing two numbers and going off again, and we came on and made this horrible noise for 10 minutes and we went off, and everyone was so pissed off after hearing these horrible groups doing their horrible songs that they cheered us enough to get an encore.

FFanzeen: I got the feeling listening to the Lizards’ album that there was an attitude of contempt for basic rock’n’roll and basic song structure, similar to the feeling I get when listening to some of the Residents’ material.
David: I don’t think it’s facetious like the Residents. I don’t think it’s even conscious, like they obviously are, because if you look at the contents of their first few records, I think there is a facetiousness or self-consciousness there. We were – I was – primarily dealing with the vocabulary of that music. I was using that vocabulary when I needed to. When it seemed I didn’t need to employ that vocabulary to make the thing sound good, then I didn’t use it, so the thing was somewhat stripped down. The joke element perhaps came out of not being able to play very well. But that’s a different matter.

FFanzeen: I felt it was half-and-half. On the one hand, you were using what you could take from it and in a way saying, “I acknowledge that this existed.” For instance, on “TV,” you’re using the I-IV-V progression and the reverb guitars, and it’s really like a late ‘50s girl group type thing where she’s talking about cars…
David: What’s a I-IV-V progression? Is that a musical term? [For example D-A-E-D-A – RBF, 2020.]

FFanzeen: Yes [grinning]. Well, the basic structure of the song reminds me of any early ‘60s kind of rock’n’roll, complete with the lyrical content of cars, sex…
David: [Begins to laugh] Well, that was different; this is most embarrassing.

FFanzeen: Why?
David: Because of what a friend of mine suggested to me before “Money.” He said, “If you cut a record about money, cars or sex, it would be a hit,” so we made “Money” as much to prove him wrong as to have a good time. I like the song. I’ve got the Barrett Strong record and I think it’s great.

FFanzeen: But it even carries over to that; you take “Summertime Blues” and “Money,” two standard rock numbers that so many people have covered.
David: Yeah, the important key words like money, TV, cars, sex are our key words. “Pop Muzikwas a key word; that was a hit song. “Summertime Blues” wasn’t so much a key word; it was a statement of a sort. It struck me as being some sort of political statement. It still is in many ways, depending on what country you’re in of courses, and are 18. You’re nothing until you’re about 21 in some places… I’ve gone through that having summer jobs in factories, the traumas of adolescence. I love the song and the actual mechanism in the song; the words, the statement appeals to me. We were talking about key words. “TV” was actually a conscious attempt to use the “Key Word Theory.” We put as many key word references in it and thought it would be an enormous hit. I can’t quite honestly see why it won’t be some kind of terrific hit.

FFanzeen: Do you think that the sound has just as much to do with it being a hit as far as attracting people’s attention is concerned? The first two singles were minimalistic. You seem to state the barest parts of the melody enough to let people know what the song is.
David: That’s what I said about using as much of the vocabulary as one feels one needs. I think “TV” uses a lot more of that vocabulary. I think you’re probably right. The only thing about “TV” is that I haven’t heard a record that sounded like that in years, and really, there isn’t a record that’s like that. You can look at a few things. I mean, what we stole it from was –

FFanzeen: What you borrowed it from…
David: We didn’t borrow it, we stole it. I won’t say it through. We stole it off a Ska record actually, and changed the rhythm and everything, and it ended up going from one thing to another. I’m not terribly concerned about creating something that is completely new and certainly not creating anything avant-garde. I think it’s being perverse to get out and say I want to make a sound that nobody has ever dreamed of before. You’ll end up with some kind of atonal rubbish.

FFanzeen: But don’t you create new sounds on the album by electronic sound manipulation and alteration?
David: One can alter sound in two ways: by technology and by content. I do it in both ways.

FFanzeen: I actually took this to relate more to the songs on the second side, where you have a sound going on and then another sound is laid on top of it, and then another sound, and then the first sound is removed, leaving the second and third sound, which seems totally different than they did when the first sound was underneath them.
David: I don’t do it very much. Most of it is simple layering. I can’t remember being in a position where I actually needed to take away the original sound and replace it. I’ve always known that the option was there to do that and I’ve tried it out, but there is the thing of just doing something and getting a buzz off that. And what I like is the idea that every time you hear a sound in the studio, putting it on tape you should be excited by that sound on its own. If there’s a particularly strange guitar solo, it supposedly should sound great without the backing track. Not great, but interesting anyway.

FFanzeen: With the backing track, the sound of the guitar – even though it’s the same sound – is altered in the way you hear it.
David: Certainly. It’s a much more complex sort of mixture, but if the song is originally exciting, I think that helps. It probably turns an experimental attitude like that. You talked about imperceptible change, it’s very sudden change. I think that’s what is avant-garde music, and why the Flying Lizards are presumably pop music – not that I think there’s any value judgment going on there.

