REDUX: Seminal Single – Laurie Anderson – O Superman


September 13, 2012

Warner Brothers | US | 7″ | 1981 | WBSP 49876

Laurie Anderson: O Superman US 7″ [1981]

  1. O Superman
  2. Walk The Dog

Back when I was a freshman in college, I all but lived in the library. The selection of periodicals was life-changing for a bookworm like myself. I spent many hours a day there reading various journals. Being an art major and music geek, two of my favorites were Artforum and Billboard. Usually, those worlds had nothing to do with one another but for a few months in 1981-2, there was a curious crossover uniting the two magazines in the person of artist-slash-popstar Laurie Anderson.

I was aware of Laurie Anderson’s multimedia performance art from exposure in Artforum and it seemed like she was the next step forward from a video artist like Nam June Paik. It was only a few months later after first reading about her in Artforum that I first became aware of the fact that she had released a single that was experiencing unbelievable success in the UK charts as an import from the über obscure indie One Ten Records from NYC.

I read about this curious phenomenon in the import sections of Billboard and from what I read of the record, it seemed astonishingly unlikely that an 8:21 track [take that, “Bohemian Rhapsody!”] could become a number two hit anywhere, much less one that was by an obscure performance artist and was said to be austerely minimal. Apparently John Peel play did the trick. Enough so that folks in the UK were calling One Ten Records and asking for 40,ooo copies a week of a record they pressed up 1,000 copies of to sell by mail-order as a lark! It’s fascinating, because all of the money and hype in the world can’t sell a record that people don’t want. Flukes like this don’t just grow on trees.

When faced with demand far in excess of supply, Ms. Anderson called Warner Brothers for help “pressing up more copies” and they were more than happy to offer a contract in return. Indentured to the tune of eight albums, Anderson was then on Van Halen’s label! And the week that US copies of “O Superman” hit my local stores, I wasted no time in buying my own copy, since the 1st pressing was never available in the Central Florida backwaters where I had grown up.

The record was offered in a 12″ and a 7″ configuration. The exact same music was on each pressing and both played at 33 rpm due to the running time. Since I was prepared for a minimalist music experience, I opted for the cheaper 7″ version. I figured that I wouldn’t be missing too many sonic details or bass frequency oomph. As it turns out, I was right. There didn’t seem to be any bass there.

The song was built around a loop of the syllable “ha” run through a harmonizer. It sounded like it could have been human voice but also possibly a Farfisa organ note. That was it for the rhythm. There were some synth chords here and there and a few crystalline lead lines that came, went, and came again. Occasionally the cool landscape of the song is marked by twittering birdsong. Presumably to better contrast with the technocratic horror of the lyrics, which seem to depict America as a mother/monster as likely to kill as she was to comfort. Actually, maybe she was incapable of comfort.

The B-side was a track not included on her debut album, “Big Science.” “Walk The Dog” is a queer little track consisting of her trademark pitch-shifted vocals of the time, with her violin played as if it were a ukelele, sax, flute, and Farfisa organ. The end result really sounds like The Residents to me. Especially the vocal production, which clashes harmonically with the instrumental melodies.

The 2007 DLX RM of “Big Science” contains “Walk The Dog” but in a obscure move, the track is not included on the disc as a playable track. Instead, the disc is an enhanced CD with the “O Superman” video and “Walk The Dog,” which is playable from within the disc’s app. Weirdly enough, the track is downloadable from within the app as either a MP3 or a WAV file, so you can hear it in CD quality, only after much effort!

Laurie Anderson managed to make a brilliant lateral move out of the vicious, back-biting world of the NYC art sphere into the chew-em-up-and-spit-em-out sector of the major labels and somehow managed to get the least likely single ever up to number two in the UK pop charts. She’s gone on to have fulfilled her Warner Brothers contract and now resides at the Nonesuch label. She’s worked with the cognoscenti of art rock [Eno, Belew, Gabriel] even as she’s blazed new trails in the world of rock art over the last 31 years; straddling the worlds of fine art and crass commerce without getting too bruised in the bargain. Most impressive.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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3 Responses to REDUX: Seminal Single – Laurie Anderson – O Superman

  1. Tim says:

    I never really thought about the art end of your background as the blog is so much about the music end of it. If you don’t mind I’d like to shamelessly plug one of my favorite art blogs and the FB group that was started by the same blogger.


  2. Zach says:

    I can’t praise Laurie Anderson highly enough. Laurie ranks high on my shortlist of musical acts I desire to see live. Hearing O Superman for the first time was a game changer in my musical tastes, and helped me cast aside any hesitance I had about enjoying music that aims for a higher purpose. I love how the narrative of O Superman gradually unfolds to a minimalist soundscape (perfectly carried by Laurie’s vocodered vocals, perhaps my favorite use ever of the vocoder). There’s a crisp warmness to the synthesizers and keyboards that sound cold at first but increasingly envelop the listener in a state that almost feels spiritual. I could go on about this single, but I’ll save those for a review of my own. I’ll just say that if NASA ever commissions subsequent Gold Records to send into space, they ought to consider including O Superman. To me, it’s one of the apexes of human creativity in art.


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