Flotaing in & out of Flying Lizards
by Michael Freerix
With a single he produced for only 6-pound-50, David Cunningham reached number 4 in the British charts in mid-1979. He called himself 'The Flying Lizards' back then. The single, "Money," was later called 'pure post-punk-madness,' but Cunningham didn't feel like being post-punk, or punk or avant-garde. He just wanted to create something new. After disbanding 'The Flying Lizards' Cunningham had a magnificent career working with such diverse artists as composer Michael Nyman, Turner-Price winner Martin Creed or songwriter and painter Joanne Robertson.
In the mid-'70's, Cunningham, an Irishman, had moved to London to study painting. At the art school, he became interested in Marxistic art theory: the discussions and strategies regarding how to create an impact on art and society without compromising your deeds was a key influence for him.
Video-pioneer David Hall became his teacher. Soon Cunningham abandonded painting and focused on working with sound and images. He borrowed his sister's tape-recorder and brought several others at flea-markets. He became an expert in manipulating the recording of sounds or slicing the tape and creating new tracks out by assembling the pieces.
A glimpse of what he did in 1975 is the first album he released on his own label, piano-music, called Grey Scale. He improvised on the piano by allowing the course of the music to be altered by random outside events. The sleeve notes read: "Error system: the players play a repeated phrase. As soon as one player makes a mistake, that mistake is made the basis of his repetition unless it is modified by a further mistake. Thus each player proceeds at his own rate to change the sound in an uncontrollable manner..." Using violin, piano, "violin piano", percussion, glockenspiel, tape recorders, water and other instruments, the sound of these "error system" pieces are rooted in John Cage's theories of music affected by chance, but these results sound more hypnotically repetitive and rhythmic than much of Cage's sometimes soporific musical work. While working on this conceptional music, Cunningham got together fellow students and fooled around, playing pop-songs. Cunningham recorded these sessions with his tape-recorder, but did not think about a career in music. He spent a lot of time collecting flea-market singles, finding 'Summertime Blues' by Eddie Cochran, as he thought it might be interesting to do a remake of it.
A friend made a joke and remarked that 'only songs about cars, sex or money become hits!' In fact, "Cars" by Gary Numan and "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" by Ian Dury were on the charts, so David Cunningham took this joke seriously and searched through his collection of flea-market singles. He found "Money," the first hit for the Motown label in 1959. These choices weren't accidental, because they were vintage singles he had picked out at the flea-markets. He liked the sound of these recordings.
He turned an unused cold-storage building into an improvised sound-studio, and worked on the basic tracks. Later, he invited other musicians to join him in his project which he soon called 'The Flying Lizards,' like free-improviser Steve Beresford, composer Julian Marshall and experimentalist David Toop.
Cunningham knew exactly what he wanted. He liked monotonous rock-music like Hawkwind. He still ownes two copies of their single "Silver Machine," but while on holiday in Malta in 1977, he heard "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer in a bakery and fell deeply in love with its repetetive sound. He wanted to do something similar, but more abstract.
In the spring of 1978, he started working as a music producer for the first time, but with a very limited studio situation. That is when he discovered the 'power of sound recording.' Cunningham stated in an interview: "There isn't any bass drum on the record, it's just bass guitar being hit with a stick. Then we put the guitar solo and backing vocal on and put it back onto the Vox, and that was the master tape really." 1 To get a good sound for the drums he put them in a very echoey room in the cold storage building, but then discovered that his microphone cables were 5 meters too short to connect them with his recording machine. He recorded the drums this way and liked the sound he got, but he knew from a technical point of view, it was completely wrong. Back in those days, recording engineers used to record the instruments very close and dry, in order to have complete control and manipulate the recordings in the final mix. Even today the drums on "Money" sound pretty harsh, but still musicians ask him how he got that 'awesome' drum sound on that song. Julian Marshall, the piano player, told Melody Maker in 1979: "David played me the original version to refresh my memory, put one mike in the piano and another one by the metronome on the floor. We did it twice, the second time with various things - Chopin sheet music, a glass ashtray, rubber toys, a cassette recorder, a telephone directory - thrown into the piano to get a kind of banjo effect. David said 'That's fine,' and I was slightly amazed: it sounded fairly wrong. But the next time I heard it, at Utopia, where he was cutting it, it sounded fantastic." 2
The Flying Lizards got a two-singles-deal with Virgin Records and its second release "Summertime Blues" sold pretty well independently. But "Money" became a smash hit, and even today it is a very popular song.