FFanzeen: As far as pop music is concerned, don’t you think that the music on the album tends to polarize towards one point or another? People who would listen to experimental music should get something out of listening to parts of the album while people who are into more conventional rock’n’roll, or who heard one of the singles and liked it, can’t relate to the other type of music. The album is almost divided up side by side, which may or may not be conscious, or maybe it’s the way I’m hearing it. Some may feel Side One has more of a novelty aspect.
David: This is probably because I listen to both. That’s simply it. I can hear differences, of course. I tend to think they’re all part of the same thing. If you’re not used to listening to rock music at all, it sounds the same anyway. It’s all 4-4.

FFanzeen: Oh, is that a musical term?
David: Yeah, ha-ha. I just think it’s an extension of that way of thinking; that to a Balinese person, all rock music must sound the same. I’m not worried if people do think this is rubbishy music or this is horribly serious music, because if they’re going to think that, there’s very little I can do.

FFanzeen: You put out a song like “TV” as the third single, which has the sound which people associate with the Flying Lizards – her voice – when you could have put out “Russia” as the single – and if that came on the radio, I don’t think people would say, “That’s the Flying Lizards.” There definitely is a breakdown in terms of what’s to be released next.
David: I simply put “TV” out as a single. I didn’t even decide. I asked Virgin (Records) what they wanted and they said “TV,” and the same goes for other things. I don’t want to give them something they don’t want to sell. It did strike me as the commercial track on the album and I wasn’t going to argue with it. The only other thing was “Mandelay Song” [“De Song von Mandelay” – Daryl Licht, 1980]. I would have liked to see that as a single, but probably not in an English-speaking territory.

FFanzeen: “Mandelay” ties in with what I asked before about contempt. I felt that it was in tradition, where you’re taking a song and you’re saying you acknowledge it, but at the same time doing this treatment as if to say you’re not taking it seriously.
David: How can you take a song like that seriously? It’s about this brothel in Mandelay [sic] and sailors are lined up along this pier waiting to get in. They’re all banging on the door and shouting, ‘cause someone’s taking a long time in there and the song goes on to say that love isn’t made in hours and minutes, love is where you find it. I chose it because it’s one of the fastest songs (Bertolt) Brecht wrote, and the words struck me as sort of a little game ‘cause people have trouble with the BBC in Britain. The Gang of Four said “Packets” on one of their albums and it got banned immediately. I think it was “packets,” or it could have been “rubbers” [on the song “At Home He’s a Tourist” – RBF, 2020].

FFanzeen: On “Her Song,” the lyrics say, “But you can still make money singing sweet songs,” and it seems that‘s being said on the album when, ironically, you’ve made money putting out anything but sweet songs. I mean, “Money” is very abrasive.
David: “Sweet songs of love” is the full quote.

FFanzeen: And they then start singing this love song and it seems that if it really was a long song, it wouldn’t have to be stated like that. It’s kind of an order.
David: Well, that song’s about the concept of courtly love as devised in the 11th Century.

FFanzeen: “You Are My Territory”?
David: That’s it, yeah. In a way it’s an anti-love song; it’s kind of a feminist statement. I don’t disagree with the lyrics.

FFanzeen: In “Russia,” you said, “I must explain / I’m not complaining / I’m just having fun.” It seemed to tie in the whole theory for me that while you were setting up something that said, you were not taking everything too seriously – but on the other hand, you didn’t want people to say that. You just wanted to state that you were having a good time also, and not really worry about what was going on.
David: I’m not having a good time when I’m singing. I hate singing.

FFanzeen: But you’re sitting back and saying, “Well.” This is assuming you’re using “TV” to poke fun at those conventions.
David: The song doesn’t refer outside itself. I don’t think any of the songs I’ve dealt with do. I’m very bad with lyrics, as you can tell with the lyrics to “Russia” – they’re mostly the kind of treatment of some (John) Cage work and ended up with bits of lyrics to “Russia”; the part from the phone line. Originally, “Russia” was a song with lots of verses which I wrote years ago in a pub and find them so embarrassing to look at now. I love the tune.

FFanzeen: “Russia” reminds me of “Burning Airlines” on Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain. That guitar…
David: That’s strange, ha-ha. The way I play it is more like Thin Lizzy.

FFanzeen: How much of a hand did you have in designing what appears on the record covers; the art movements and the dates, that nap and the thing that says, “There’s performing music and music you listen to.” Did you choose those images?
David: I chose all the images. The juxtapositions are a system. The Flying Lizard sleeves, the stripes, the stars, struck me as visual symbols that one could use in that kind of shape.

