Flying Lizards' Virgin press release photo, 1979. Photo by Richard Rayner-Canham
David Cunningham is known to many as the creator of the Flying Lizards, a band whose bizarre and wonderful cover version of "Money (That's What I Want)" became a weirdly gigantic hit in 1979. Today they remain a "post-modern" classic, and Cunningham has continued his work as a musician, artist, and producer, often turning up in unexpected places. He's performed with everyone from John Cage to Pan Sonic, produced and recorded bands as varied as This Heat, Snatch, and Jayne County and the Electric Chairs, produced music for Peter Greenaway's films and BBC television, and created simple, mind-blowing sound installations at places like the Tate Britain, ICC Tokyo, and random elevator lobbies of apartment buildings. He's conducted performances for multiple players in old London piano shops, and continues today with his behind-the-curtain, Dada/Fluxus-inspired approach.
I recently spoke with Cunningham about art, Marxism, contingency, using planks of wood to play pianos, rock bands vs. animals, how he almost launched Laurie Anderson's career, and what it's like to make "Money" by accident.
David Cunningham playing Multispecies at Palmengarten in Frankfurt, 2012. Photo by Dana Munro
David Cunningham: More like $9, plus the cost of a reel of tape and a couple of bus tickets. Of course I already had a bunch of tape recorders and couldn't have done it without that resource. But I've always liked the idea of "appropriate technology," and do-it-yourself. I recall quoting Marx at the time on “controlling the means of production,” although that's pushing it a bit.
Realistically, the reference is close. "Money" was on Virgin Records, who were coming out of their older hippie vibe in 1978, and hadn't quite figured out the concept of a "single." Their promotion department tended not to be involved in the shameless bribery or payola that I know was going on with other record labels. So, "Money" basically sat around for a month, until suddenly it had a rather mysterious, rapid climb up the charts. I remember the looks on the faces of the promotion department as they said to me, "The Capital Radio Hit Line is playing 'Money' this afternoon." That was a chart based on listener phone-in votes. I said "Oh, that's nice," and they said, "But you don't understand, we stopped phoning up three weeks ago." Friends who worked in record shops at the time told me the usual record-buying demographic wasn't buying it, it was more oddball types who started hearing it and it just caught on. Although, sadly perhaps, I think the sales pattern for it was that of a novelty record, like a children's song. One thing unique to the UK, there are always novelty records in the British charts.
Yeah, I remember Laurie Anderson's bizarre song "O Superman" went to number two on the British charts long before she was signed to Warner Brothers and was popular in the US.
Yes, "O Superman" possibly had a similar sales pattern to "Money" in Britain, even though it's a more serious record. Curiously, "O Superman" was initially offered to me back then, for my small label Piano.
Yes, the connection was through Peter Gordon, who I knew and worked with, being friends with Laurie. One Ten Records, a small label in New York who had released her early work approached me for a UK release. I turned it down at the time because I thought it was brilliant, and couldn't have possibly coped with a massive hit on my little label. I thought "This song could be huge!" I ended up being right.
So "Money" became a big hit, which allowed you to do several albums. The Flying Lizards "group" was a kind of collective, with Robert Fripp, Viv Albertine of the Slits, Charles Hayward of This Heat, Michael Nyman, many others… were these people just your friends? It seems in late-70s London all these artists and bands just knew each other from around.
Yes, but only to some extent. For example, George from Aswad I didn't know, he was a friend of Vivien Goldman's. I remember her saying something like "You need a bit of real bass on this, your playing's rubbish, let's bring George in." And she did and he was terrific. Another way of connecting was I had begun recording for bands and producing them, and later I was helping manage This Heat and working with General Strike and hanging out with various bands, bits and bobs. Early on there was a Manchester band called Manicured Noise that I helped record. They dragged me to one of their supporting gigs and I did their live sound, which I'm not very good at but they seemed to like. The main band heard it and approached me to do their sound, and that was Marco Pirroni's band, before Adam joined them and they became Adam and the Ants. So, in a way you sort of did connect with everybody, but there were gaps. For instance I never knowingly met anyone out of The Clash, though they're good pals with Viv.
