On 19 January, 1980, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards peaked at #50.
Before you listen to “Money (That’s What I Want)” by The Flying Lizards, you have to listen to the original version by Barrett Strong; otherwise nothing I say about this song will make sense.
OK, now you’ve gone and done that, listen to The Flying Lizards version.
At this point you’re probably wondering what you just heard. From the first clanging drumbeats to the slightly flat twangs of a melody all the way through the cold, mechanical delivery of the lyrics, you’re probably thinking that this is the absolute opposite of the Barrett Strong version of the song. You’re absolutely right: this is anti-soul. Synthesizers have gotten a reputation for being soulless and robotic, and musicians like Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire, who pioneered their use as the driving element in something approaching popular music, didn’t do the instrument any favors. Hard rockers saw the synthesizer as, well, synthetic, and disco boys and girls thought the sounds they made too flat and dull to be worth dancing to. Given the state of electronic music in the last 70s, it was hard to argue with them. So, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
That’s what the Flying Lizards did. They embraced the criticisms of electronic music and declared that even with with instrumentation settling into the uncanny valley, a great song would still be great, and the instrumental weirdness would give a new quality to the song’s meaning. Make it all the weirder with the main vocals delivered in a cold calculating manner by someone trying hard to sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor, background vocals delivered by a Weimaraner with a bad cold, and have a bridge that sounds like all the instruments are falling apart, and you have a nasty but catchy critique of capitalism run rampant. Does Barrett Strong really sound like the kind of person who is bent on making money at any cost? Of course not! He’s got too much soul! But someone who wants to be Zsa Zsa Gabor? Listen to her spit out “Just give me money!” That’s soulless acquisitiveness.
Now… imagine a whole album that sounds like this. It would be intolerable, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Flying Lizards. What worked as a brilliant idea for a charting novelty song gets very very tiresome when it’s stretched to ten songs in a row, including covers of “Summertime Blues” and “Mandelay Song”. As a counter-cultural protest movement, the Flying Lizards were critically acclaimed. As a chart sensation, they outstayed their welcome quickly and floated off to obscurity. And unlike Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, and other challenging art bands of the time that never had much popular traction, they weren’t creative enough to accumulate a core underground fanbase to keep them going. So they remain a curious novelty, but clearly one that had something of zeitgeist value; “Money (That’s What I Want)” has shown up on a surprising number of retro movie soundtracks, including The Wedding Singer and Charlie’s Angels.