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 #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, a slice of NYC avant-garde post-punk appearing in the slipstream of Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’.
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?’ But 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 it 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.
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 you of…).
But there’s always a clash between this technological brave new world and 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.