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.
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 Muzik” was 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.