Do you still keep in touch with the three main female vocalists from the Flying Lizards?
I don't see Patti Palladin as much as I should, I think the last time was about a year ago when I walked into a computer shop in Tottenham Court Road and I discovered her shouting at the sales guy behind the counter. She just grabbed me to help set him straight. We try and meet up occasionally. I saw Sally Peterson last year.
Your 1977 solo album of experimental music "Grey Scale" is mostly piano-based. Your record label is called Piano. Pianos frame a lot of Flying Lizards’s songs. In 2006, you did an installation appropriately titled "A Piano In a Gallery" at Carter Presents. Last year you composed a piece titled "A Lot Of Pianos" for multiple players on old pianos laying around Markson Pianos shop in London. Do you have a fetish for Pianos?
Uh… I didn't think I did, but obviously I do. It's rather sad isn't it? [laughs]
My mother had one she rarely played. When I was five or six I loved fiddling about with the insides and realizing it could make all kinds of strange noises I'd never expected a piano could make. They're a pretty odd instrument in that all the notes are available without particularly hard work. You can't play all the notes on, say, a guitar at the same time, there's only the potential. If you had a piano keyboard and two planks of wood the right size, you could play all the notes on it with one big blast. Which, actually, is an idea I was thinking about again recently because someone asked me to play La Monte Young's "X for Henry Flynt," and I couldn't think of a way to play cluster notes "X" number of times without screwing up or cramping my fingers. I mean… I'm not a piano player.
I aspire to be.
Patti Palladin and David Cunningham in 1981. Photo by DB Burkeman
I noticed a lot of your recorded work has an open-air, dissonant quality. I've read interviews where you talk about the open-air recording process on records like Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? and Joe Meek's Telstar. Do you think this process is still important in the age of digital recording and listening?
Very much. Perhaps even more so now because the clarity can be better with digital recording. Hendrix’s engineer moved the overloaded microphone to the back of the studio to pick up the massive wall of amplifiers Jimi brought in, and that's how you get that wonderful sound of all that air moving about. Although, usually you can't use that type of ambient microphoning when you're recording a standard rock group, it ends up just a wash. But room sound with one instrument gives recordings a particularly idiosyncratic quality, depending on the room. For example, when recording a drum… what happens when you take the drum away? It's just the sound of the room. The unusual snare drum sound on "Money" was recorded in three different rooms. First Julian Marshall's front room, where we recorded the piano and a metronome. Then I took that up to this echo-y room where Charles Hayward's spare drum kit was sitting, and I overdubbed the drums, just hi-hat and snare. I wasn't getting a decent bass drum sound so that's actually the sound of a bass guitar being hit with a stick. Then the rest of the mixing was done at my studio, a kind of shed at the back of the artist's studio complex building in Brixton. The sound was enhanced by the air in the room really because I initially couldn't get the mic close enough to the drum. I achieved that recording quality because of a lack of cable length, and will power.
Are accidents a large component of your work?
They must. It can't be talent.
Ha! Can you talk a little bit about your Activated Space sound installations? They just look like empty rooms.
They consist of a microphone and various speakers in an empty gallery or indoor public space, which amplify the silence in the room and build up feedback around the standing waves of acoustic qualities of the space itself. The viewer walks through or experiences the sounds in the space, and becomes part of that situation as the sounds they cause bounces back to them. I'd always noticed the acoustic qualities of spaces, which can sometimes overpower any sound you make in them. For instance trying to speak loudly in an overly echo-y lecture hall. So, I realized there was something there to work with. It was an idea that didn’t quite happen until the right technology became available. Actually, all I did was take along a noise gate out of my studio, which controlled the feedback level. So it was something I’d always wanted to do to, a basic idea: use the sound of a space rather than imposing sound into it.
I've always thought your Activated Space project, particularly “A Piano In a Gallery,” was the most legitimate answer I'd heard posed to the questions raised by John Cage's "4'33."
