The Flying Lizards were a bizarre manifestation of the post punk / No Wave era’s anything-goes spirit. Even for the times, they were an unbridled Dada mindfuck, releasing one of the most resolutely inaccessible “pop” albums ever made in the form of Top Ten – an achievement made doubly notable by the fact that it was, indeed, the Lizards interpreting hit pop and rock songs, rendered as cold, mechanical deconstructions of the originals. In spirit they’re close to some of the mutant disco groups from New York (the more overtly disco songs remind me quite a bit of the awesome Cristina, who is similarly neglected by history), but with a much more forbidding affect.
The cover effectively telegraphs that Top Ten isn’t a typical collection of standards:
As this patchy but informative Sound Collector encomium makes clear, The Flying Lizards were more an art project than a band, and their music was more sketched than composed. (The Art of Noise were trying for something similar, but were fatally undermined by Trevor Horn’s connection to the self-conscious seriousness of the progressive rock scene he came out of. Which is not to say that Art of Noise weren’t great, just that as a prankish art-fuck they weren’t successful.) The remarkable thing about the Lizards is how fresh they sound even today: their music has lost none of its alien allure, and actually reminds me of a lot of the recent experimental laptronica, which is especially impressive given the shoestring budget and relatively primitive recording techniques available to the David Cunningham back in the early 80s.
One of the most delightful contradictions posed by the Lizards is that the most accessible song in their catalog is the one that had the most high-art credentials: “Hands 2 Take” is a woozy slab of post-Eno art rock, with abrasive sine tones over a bed of horns, winds, deliriously slurred vocals, and one-note piano pounding by none other than Michael Nyman.
Nyman is my favorite minimalist (which, believe it or not, is high praise – Philip Glass’s Mishima and Koyaanisqatsi are favorites of mine, and my ringtone is a bad MIDI version of Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase”). I got to know his work, as did most people, through his scores for Peter Greenaway’s films, but there’s much more to him than his soundtrack work. He takes Philip Glass’s repetitive cell structures and combines them with a prankster’s spirit: my favorite work by him is a savage, ripping piece for solo harpsichord called “The Convertibility of Lute Strings” (available on his collection of commissioned pieces on Argo, Time Will Pronounce). It is utterly uncompromising and intimidatingly beautiful and strange, full of dizzying modal shifts and endlessly mutable rhythms. I bet it’s a hell of a lot of fun (and extremely challenging) to play.
His mastery of minimalist technique makes it all the more delicious that his role on “Hands 2 Take” is to relentlessly pound the same 2-tone octave for 4 minutes, a la Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” or the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”. It’s entirely in keeping with the Lizards’ up-yours ethos that they’d make such off-handed use of someone capable of so much more, while still entirely in keeping with Nyman’s own sensibilities. Not only that, the song is an oblique paranoid fantasia worthy of Low-era Bowie. I love it.
The Flying Lizards are now almost totally obscure, although they still have a small but rabid group of fans online. Finding their music is nearly impossible, as all three of their original albums (and, of course, all their singles) are now completely out of print, and the most recent pressing of their albums were Japanese CDs released without the knowledge or authorization of the band. That said, you can find them all via Dualtrack here and here. Fans of ZE Records, the Residents, Art of Noise and the Soft Pink Truth (Top Ten must have been an influence on Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth) are advised to give them a careful listen.