The Infinite Jukebox: Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’


For once, I was ahead of everybody else. Not everybody: nobody in the world, it seems, was ahead of John Peel. He had it first, an unusual, nine-minute long song on a 33rpm import single from New York, by someone none of us had heard of, by someone who wasn’t even a musician or a singer, but instead a Performance Artist. And what was one of them when it was blackleading the grate?
Her name was Laurie Anderson, and she had written/created/performed a gigantic multi-media piece entitled United States Live Parts I-IV that was so long it could only be performed over four night. The single that caught Peely’s ears was a section of Part II, a quasi-spoken word piece performed to a background of ‘hah-hahs’, running continuously throughout the number, as well as various electronic effects, rising to crescendos that marked three separate phases.
It was extraordinary. I had never heard anything like it before. The record was only available as an import from New York’s One-Ten Records, released in a limited edition of which most sales were orders from the UK, like me. I didn’t care. I loved it, and I didn’t want to rely on taping it off the radio.
But the remarkable thing was that the influx of orders from us lot in Britain led to Warner Brothers buying the rights to release ‘O Superman’ officially over here, as well as sign Anderson up to a seven album deal. The main thing was that ‘O Superman’ was now available in this country, to buy in Virgin Megastores, HMV Shops, and even in Woolworth’s.
It was still a nine minute long track, with a minimal tune and flattened, electronically processed vocals, an incomprehensible, symbolically-expressed storyline and no commercial element whatsoever. Radio 1 would never play it (not in the daytime) and no-one would ever buy it.
It entered the UK Top 40 at no. 16.
The following week, though it was October, cold and clear, I went away to the Lake District for a few days holiday, on my own for the first time, in my first car. I didn’t set off until the Tuesday of that week, and made a slow journey of it, up the A6, eventually winding up in Ambleside. By lunchtime, I was passing through Preston and looking for somewhere to get some sandwiches. I had the car radio tuned to Radio 1, for Tuesday was still the day the new Chart was announced, pre-computerisation, and I was still directly interested in such things.
I was waiting to hear where ‘O Superman’ was, this week. I waited a long time. Unlikely though it was, the single was basically selling as a novelty song, and though such things almost never happened, maybe it had dropped straight back out again.
It hadn’t. It had shot up to no. 2. No. 2. It hadn’t displaced Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s execrable cover of ‘It’s My Party’ and there was many a record inferior to ‘O Superman’ that I would have relished seeing do that, but this was ‘O Superman’, the most odd number 2 single in history until ‘Ding Dong The Witch is Dead’ was mass-streamed to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death. And Radio 1 daytime was playing this extravaganza, and I heard it several times those few days I was away, even if they were fading it out after about six minutes.
Of course it didn’t last. The single slipped one place only, to no. 3, the next week, then plummeted to no. 18, after which it disappeared from the radio, and from our lives after only one more Top Forty week.
But for a week in our country it was the second best selling single, all nine-minutes, 33rpm that it was.
Yes, of course it was a novelty. Not a novelty song as such, but rather a serious composition that was at a ninety degree angle from anything traditionally thought of as ‘pop’ music. The shock of the new, the appeal of the new: this is novelty. But it was a novelty in the sense that Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ was a novelty, yet that had more the structure of a song to it, and a more distinct melody. ‘O Superman’ was dry, minimal and excessively repetitive. It had nothing to strike a chord with the Great British Record Buying Public, yet it still went out and did so, and even now, almost thirty years later, I cannot understand why.
I mean, I loved it. I’d gone out and bought the import months before it was released over here but, well, I was weird enough to like things like this, and I was really not used to the idea that ordinary people could like something outré like I did in such massive quantities. It was a contradiction in terms.
And looking back from now, it seems all the more an act of collective, but glorious madness.

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