Laurie Anderson: Big Science 35 Years On

Warner Bros. Records, released April 1982

8/10

The 1980s were littered with ‘novelty’ hits but perhaps none was more unexpected – or more powerful – than Laurie Anderson’s John Peel-endorsed, eight-minute UK number 2 ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’. Massenet was a French composer, whose aria ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ (‘O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father’) appeared in the 1885 opera ‘Le Cid’.

‘O Superman’ was totally hip at the time, appearing in the slipstream of Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and also featuring a video which looked like avant-garde art. David Bowie was a big fan, covering the song during his 1997 Earthling tour. It still sounds unique and pretty hip today, even managing to throw in a little ode to Philip Glass with its brief, circular melodic motif that appears a few times.

A live performance of ‘O Superman’ was recorded in New York City in the week following the 9/11 attacks, and later appeared on the album Live In New York. In this context, certain lyrics seem to take on greater significance: ‘Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Smoking or non-smoking?’ Anderson has intimated that the song was inspired by watching television news reports of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/80.

‘O Superman’ came from Anderson’s performance art/music piece ‘United States I-IV’, and was initially released as a single on the indie One Ten label. When it quickly sold out of its initial run of 1,000 copies, Warners picked it up and also asked for a whole album of music from the show.

What about the rest of Big Science? Not having heard it for a few years, I approached the album with trepidation. But there was no need – ‘From The Air’ and ‘Sweaters’ (‘I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pen…cils’) are still very funny, but also oddly disquieting. There’s just something so fresh about Anderson’s persona. The album cover says it all (I was remiss to leave it out of my top covers of the 1980s lists) – she is the epitome of NYC post-punk cool minimalism.

Lyrically, Big Science – like the performance piece it comes from – seems to be satirising the rebirth of American ‘heroism’ and industrial might of the Reagan era. Anderson often speaks with (and mocks) the ‘voice of authority’, someone who, as she later said in an interview, is ‘either a shoe salesman or someone who wants to sell you an insurance policy you don’t want or need’ (now who does that remind me of?).

But there’s always a clash between this technological brave new world and the spiritual binds that hold us together – family (‘O Mom and Dad…’), folklore and tradition. The title track rams home the point with its ‘primitive’ percussion and vocals that sound vaguely like Native American chanting. ‘O Superman’ also does it with its initial focus on a piece of new technology – an answering machine – and then more metaphysical concerns (justice, God, love).

As the 1980s wore on, Anderson’s studio albums possibly suffered from being right on the ‘technological cutting edge’, but Big Science revels in simple acoustic/electric juxtapositions – some Velvet Underground drums here, an analogue synth, Vocoder or Harmonizer there, plus sax, percussion and treated violin. Occasionally it would be nice to hear an instrumental solo, maybe someone of the NYC-art-rock-approved school such as Shankar or Jon Hassell, but generally Anderson keeps it simple and maintains a very assured minimalist musical style throughout.

Big Science slightly outstays its welcome, its last two tracks quite a stretch, but overall still sounds like a vital piece of work from a major, treasured artist.

David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth: 30 Years Old Today

David sylvian

cover artwork by Russell Mills

Virgin Records, released 13th September 1986

Produced by Steve Nye/David Sylvian

Recorded 1985/1986 at The Manor, Oxfordshire, and Townhouse, Shepherds Bush

UK album chart position: 24

Recently, I was honoured to be asked by photographer William Ellis to contribute to his One LP project where he asks musicians, writers and music business figures to speak about the album that has been most important to them.

Here’s what I said about Gone To Earth (with a few edits):

I was given the album by my parents on my 14th birthday. I had heard the single ‘Taking The Veil’ a few weeks before and it had struck me immediately as something I needed to check out. Concurrently, I was getting into Japan, Sylvian’s band from the early ’80s.

But Gone To Earth had a whole new influence: ECM-style jazz. Kenny Wheeler plays some beautiful solos, John Taylor features strongly on piano, and Harry Beckett blows all over ‘Wave’. Back in the mid-’80s, pop music embraced jazz with ease, but now it seems like the two worlds have completely diverged. Sylvian combines both elements really nicely.

When I delved deeper into Sylvian’s lyrics, I realised that they could be related to romantic affairs – there was a ‘pop’ element to them – but they could also be spiritual in nature, about ‘the other’ in general, touching on religious ideas, metaphysical ideas. That concept has fascinated me as I’ve got older.

Side two of Gone To Earth is completely instrumental. Sylvian loathed the term ‘new age’ and instead produced ambient music which was more environmental, geared towards self-reflection and an appreciation of nature. He once said, ‘If I didn’t live in a city, I wouldn’t need to make this music.’ On ‘The Healing Place’, German artist Joseph Beuys speaks about his vision of art. Another track features Robert Graves reciting his poem ‘The Foreboding’. The voice of JG Bennett makes a few appearances, familiar from Fripp’s Exposure.

And then, of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice. I think of it as an instrument. Some people find him a bit doomy, depressing, po-faced, but I’m always inspired by his melodies. He’s also a great, natural musician, very underrated/understated on keyboards and guitar.

The story goes that Virgin didn’t want to fund the second instrumental side. You can imagine, can’t you? They said, ‘This pop singer’s trying to an album of instrumentals? What’s going on?’, even though Bowie had done it ten years before. In this fascinating interview from 1986, Sylvian explains that he had to work on side two in his ‘spare’ time, away from Virgin’s watchful eye. I’m glad he did.

