The Ones I Rarely Play: Laurie Anderson – “Big Science”

I bought this album in 1982 because of ‘O Superman’, which had originally been played by John Peel, the previous year, after a trip to New York looking for new sounds. ‘O Superman’ was stunning, a near 9 minute epic based on the continuous flow of breathy ‘ah – ah ah’, over which Anderson intoned rather than sang a cryptic story of seemingly banal concepts, leading again and again to the disturbing threat/promise of “Here come the planes…”.

Peely played it, I thought it was amazing and bought an import copy of the single, which I still possess. That was before it was released in the UK and, unbelievably, rose in two weeks to the number 2 position in the charts, even though Radio 1’s DJ’s were at best only playing two-thirds of the track. That reminds me of my first car, and my first few days of going away by myself, and hearing this on the radio. Of course it was no more than a novelty for the bulk of its buyers, much as Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap Your Face’ had been, but infinitely better.

Anderson was a Performance Artist, not a musician, and this was the first time I’d heard that term. ‘O Superman’ was part of a two-night performance piece, United States Live I – IV, and the Big Science album was a collection of some of the more music oriented pieces of that suite. The title track is the closest to an orthodox song, with a melody and genuine singing from Anderson, who talks her way through most of this album, her voice filtered more often than not through different forms of electronic distortion that it as much as part of the music as the mostly electronic instrumentation.

Being in only one dimension, that of sound, the ‘songs’ are limited from the outset. It’s a mainly electronic album, though as far from the bpm of dance music as it is possible to conceive. Anderson works by repetition, little phrases and rhythms, over which her voice draws the listener to try to understand the visions she’s seeing.

I keep this mainly for ‘O Superman’, which is still an extreordinary piece, undulled by repetition, and a constant reminder of what the British public can sometimes take to their fickle hearts, even in novelty (the single’s chart life was 16 – 2 – 3 – 18 – 35). It reminds me of its era, of being in my first, post-qualification job, of the new freedom of my first car. But I like it overall; its quirkiness, its atmosphere, the sense it gives of fragments surrounding a larger, ultimately absent but nevertheless defined shape, its sheer difference from everything else in my collection.

This is the time. And this is the record of the time.

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