Laurie Anderson tells us about the very unassuming way her massive 1981 hit, ‘O Superman’, came to be
“‘O Superman’ started from a line in an aria from the 1885 opera ‘Le Cid’ by Jules Massenet – ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ [‘O Sovereign, o judge, o father’]. I’d come across it being performed by a black opera singer called Charles Holland, who a friend of mine played piano for. It was a prayer song addressed to the chief – the boss. I just thought it was really beautiful and interesting… a prayer to authority.
“At the time, we were having a series of disasters in America to do with the never-ending war in the Middle East. Some Iranian students had stormed the US Embassy in Tehran [in 1979] and taken hostages, and the idea was that we Americans would go raging in with helicopters, swoop in and get these guys out.
“The strategy backfired majorly. The helicopters crashed in the desert and it was really shocking to people because we all thought technology was going to save us. Instead, their big plan ended with a burning pile of debris, and the hostages were nowhere to be seen. I just thought, ‘I’m going to write a song about the failure of technology’.
“I started writing a few things, and someone said they wanted me to perform it. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s only like a couple of sentences long…’, but the pressure of performance gave me the impetus to finish it.
“The ‘ha ha ha’ mantra thing is a loop, like a breath. I wanted something basic. I like rhythm, but in a piece like this, drums don’t give you enough room in the rest of the song to do much. So the ‘ha ha ha’ thing is the beat.
“Like a prayer, we don’t know who the song is being addressed to. The first words are ‘O Superman…’, but who is Superman? It’s meant to be ghostly, like an invocation. There’s a sinister aspect, but it is sinister when you talk to power.
“There are a lot of weird things going on in that song, but also really mundane things – ‘Smoking or non-smoking?’ – which sit alongside each other. It was a deliberate juxtaposition, the same as the sudden shift from motherly ‘long arms’ to ‘your petrochemical arms’ and ‘your military arms’. I used a vocoder in places so it wouldn’t have only one voice. The vocoder was actually originally invented as spy technology and that fits with the sinister vibe.
“The line, ‘Neither snow nor rain / Nor gloom of night / Shall stay these couriers / From the swift completion / Of their appointed rounds’, came from a postal slogan that is inscribed over the Post Office in New York, because the song is a message, being sent to people.
“After it was finished, a friend of mine [B George of One Ten Records] suggested we should record it. Then we got a $500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and put it out [on One Ten, titled ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’] as a mail-order project. I think we pressed 1,000 copies, which were sitting in my loft as I was thinking, ‘How am I ever going to get rid of these things?’.
“It sounds preposterous now, but we advertised it and people would call up on the phone and order the record. I’d take their name and make a rapid walk to the Post Office to send it to them. I’d just started to think, ‘Great, eventually I’ll get rid of them all’, when I got a call from someone in England who said he wanted to order 40,000 records. And then he said, ‘And I’ll need 40,000 more next week’. It turned out to be Rough Trade distribution who were interested because John Peel had been playing the record every night on his radio show in the UK. I promised to get them the records, put the phone down and immediately thought, ‘What do I do now?’.
“Warner Brothers had been coming to my shows and had wanted to make a record with me, but I’d refused. I was from the art world, and that sort of pop culture didn’t interest me. Having turned them down, I called them back and asked, ‘Remember when you said you wanted to make a record with me…? Would you just do me a favour and press me 80,000 copies?’. I was told, ‘That’s not the way we do things here at Warner Brothers’. So I asked them what I needed to do. The next thing I knew I’d signed an eight-album contract. I got so much flak from my artist friends who said I was ‘selling out’, but within a few months it was called ‘crossing over’ and everybody wanted to do it.
“Soon after, people started calling me up and asking how it felt to be in the charts. They told me ‘O Superman’ was at Number Two in the UK. This is going to sound really stupid, but I didn’t know what the charts were. Getting something you’ve never thought about is very different to getting something that you’ve been dreaming of. So I was happy, but it was strange.
“It was definitely one of the moments that changed my entire life. I was catapulted into a whole new world, but the song that was at Number Two was exactly the same eight-minute home recorded piece that we’d been sending out by mail order. We didn’t even remaster it. I was very pleased about that.
“I hadn’t played it for a long time, but I’d just started singing it again when 9/11 happened. People said, ‘I can’t believe you’re singing about what’s going on right now’. I just told them that it wasn’t strange, that things hadn’t changed much from when I wrote it – we were still in the same war and the aircraft were still crashing.”