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Laurie Anderson has appeared on two major UK hit singles. She was one of the Various Artists who performed on the charity single 'Perfect Day' that topped the UK chart in 1997, delivering one line of the song written and first performed by her long-term personal partner Lou Reed. However, as a solo act she has had but one UK hit single. It reached number two in 1981. It was called 'O Superman', and it was surely one of the strangest records ever to climb the UK chart.
Like many a one-hit wonder, Anderson is not primarily a musical performer. But where other unlikely hits have come from comedians, actors or sportsmen, Anderson is a performance artist, specialising in multi-media shows that make use of film, spoken word, dance and innovative technology.
She originally recorded 'O Superman' for a New York-based indie label, 110 Records. It was as much a poem as a song, half-sung and half-spoken, with minimal conventional musical accompaniment - just some electronic tones and pulses, and splashes of sax and flute. Anderson's voice was distorted through a vocoder, making it androgynous and eerie. The single lasted for over eight minutes.
By all conventional criteria, 'O Superman' was totally uncommercial and radio-unfriendly - but it was weirdly gripping and moving. Its use of electronics seemed to evoke the difficulty of communicating emotionally through technology, and there was some startling wordplay: 'So hold me Mom/ In your long arms/ Your petrochemical arms/ Your military arms...'
There was also humour in 'O Superman'. Anderson's distorted voice calmly observed:
Cause when love is gone, there's always justice/ And when justice is gone, there's always force/ And when force is gone, there's always Mom - Hi Mom!
However, the overall effect of the single was distinctly unsettling.
DJ John Peel began playing it on his BBC Radio One show, and got a huge response. Record shops all over the country received requests for it. Finally, WEA Records signed Anderson and released the single in Britain. It shot straight into the Top 20, climbed to number two, but then began descending the chart.
'O Superman' was, in fact, a small fragment of an epic four-and-a-half hour work entitled United States, all about communication and the way people use language. Anderson's debut album, Big Science (1982) consisted of excerpts from United States. A five-album boxed set1 containing a live recording of the whole work, simply entitled United States - Live, was released in 1984. On both albums, the song's title is listed as 'O Superman (For Massenet)' - probably a reference to Jules Massenet (1842-1912), an influential opera composer.
Although she has never had another solo hit single, Anderson has kept returning to the music world over the years and enjoyed some success in the album charts. She reached the US Billboard Hot 100 albums in 1984 with Mister Heartbreak, on which she worked with Peter Gabriel. More importantly, perhaps, the success of 'O Superman' won Anderson a much wider audience for her performance art, which continues to be appreciated to this day.
David Bowie brought 'O Superman' to a new audience in 1997, when he included his version of the song in most of the live dates on his Earthling tour. Bowie performed the song as a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey, the bass player from his band.
In 1999 and 2000, Anderson performed a successful touring show, Songs and Stories from 'Moby Dick' based on the story of Herman Melville's classic novel. Three songs from the show featured on her album Life On A String, released in 2001.
The attacks on America on September 11, 2001 seemed to give a whole new dimension of meaning to the words of 'O Superman' - in particular, the lines:
This is the hand, the hand that takes/ Here come the planes/They're American planes. Made in America/ Smoking or non-smoking?/ And the voice said: 'Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers/ From the swift completion of their appointed rounds'
Anderson responded to this unnerving coincidence by restoring 'O Superman' to her live performances, after having previously declined to play the song for some years. The week after the attacks, she performed 'O Superman' at two shows in New York that were recorded for a live album, Laurie Anderson Live at Town Hall New York City September 19-20, 2001.
January 2002 saw the premiere of Anderson's new live show, Happiness, which she describes as:
'...My way of looking at some of the things that both interest and trouble me: the evolution of behaviour, how we learn and what we remember, expectations, the meaning of justice and the effects of increasing speed; coloured by the darker elements of doubt and fear.'
She continued touring extensively, sometimes playing solo shows and sometimes appearing with a band, during 2002.
Up-to-date information on Anderson's artistic activities can be found on her own website.
Homepage Of The Brave - This is a great Laurie Anderson site.