In 1983, David Cunningham said about this time: "There's a kind of punk element to the Flying Lizards in terms or my possible misunderstanding of the original ideas about punk. This (idea) was that you could simply do what you felt like doing. Not in the case of expressing yourself necessarily, but if you felt like going into the studio and making a loud noise, you could go into the studio and make a loud noise. Then you could bring some aspects of discipline to that later perhaps and order it into a record. That's how I tend to work. Have a particularly nasty sound to start with, then one slowly rationalizes that into just bursts of a nasty sound, and cleaned up with something nice to make a tune out of it. I've always been convinced the Flying Lizards were punk in terms of outlook." 3
Virgin set up a three-album deal and soon Cunningham was back in the studio to record the tracks that became The Flying Lizards' debut long player. Side one starts off with a version of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Mandelay Song." Using machine gun-speed piano, clattering snare drum, screeching parrot-operatic vocals and a horn section that sounds like it's played by suffering asthmatics. But there are only a few covers on this record. Much of the material is written by Cunningham. And, on the center of the second side, there are three genre-less, poly rhythmic soundscapes: "The Flood", "Trouble" and the dreamy, distant, heartbeat-pulse of "Events During the Flood," showing the direction Cunningham would turn to in the '90's.
The record didn't sell too well. But that was fine with Cunningham, who didn't want to be a pop-star and stand in the spotlights. The record helped him to develop his skills as a producer, and, by that time, offers where coming in.
One was to produce the dub Version of a Jah Lloyd album in 1980. Cunningham loved dub, so he was eager to produce a whole album of dub tracks. But instead of remixing a 24-track-copy of the original mix in a good studio, which he had hoped, Cunningham found himself working at night, when the studio wasn't being used, on a mono-dub of the original. But he'd already shown how he could get perfect results out of less than this. He sliced the original into tiny little pieces and built up something new, adding new instrumental tracks too. The result didn't have a lot in common with the original Jah-Lloyd record. Though Virgin Records never released it, Cunningham bought the tapes back in 1995 and released it on his own 'piano' label. As an outstanding example of his skills as a producer The Secret Dub Life of the Flying Lizards has just been re-released by the small, Berlin-based Staubgold-Label.
In between jobs as a producer David started working on the second official Flying Lizards record. Whereas the first album took several weeks to record, Fourth Wall took 15 months to complete, putting together musicians as diverse as Robert Fripp, Peter Gordon, Michael Nyman, Steve Beresford and Julian Marshall, Cunningham did the recording of the album in several stages. First, each musician laid down their individual tracks, then Cunningham later welded them together in the studio. David would often record a track with various musicians and then proceed to break down the individual elements and recombine them in new ways, often creating a completely new piece of music. "The idea is to reorientate the function of each instrument to some extent. To have them doing different things from what they might be normally doing." Cunningham told Melody Maker in 1981. 4
Being a studio music project, The Flying Lizards never toured. Cunningham focused on his work in the studio, producing rock bands like Jayne (at that time Wayne) County, avant-garde bands like This Heat or German pop-academics Palais Schaumburg. Although he was very busy in the early '80's, he wasn't really building a 'career' as a producer. He turned down many offers to produce promising new acts for various reasons, even turning down an offer to produce Simple Minds, who were about to become one of the leading acts in the '80's. He was supposed to meet them after a gig in Munich but "it just didn't feel right. If I were a band, I wouldn't want to meet a producer after I've just come off stage," he said in a recent interview. 5
As a producer, Cunnigham was interested in a close working relationship with musicians, not just pleasing a record label. He was not afraid of small budgets and he had shown that he could get maximum results, but he wasn't really good at "protecting the musicians from the label," as he said recently. 6 With its Brechtian music, The Flying Lizards released their last record in 1984: an album consisting entirely of cover versions, ranging from Little Richard to Jimi Hendrix.
By that time, Cunningham had already become a close collaborator with Michael Nyman, whom he had known since his art school days. After writing the soundtrack for Peter Greenaways' The Draughtsman's Contract, Nyman was working on a career as soundtrack composer, with Cunningham as his favourite producer.
Over the last 20 years Cunningham has recorded everything from jazz bands to solo performers in his L-shaped recording-studio, as well as composing scores for films and adverts. His latest work has been with painter and songwriter Joanne Robertson. He had seen her perform in a bar, which he found "dreadful" 7, but he liked her songs, so he invited her over to his home studio. Robertson had "perfect pitch" 8, only without headphones so Cunningham decided to record her live, with only a few microphones and added production work later. Robertson's intimate debut, The Lighter, benefits a lot from this decision, making it a critic's favourite all over Europe.
Besides collaborating with artists such as Martin Creed, John Cage, Kathy Acker and Pansonic, Cunningham never stopped creating music of his own. Only recently, he composed a piece for 20 pianos that was premiered in a piano shop. Every player had to play only one chord over and over again, repeating in such a way that almost only the mechanics of the piano could be heard. Looks like he is coming back to the minimalistic music he started with.
(5) Interview with the author
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