Musically, the album is also a guitarists’ dream: Robert Fripp, Phil Palmer, Bill Nelson and Sylvian himself contribute memorable, considered work. Nelson in particular is a revelation. Sylvian gives him space to sculpt and layer his parts, and he delivers some brilliant solos. BJ Cole adds some dreamy pedal steel.

David Sylvian

In 1988, I saw Sylvian at the Hammersmith Odeon with a great band featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, David Torn on guitar and Steve Jansen on drums. It was tremendously exciting; there was a kind of ‘goth’ element at the gig which surprised me and lots of young women screaming for Sylvian!

He was still holding onto his ‘pop’ status – it’s no mean feat for an 80-minute, half-instrumental album to reach 24 in the charts. It was a time when pop music had a lot more mystique; you had to scan The Face, Wire, NME or Melody Maker to glean any snippets of information about artists of Sylvian’s calibre.

Every time I listen to Gone To Earth, I notice something new. It’s such a layered, beautiful piece of music, almost always to be enjoyed in one sitting, and it came out during an incredibly fertile period for Sylvian – the 1984-1987 run of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive surely matches any other artist in ’80s music.

Sideways & Steve Jobs: An Invitation To Windham Hill 30 Years On

Windham+Hill+An+Invitation+To+Windham+Hill+164800DVD commentaries come and go, but among the best I’ve heard is for ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne’s classic 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. One scene, set at at the fictitious Frass Canyon winery, opens on the shot of a pale, very sincere acoustic guitarist playing a ‘tender’ ballad. On the commentary, Haden Church mutters: ‘Very Windham Hill-ish’, eliciting a chuckle from Giamatti. You get the feeling that the term ‘Windham Hill’ is a code for something not entirely positive…

frass canyon

For a brief period in my teens, a cassette copy of An Invitation To Windham Hill was always near the family hi-fi. I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t have bought it but he seemed to play it quite a lot anyway. It has since become one of those weird albums that I can’t shake despite having no particular interest in its musical genre or artists. Why is that? What is this kind of music really about once you subtract the nostalgia?

The Windham Hill label was founded in 1976 by Californian guitarist William Ackerman, who initially used the imprint to sell his own music out of a Palo Alto garage. Just down the road, Steve Jobs was establishing his Apple empire, and guess what: he was a big fan of Windham Hill, as Ackerman later recounted in an interview: ‘Steve fell in love with the aesthetic. All the Apple computers (played) Windham Hill music when you turned them on. It was such an exciting time. Anything seemed possible. People were making dreams come true, and I did feel part of that.’

Early on, the label emphasised solo acoustic instruments. Later, electronic music, contemporary bluegrass, smooth Latin/jazz and Celtic sounds were eased into the mix. The stark, ‘natural’ style of their album covers was apparently influenced by ECM, as was some of the musical ethos; Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the acoustic guitar work of Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny were apparently important to Windham Hill.

Also, in the same way that Jarrett’s album proved a huge sales breakthrough for ECM, a similar thing happened to Windham Hill – George Winston’s Autumn unexpectedly sold over a million copies and changed the label from a modest, regional imprint to nationally-known entity (and Autumn was the first of his seasonal-themed recordings!).

The whole Windham Hill package, both musically and visually, is very ‘white’, very ‘corporate’, very ‘Thirtysomething‘. It contributed massively to the mid-’80s popularity of New Age music (and the eventual backlash against it). It also has a lot in common with the Minimalist movement (including geography), and seems like music completely stripped of passion, rough edges, funkiness. Despite all that, I still find it pretty fascinating.

But Ian MacDonald has written persuasively about the infantilising effects of this stuff in his brilliant ‘The People’s Music’:

‘Something happens to people who listen to too much minimalism. They begin to smile facetiously, display a genially indiscriminate omni-tolerance and put their feet on your furniture. Some start wearing dungarees and playing with frisbees’!

There is definitely that element to An Invitation To Windham Hill, but it does also highlight the work of two genuinely excellent artists: Mark Isham and Michael Hedges. Isham has been a first-call soundtrack composer for 30 years now but his 1983 debut album Vapour Drawings is an ambient/electronic classic (more on that to come).

Hedges, who died in 1997, blew guitarists’ minds with the release of his debut album Aerial Boundaries. The title track manages to be both an amazing technical feat (it’s a solo piece for drastically detuned guitar sometimes featuring up to four intertwining melodies, achieved with a mixture of picking, tapping and hammer-ons) and also a substantial composition in its own right.

The other solo guitar tracks by Alex De Grassi and Ackerman are weirdly memorable, as are the solo piano pieces. In fact, the whole album is, and it might make a nice soundtrack to your wine-tasting evening or campfire gathering. Or it might not…

Track listing:

A1 George Winston ‘Thanksgiving’ (3:07),
A2 Alex De Grassi ‘Western’ (4:04),
A3 Mark Isham ‘Love Theme’ (From ‘Mrs. Soffel’) (4:11),
A4 William Ackerman ‘Visiting’ (6:07),
A5 Mark Isham ‘In The Blue Distance’ (4:07),
B1 Shadowfax ‘Angel’s Flight’ (4:00),
B2 Scott Cossu ‘Ohana’ (5:03),
B3 Michael Hedges ‘Aerial Boundaries’ (4:39),
B4 William Ackerman ‘The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter’ (3:50)
B5 George Winston ‘Longing/Love’ (5:11)