Listen to this track by experimental pop collective and repositioners of classic R&B songs The Flying Lizards. It’s “Money (That’s What I Want)”, a cover of the much-beloved 1959 Barrett Strong original. As often as it was covered, by both The Beatles and by The Rolling Stones among many others, The Flying Lizards made this one their own. After its release as a single, it eventually appeared on their self-titled 1979 debut album and became an (perhaps unlikely) hit single; number 5 in the UK, and number 22 on the dance charts in the States.
In some ways, it sounds as though this take on the song is trying to throw its own fight in the appealing pop music stakes. And yet somehow, the opposite effect knocked listeners out during the height of new wave when weirdly cool records were able to thrive as record companies, perhaps, were still trying to figure out the paradigm shift. Even in 1979, this sounded pretty weird coming out of the radio; a true novelty hit.
But beyond the novelty aspect of things, I think there is something underneath this version of a classic and well-covered R&B song that does more than just amuse us by being such a curiosity as a hit single.
When you think of novelty songs, you often think of material with no consequence set up for a cheap laugh, a shallow sentiment, or a grasp at becoming the flavour of the month. Pop history is littered with examples of this. But I think The Flying Lizards’ take on this rock ‘n’ roll standard re-positioned as a blippy, angular new wave dance track had something to say about the importance of pop music as a means to communicate. It proved that a pop song can be made by anyone using any tools, ranges of talent, or creative instincts without having to qualify it against what had come before. That’s pretty punk rock.
Musically speaking, this is the polar opposite of the many versions by British groups recorded fifteen or so years before. Unlike that R&B boom era, this version holds no reverence for the arrangement or intent of the original. Instead, it provides a series of odd angles and diagonal corridors inside the main architecture of the original song. It’s characterized by quasi-Asian textures meets dub production, electronic noise and sound effects, treated guitar, and garbage can percussion. It succeeds in reducing the signature call-and-response hook at the heart of the song into a sort of submerged shriek contrasted against lead vocalist Deborah Evans-Strickland’s bored, Eurotrash Nouveau riche delivery like she’s speaking through a bad telephone connection. This is not your average cover song.
This song helped to pioneer the off-kilter cover version, revealing unexplored possibilities in the material waiting to come out. There isn’t any sort of bid for authenticity with regards to the original song and its intent here. But it does provide some pretty compelling contrast, and certainly sets the stage for some interesting satirical angles in the material, too. It’s weirdness helps it to get away with quite a bit. Instead of being a song about earnest ambition, it injects a metric tonne of irony into it. The idea of money and the pursuit of it found in the original song becomes kind of absurd after that. Maybe that in itself is a statement in a field that often venerates fame and fortune and all its accouterments. Maybe it’s even a political statement during the year Margaret Thatcher took office. Maybe, like so many novelty songs, the whole thing was just one big piss-take
Of course the additional layer of irony was how well this song did, despite its highly unconventional approach to pop hooks and accessible arrangements. In this, here’s one thing I think is important to consider; pop fans like weird. I think as much as we love the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, and the major lift, I think we also love the monkey wrench, the spanner in the works. We love subversion. We like to turn and face the strange. That’s why I think this song did so well. Being weird has always been a part of pop music, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Die Antwoord.
The Flying Lizards put out two other records after their debut. But by 1984, the “group”, which was more of a studio production project than a live band, came to an end. Their version of this song would continue to seep into the consciousness of pop culture, finding its way onto soundtracks of many films in the ensuing decades, still standing out as a singular experience for the ears and the feet.
To learn more about the history of the song and how it came about, have a read of this interview with head-Lizard David Cunningham at Vice.com.