Laurie Anderson has a bit of a reputation – one that she has not exactly discouraged – for making “difficult music”. And considering that her big hit, “O Superman”, was a menacing, eight-minute, mostly a cappella, allegory about US foreign policy, loosely based on an 1885 aria by Jules Massenet, and taken from an eight-hour stage show incorporating music, film and spoken-word musings on everything from the historical reasons for the location of Washington DC to the velocity of sperm… you can see how that reputation arose.
(As an aside, it’s weird to see how many people attribute “O Superman”‘s success to John Peel. OK, he was the first to play it, but when did John Peel ever make anything a hit? Other DJs picked it up and ran with it, that’s what made it a hit…)
However, on the whole, I reckon Anderson’s musical output is not really as difficult as some people, including Anderson herself, would have you believe. For instance, her debut album Big Science – the one including “O Superman” and commissioned off the back of its freak chart success – is distinctive… but it’s pretty accessible. If you like the direction Talking Heads were taking from Fear of Music onwards, then Big Science should hold no fear for you.
My pick-of-the-day is the album’s blackly humorous, Philip Glass-influenced opening song, “From The Air”. (Anderson and Glass go way back – they were friends and collaborators on the New York art scene before either of them became famous.) This particular track was never released as a single (there was a second single from Big Science, but it was an edited version of the title track), so I’ve assembled my own little single-type package for you instead, with a couple of tracks that could have been B-sides at the time. Brooding violin piece “Born, Never Asked” is one of Anderson’s better-known songs (some readers will know it from Spiritualized‘s cover version), and there’s a version on Big Science, but the recording here is from the music-and-poetry collaboration with William S Burroughs and John Giorno, You’re The Guy I Want to Share My Money With, which came out just before Big Science. The other track is from a 1977 collection New Music For Electronic and Recorded Media, an all-female compilation of experimental electronic compositions.