FFanzeen: On the single sleeves, the images seem ambiguous, which seemed to tie in with the music – like on the end of “TV,” where there’s a voice that goes “wah-wah-wah” and sounds like a trombone. It seems that even though it’s a human voice, as to what it really is can be kind of ambiguous, if you listen to it in a certain light.
David: Yeah, its porpoises… in a way it could be porpoises mating or something like that. Well, if ambiguity is there, I won’t attempt to make it literate, to make it plain. I can do that on the other music that I do. As far as I’m concerned, the Flying Lizards present the ambiguity – but explains it later. And then you find out talking to people that it was something else. Like the sleeve of “Money”: Deborah is lying on this dark lawn at night – it looks like a dead body in a canal or something.

FFanzeen: It has that wet feeling.
David: She was soaking wet. We had a hose pipe on her. That was a similar one to the first sleeve where there’s a glass of milk flying up into someone’s face. I had the system with lots and lots of flashes around her; we go up in the balcony and we had a sprinkler. So we were going to get the sprinkler going and freeze the sprinkle with all the flashes so it would look like streamers from rockets, and we had no idea what would happen with it about color or image. The flash blew up. Rich, the photographer, was so drunk that he just messed it all up. So that was that.

FFanzeen: You were talking about systems before and I mentioned Eno. I’d like to know if you can draw up any parallels between you and him, since he’s so interested in systems as well.
David: Same sources: English art college. I think we like the same artist’s work. I don’t know about Eno, but I like Kenneth Tom Phillips, Sol Lewitt, Philip Glass; the systems people generally – Steve Reich. There’s a lot of writing on the theory of that work, and the theory of cybernetics and visual art.

FFanzeen: Before, you were talking about taping a sound and a month later listening to it and it would sound very different. It seems that’s the approach This Heat took to their album [that Cunningham produced – RBF, 2020].
David: Yeah, they did that a long time before they made the album. Most of that stuff was released in 1977. It’s a great pity they were delayed.

FFanzeen: Are you going to work with them in the future?
David: I’m setting them up in such a way that they will be able to make records at their own discretion on a self-generating mechanism.

FFanzeen: Is your power to do that a direct result of your success with your own records?
David: It’s a result of that, and I put their record on my label [Piano Records – Daryl Licht, 1980]. It was a last-gasp desperate bid to recoup some money off the incredibly high studio bill they ran up. The fact that the record sold out in Britain has, to some extent, vindicated me as a person who can float records. And it was that, combined with the Lizards’ “Money” that can put This Heat in a slightly stronger position this time around. I tend to think that each project I’m involved in should be self-subsidising; that I’m not going to make an expensive, silly, avant-garde album simply because I have lots of money. I think if I make one, it will be done under the economic conditions which pertain to that music. A reflection of what it is, it shouldn’t be a self-indulgent exercise, but something quite solid and serious.

FFanzeen: Do you have any other recorded work besides the Flying Lizard’s things?
David: There’s the album Grey Scale, which is an album of system pieces. I put it out on my label in 1977. It was meant to be an album of sketchbook pieces. I’ve done one piece five times on the first side with different groupings and different arrangements – different inputs to the system. The reason behind that was to show a work in progress. I was very interested in having that on record. In fact, that’s what a lot of dub reggae suggests: a work in progress – people actually finding things in the studio and playing with them on the mixing deck. If you’re in the studio with a group and you hear them doing that, it’s quite an interesting process. Dub reggae, to some extent, found that.

FFanzeen: Reggae pops up in “Money B” where the vocals end and this fat bass comes in.
David: Yeah, that’s the result of working on the 4-track. When we ran out of words, there was a track free and I put a bass track on it. I took great enjoyment in doing that really, even though it’s a pretty gross aberration of dub music.

FFanzeen: Where does the name Flying Lizards come from? Is there anything in particular, or was that kind of a name people would remember? It’s a bit absurd.
David: It was absurd in the ‘70s. I think it’s cute in the ‘80s. If you want to be silly about things, if anyone thinks the ‘80s should be any different from the ‘70s, I think cute is the word, and I think things will get pretty or cute for a little while. Pop music will become increasingly trivial.

FFanzeen: Some would say it’s always been trivial.
David: Oh, it really has, yes, but it won’t be as pretentious anymore. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. You know, because the people… like, for instance, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, to some extent, took themselves too seriously. That whole movement was a very profound influence on me and a lot of other people. Here were people coming along and subverting the technology to their own uses. Maybe not in the most distinct and lucid way possible, but it was a very exciting time, and you know that was fashion – and yet again, it wasn’t fashion, it was a real human feeling… and a business.