I first heard about Laurie Anderson listening to an interview with Queen drummer Roger Taylor in about 1987, one of those shows where you get to pick your 10 favourite records*. His last choice was Laurie Anderson ‘O Superman’ and he said it was a record that people either loved, or hated, or found really boring; I really liked the three minutes they played and remembered the name. Years and years later I picked up a scruffy copy of Big Science cheap.
Where Laurie Anderson is concerned there appears to be a fracture line in the very fabric of, umm, fabric fractures itself and people come down in one of two camps.
Camp A: God almighty, you’re having a laugh aren’t you! It’s just repetitive pretentious nonsense, with wonky bits in.
Camp B: It’s clever stuff, creatively straddling the line between monotony and, umm, monotony but in a good way, with wonky pretentious bits in.
So far in a very unscientific poll, Mrs 1537 and my children are in Camp A and I’m in Camp B by myself, the animal votes have not yet been counted, although I’m not holding out much hope on that score. Now extrapolating wildly from that in an entirely scientifically sound manner I vaguely remember from the statistics bit of my degree, it proves that I am in fact the only person in the world who likes this LP and that’s a bit of a shame because Big Science is a cracking album, if a bit wonky and pretentious around the edges.
Definitely hailing from the arty end of the tracks tends to be a huge turn off for me, I think that once you start to declare that what you do as a musician is ART then you start to lose all humour and humanity and you start chucking in French phrases into things with gay abandon and the self-importance quotient gets ratcheted up to 14**. It takes a rare talent to interest me after that point, Talking Heads maybe, William Burroughs’ dabbling with recording definitely, but not many more. For the sake of my relationship with this LP I have deliberately ignored the fact that Big Science is effectively snippets culled from a larger masterwork called United States I-IV, like some desperate husband choosing to ignore evidence of his own cuckolding.
Opener ‘From The Air’ sets out her stall and if you have no time for it, then you’ll hate the rest of it too. I love the vocodered beat with the dissonant horns preventing things from getting too sweet, add in some distinctly uncivil aviation advice delivered deadpan, I mean I’ve yet to be on a flight where the pilot reveals himself to be a caveman before advising me to ‘Put your hands over your eyes / Jump out of the plane / There is no pilot’, but I’m sure it must happen all the time. A sterner test of your listening credentials comes with ‘Sweaters’ and its bagpipey birth trauma sounds, or the polyglot cacophony of ‘Example #22’, which I really like – a straight-up babel in musical form.
But if you’re still hanging in there you have to dig ‘O Superman’, surely the weirdest song to ever make #2 in the UK singles chart? all 8:25 of it. The relentlessly looped ‘Ha’ rhythm gets me every time, as well as the bird song woven deep down in the mix. It’s interesting because although a lot of the lyric is essentially pretty meaningless, or even banal at times, it does have a strange emotional wrench for me. I’m guessing it’s hidden away in the blurred harmonies of Laurie Anderson’s voice and the minor-key synth flourishes near the end. There’s just something there in that last verse that grabs me, a kind of lush desolation – she finds a stillness amongst the perpetual motion. I like artists who can conjure up emotion through machinery, very much like Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity, which is one of the very saddest LPs I own. I could listen to ‘O Superman’ again and again and I was rather chuffed to find a very happening vocal remix of the track.
There are other flashes of the feeling machine in here, most notably in ‘Big Science’ with the ‘it’s cold outside’ refrain and what a proper writer described along the lines of ‘the most deadpan yodeling ever’ – I know that’s quite a statement but I’m struggling to think of any deaderpan yodeling! ‘Born, Never Asked’ also needs a mention here for Laurie Anderson’s beautiful insistent violin playing, over the simple handclap and marimba backing which also stirs me.
I also carry a bit of a torch for the deadpan (Mrs 1537 might say, bedpan) romance of ‘Let X=X / It Tango’ which closes the album, it makes me smile wryly; not many things hit me in the wry centre so I treasure this one.
So Camp B all the way for me then. It’s not without its’ flaws, sometimes I get a creeping sense that it’s all a bit silly when I do listen to it; but never enough to put me off. I’ve never had an urge to seek out anything else by Laurie Anderson, I just let Big Science sit there in it’ 1982 bubble in splendid isolation and to quote ‘From The Air’, horribly out of context,
This is the time. And this is the record of the time.
*by the way BBC, I’ve got mine already sorted for when you decide to do a 1537 Special – may I suggest next year on Christmas day instead of the Queen’s Speech? or in the US at half-time in during the Superbowl? Not quite sure what the Canadian equivalent would be but I’m willing to bet it involves men smashing into each other in some sort of Perspex walled arena.
**14 out of quinze, that is.