Thursday, July 20, 2023

Laurie Anderson | O Superman

Laurie Anderson
O Superman
Burbank, USA: Warner Bros. Records, 1981
45 rpm 7" vinyl record
Edition size unknown

After studying sculpture at Columbia University, Laurie Anderson took on a number of entry level jobs in the art world, including teaching school children art at the Whitney Museum. She became fast friends with a colleague at the museum named B. George. The pair would peruse the same Canal Street surplus stores where George Maciunas purchased boxes and small objects for Fluxkits, looking for cheap electronics and inspiration. 

B. George became the co-director of her live performances and included her on Airwaves, a double album considered to be one of the first compilations of contemporary artists' audio works. The LP - which also featured works by Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, Dennis Oppenheim, Meredith Monk and others -  was released on One Ten Records, which George founded. 

With a grant from the National Endowment grant for $500, he proposed that Anderson produce O Superman as a single for his label. Recorded in her apartment building's hallway, he says, because it was the quietest place she could find, the track ended up being 8 minutes long (George joked that the longer the song the more royalties he would earn should it ever get played on radio). 

The story of Anderson's crossover from performance artist to Warner Brothers recording artist invariably cites John Peel playing O Superman on his influential radio show. But it was George who played the track. He had published a book about punk rock called Volume that had impressed the legendary DJ, and he was invited to host a “Report from New York” segment on Peel's program. 

Other British DJs followed suit, and soon industry players from Richard Branson to Chris Blackwell and Ahmet Ertegun – who had all rejected the song prior - began calling George asking if they could release the track. 

Despite its length and unusual instrumentation (a looped vocal 'ha ha ha ha' is the primary backing track for Anderson's vocoder vocals) the song climbed to number two on the British charts and led to Anderson being offered an 8 album deal with Warner Brothers Records. 

"In O Superman, the song from 1980 that put me on the pop-music map in an unlikely series of circumstances, I used the same combination of conversational lyrics over electronic looping. These lyrics were a combination of greetings, slogans and questions and summed up the style of the language I was trying to invent."

"In 1979, Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran. America went blazing in with helicopters to get the hostages out. But it backfired majorly. A helicopter and a plane crashed in the desert. We were left with dead bodies, a pile of burning debris and the hostages nowhere to be seen. So I thought I’d write a song about all that and the failure of technology.

I’d just heard this beautiful 19th-century aria by Massenet that began: “O sovereign …” It was a prayer to authority, which I thought was interesting, so I started writing: “O Superman …” The lyrics are a one-sided conversation, like a prayer to God. It sounds sinister – but it is sinister when you start talking to power. I juxtaposed sinister and mundane imagery: “Hold me Mom in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms.” We’d always been told that America was the motherland, to appeal to our love of mom and dad, but it’s really not like that. I put the US post office slogan in, too: “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

"The song is based around a looped “ha ha ha ha” done on a harmoniser, but I wanted it to be like a Greek chorus – not just one voice – so I used a vocoder, which was originally developed as spy technology to disguise voices. It fitted the concept.

I was a performance artist with no interest in the pop world, but friends convinced me to make a single, initially mail order. We pressed 1,000 copies and I’d individually wrap and post each one. Then suddenly John Peel started playing it on his radio show and a British distribution company asked for 80,000 copies. Warner Brothers had been coming to my shows but I’d turned their offers down. But when I asked if they could press 80,000 records, they offered me an eight-album deal.

When the song went to No 2 in the UK, my artist friends told me I was selling out, but just months later the term being used was “crossing over”. I’d gone from an idiot to a visionary. I had just brought the song back to my live set when 9/11 happened. People said: “I can’t believe it. You’re singing about current events.” I said: “It’s not so strange. We’re in the same war and our planes are still crashing.”

"Many of the stories revolved around trying to put the country into words. I wrote the song O Superman in 1980. It was about the failure of the hostage res- cue mission in Iran when several helicopters crashed and burned in the desert in what was meant to be a demonstration of American technology and daring. The song was part of United States 2.

Once in a while over the decades I sang the song. In September 2001—just a few days after 9/11—I sang O Superman at Town Hall in New York. As I sang, “Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America. Smoking or nonsmoking?” I had the eerie sensation of singing about the absolute present. Each time I revived the song people would say, “Did you just write this? It’s so much like what’s going on right now.” They had forgotten that the current war has been going on for well over thirty years, every once in a while getting a new name: “The Gulf War,” “The Iraq War,” “The War on Terror.”"
- Laurie Anderson

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