It's one answer, I don't think it's the only legitimate one. There are many answers. Like much of Cage's work, "4'33"" is a piece of philosophy, it addresses the act of listening 100 percent. Cage's music was getting quieter after 1945. I read somewhere a reference that World War II was like "a terrible noise," and I think that piece might have been a logical conclusion of that reaction. If it's true, then the generation of musicians a bit older than me, artists like La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and later with my generation and people like Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca, they could all start filling in that silence with something completely different. Historically, I see a real logic to the flow of all that stuff. "4'33"" is a brilliant work, but two years ago at Christmas in Britain there was record called "Cage Against the Machine" by a large group of musicians, like a Band Aid or Live Aid or something, sitting in a studio along to four minutes thirty-three seconds of amplifier hum, probably very expensively recorded in a west London studio. There was a big push to get it on the UK charts for the Christmas record, yet another novelty record. It was just a dreadful way of doing it. So, see? There are a lot of answers to Cage's "4'33"," even arsey, pose-y ones!
Do you think everyday background noise has changed in the last thirty years?
In the last thirty years? Yes, but it's hard to quantify. There was a great undertaking called the Vancouver Soundscape Project in the 1970s, later the World Soundscape Project, based in Switzerland. It came out of the work of a writer named R. Murray Schafer. They researched the everyday soundscape, for example measuring fire engine bells from two centuries ago, intermediately up to the 1960s. They noticed a logarithmic increase in the volume of fire engines, and thereby predicted by now that a fire engine would be emitting a sound beyond the threshold of pain. I think they've gotten as loud as they can so now they have to work on differentiating properties of the sound other than volume to make it stand out, otherwise everyone will just get deafened and the fire engine will still be stuck in traffic. I think as things around us get louder it becomes about practice over power.
RPM recently released remastered, deluxe versions of the first two Flying Lizards albums. Staubgold re-released your General Strike album Danger In Paradise last year, and will soon be re-releasing Ghost Dance, your band with Michael Giles and Jamie Muir. All through this you've continued with your installation pieces and your "A Lot Of Pianos" concert, and been performing with artists like Yasuaki Shimizu and Rie Nakajima, and producing acts like Martin Creed. What have you been working on most recently?
I've been working with animals.
It's a project titled Multispecies. Two years ago the artist Paola Pivi asked me to perform at a recording studio she'd set up in a former bank building in Rotterdam, along with a library of 43 hours of animal sounds. My performance was playing along with them on my guitar using tons of delays, with the two running as parallel textures. It ended up being a four-hour performance. Since I'd just dumped the animal sounds into iTunes and they came up randomly, I had to guess a lot of the time, like Is this guitar bit going to work with a humpback whale? Or realizing that flangers work well with howler monkeys. I did an even longer version at the Botanic Gardens in Germany, and one in Edinburgh. I really liked the recordings, so back in London I edited them together and divided it into sections by animal, something like Here we have the blue whale… next up it's the red-crested sage warbler. And my guitar playing is alongside it all. It's very long. I'm talking to the Staubgold label about an online release of it.
I heard a recording of it. It’s beautiful, but also like listening to a lecture in biology class. Is this a new direction for you?
Multispecies is kind of like working with musicians again. Any of the given animal species in the series are interested only in three things: food, sex and territory. Just like a proper rock band.
Would you ever revive the Flying Lizards?
I wouldn't say no. Although it mostly feels redundant in terms of what's going on now. Then again, if something struck me I might, like if I could think of something better than that "Gangnam Style" thing from two years ago.
Do you feel there's a sense of mockery in everything you do?
Not at all. Not from where I'm concerned. The Flying Lizards' "Summertime Blues" for instance, I was not even realizing my deficiencies as a drummer on it one bit. Also, I remember thinking, There's no way this girl is going to sound like Tina Turner, I'd better just get her to do what she does best. Then "Money" followed that formula. If there's mockery in those works it's not planned.
So accidents over mockery?
Yes, accidents and contingency. Dealing with the materials that are at hand.
Topics: flying lizards