Price of Success: David Cunningham's Money Management"
- written by Neil Strauss, appeared in Option, 1996
David Cunningham stands next to a Xerox machine in Kinko's on the Upper West side of Manhattan, running off copies of his resume with no particular job in mind. "I think most things in the world happen by accident." he says. "Certainly any success I've had was more or less accidental. You can't plan it."
In the late 1970's, Cunningham was made and ruined by a three-minute song that never even belonged to him. It was "Money (That's What I Want)," a sarcastic statement about consumer culture penned by Berry Gordy and made most popular by the Beatles. when Cunningham, the one-man studio tinkerer behind the Flying Lizards, got a hold of it, the song became a sarcastic statement on pop music as well. Once it fell into the hands of Virgin Records, his interpretation of "Money" became pop music, climbing to number four on the British charts and carving a permanent niche in pop history for the Flying Lizards - as the butt of their own joke.
Cunningham is on his first trip to the United States in nine years. Though he still makes his living working with music, he's not in town on business; he just wanted to get away from London. Even if New York offers twice the dirt, twice the noise and twice the hassle, Cunningham seems rather happy. Wearing thin, wire-rimmed glasses, a bank-teller-style tie and short gray hair, the 39-year-old native of Ireland doesn't look much different from the guy who graced the cover of another Flying Lizards single, "Dizzy Miss Lizzie." The main difference is that, whether anyone knows it or not, Cunningham has released two of the best albums of his career: "Greaves/Cunningham", a collaboration with ex-Henry Cow bassist John Greaves, and "Voiceworks," a solo, cut-and-paste affair. Both are available only as imports on Tokyo's Eva Records [note: or at the Piano website: www.stalk.net].
Looking over his resume, the two albums seem like mere footnotes in a career that stretches through three pages of small type. There's the music he's made for film, TV, dance, theater and advertisements, and the production work he's done for everyone from minimalist Michael Nyman to transsexual Wayne/Jayne County. Cunningham is a studio artist who has been rustling behind the curtains of pop and the avant-garde for some 17 years. He rarely performs, doesn't actually play an instrument and, until recently, has released little of his own music. On his Piano label, Cunningham has helped a number of artists - including Steve Beresford, This Heat and Tony Sinden - get their first tastes of vinyl. He's remained a shadowy figure on the scene, contributing so many small things to so many important projects that he can't even list them all.
For example, his contribution to the final Johnny Thunders album is nowhere to be found on the resume (he was credited on the sleeve with 'swamp environments'). "That collaboration was because of (former Flying Lizards vocalist) Patti Palladin's involvement." he explains, surprised that anyone would remember. "I just saw her recently; I played her a tape of "Voiceworks" and she said it's music for people who are mentally ill. I don't think she meant it nicely."
As his pile of copies grows larger and larger, Cunningham talks about the psychological conditions of some of his pop idols - Brian Wilson, Joe Meek and Phil Spector, three studio wizards whose eclectic approach to production was mirrored in their turbulent lives outside the sound-proofed booth. Wilson spent 12 years in bed after a nervous breakdown, Meek put an end to his eccentric life on the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death, and Spector was in physical and mental seclusion by the age of 25 (he only recently emerged somewhat). "Listening to their records, you can tell they were made by people who'd completely rounded the twist," Cunningham says in a quiet, even voice. "I think I'm following their tradition - more in the way they've defied the accurate ethos in pop music than in their personal lives. The studios in their time were into recording in a room accurately; Wilson, Meek, and Spector saw how to enhance recording by the equipment, by the studio, by the process."
Although Cunningham is known as a musician, the only instrument he plays is the studio itself. "It goes back to when I was a fine arts student," he explains. "I couldn't draw particularly well, but one thing I did like was the way graphic designers used machines - rulers, compasses, Xerox machines. They didn't mind tracing an image. I liked these people not being ashamed of using tools to create something." The green light on the copier flashes one last time and a small smile appears on his face. "The tools have their own quality," he continues. "If you draw a line with a ruler, that's very definitely different from a free-hand line. It was natural somehow to take that into messing about with tape recorders."
It was in the Flying Lizards that Cunningham first applied his ruler-approach to pop music. Not only did the group's final album, 1984's "Top Ten," boast flat, emotionless covers of hits like James Brown's "Sex Machine" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," but the album itself was dedicated to the inventor of the musical ruler, Malzel, who breathed life into the steady tick-tick-tick of a metronome. But Cunningham doesn't seem to follow the precision of devices like the ruler or metronome so much as tinker with them, experimenting with new ways to use such tools. "I don't mind the word 'tinkering,'" he replies, "because that's the essence of it. I sit there and plug this thing into that thing and turn up that knob just to see what happens. That's where it starts, and that's what I'm still doing. I may do it with different devices now, but that's where it comes from. I have no particular facility for playing an instrument, so this is the last refuge for the desperate composer."
Outside the copy center, Broadway's permanent breeze blows hard in Cunningham's face. The sounds of the city create a machine-like cacophony, with horns blowing, the street vibrating, voices blending into a chaotic chatter, and pop music blaring from several directions at once. It's the sound of the New York avant-garde, but it's very different from the kind of avant-garde music Cunningham makes.
"You have mainstream pop music, which is a highly variable thing, and you can sometimes cross over into that just in doing something by accident," he says. "The Flying Lizards came out of my experimental work. During the daytime, I'd be dabbling in the avant-garde; to fill up the evenings, I thought, why not use this technology which I had available to try and make a pop record? It was pretty hopeless, because I wanted to make a pop record that would out-Spector Phil Spector. I had two cardboard boxes and a piano, so some of the instruments of the orchestra were perhaps missing. I also didn't have access to people who could sing."
The Lizards' first album featured grating covers of "Money" and "Summertime Blues," both performed on dated electronics equipment and sung in Deborah Evans' Essex-accented English. But listening to the album today, 14 years later, it's not the covers that stand out, it's the original material, especially "TV" and "Her Story." Those were co-written by Cunningham and General Strike, an experimental, space-age dub project masterminded by English avant-garde genre-hoppers Steve Beresford and David Toop. "The original idea of the Flying Lizards was to invent a group that could do anything," Cunningham says. "One reason Steve was there was because he said he'd really like to be in a band that was as good as Chic. So we would try desperately to do stuff that was as good as what Chic were doing at that time. We also had this idea that it would be nice to be a heavy metal band one day. It was the idea that a rock group - or whatever you want to call it - didn't have to have an identity, that it could be this thing or that thing. And of course they'd all get mixed up somehow."
In an empty studio at a random radio station a few locks off Broadway, Cunningham settles down to play some of his CDs and cassettes. The first thing he pulls out of his satchel is a recent recording he did for Crammed Discs' "Made To Measure" series. Called "Water," it is unlike anything Cunningham's released before. There's no beat and no syncopation, just spacey electronic music that borders on the invisible. "Actually, we probably don't need anymore ambient music in the world," he says, fidgeting with his tie, "but I've been accumulating this stuff for about 10 years, doing music for film soundtracks, for videos, and various things like underwater scenes in TV programs. I thought, time to package it, time to clear my shelf."
Cunningham doesn't know any of the song titles on the CD - or on anything else he plays afterwards - he only goes by track numbers. "Play track 13." exclaims the consummate studio musician, forgetting the song is called "A Liquid Hand." Another song, "Stars," sounds suspiciously familiar. "It's all extracted from the multitrack master of 'Glide/Spin,' which appears on the second Flying Lizards record," he says, clearing up the mystery. "I thought, there's more to this old multitrack tape. I wanted to see if I could draw out the other qualities which were not so present in the original song. I wanted to try and turn this song into some other shape. It's a complete mutilation, not just a remix."
David Cunningham's low-key demeanor, chalky complexion and conservative dress peg him as a studio ghost unused to the lights of the concert hall. Indeed, in the 17 years he's been making music, he's performed only about 14 times. A recent concert in Austria with Greaves was his first public outing in almost half a decade. "It's an interesting context playing live," he says, "because I can't rely on all the stuff you can get away with in the studio, like winding back the tape and doing another take. You're dealing with real time in real space, and if you're someone like me who's worked in recording studios and worked with the record form for such a long time, you tend to forget about acoustic space."
With other forms of studio-oriented music gaining a strong pop presence - hip-hop, techno and house being the most obvious - live performance of the music is becoming increasingly accepted; individuals no longer even need to own the music, particularly with DJs constantly playing it. "More and more, I begin to think that music in this century is becoming a music about occasion, about people coming together, about space, about human activity," he continues. "I don't see records as being so relevant to that. The rave movement in Britain is a kind of interesting subversion of the record industry in a way that punk never succeeded."
He puts on his recent album "Voiceworks," a home-studio affair that finds him cutting and pasting together found vocal material with rhythmic patterns that sound something like skipping CDs. "Belgrano" is a techno-like song he made by placing a dissection of Margaret Thatcher's "Belgrano" speech (the moral equivalent of George Bush's 'read my lips') over three driving bass lines and a dramatic piano riff. "If you've got a very strict rhythmic grind," he says, "you can do anything over the top of it. You hear this in a lot of dance music now, particularly the techno stuff. It's like scribbling on graph paper - if you start looking at the squares, it begins to make sense."
After spinning some of the music he's produced for Michael Nyman, mostly minimalist-inspired "typewriter music" for the Peter Greenaway films "The Draughtsman's Contract" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," he plays his last cover song. Recorded less than a year ago with Kristoffer Blegvad, brother of Peter Blegvad, for the soundtrack to the documentary on the making of "Naked Lunch," it's a slowed-down version of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Like all of Cunningham's covers, when such high-impact lines as "So deep in the heart that it's part of me" are sung in a completely deadpan monotone, they become ridiculous. "I was listening to the Sinatra version," Cunningham says, "and I just couldn't understand swing; I'll never understand swing. So I've done it metronomic."
The song could become a hit like "Money" was - but not if Cunningham has anything to do with it. "If anything I do in the future is successful," he says, "it's definitely going to be by accident."- by Neil Strauss/1996