It’s been 10 years since the first Scientific American rundown of science songs, and a great deal has changed in that time. Books, art and music are now under the strict control of the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, under the auspices of the Solar Federation, and … oh sorry, hang on, that’s just the plot of Rush’s 2112 album. In any case, Scientific American has carefully curated even more killer science-related tunes into a playlist on our new Spotify channel. It includes songs by Wire, Slowdive, Pixies and Thomas Dolby (I wasn’t going to include “She Blinded Me With Science” but my editor made me, but we also have a much better Thomas Dolby song!) I’ve noted a few of the highlights here; you can also listen to the entire playlist below or on our Spotify channel.
Pixies – “Alec Eiffel”
Best known for singing about broken faces, sliced eyeballs and waves of mutilation, Pixies frontman Black Francis could also be quite poignant, whether he was describing the last moments in the life of a fish snagged by “Jimmy’s cast” (“Brick Is Red,” which closes their lacerating classic Surfer Rosa LP) or an extra-terrestrial’s holiday ending tragically “in Army crates, and photographs in files” after it crash-lands on Earth (“Motorway to Roswell”). Decrying the small-minded resistance Alexandre Gustave Eiffel faced from the scientific and arts communities during the planning and construction of his namesake tower, this ode to the visionary engineer races to a startling, haunting coda driven by ethereal keyboards and soft harmonies that envision Eiffel “beneath the archway of aerodynamics.”
Grumbling Fur – “The Ballad of Roy Batty”
Sounding like Depeche Mode holed up in the British countryside subsisting on strong tea and even stronger psychedelics, U.K. duo Grumbling Fur’s “The Ballad of Roy Batty” repurposes the famous “tears in rain” speech of the rogue “replicant” Roy in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner as lyrics to a strange and wonderful pop song. Roy’s dying soliloquy, reportedly written by actor Rutger Hauer the day before the scene was shot, is just a few tantalizing glimpses of the intergalactic wonders Roy experienced during his brief, synthetic life:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion….”
with a devastating kicker:
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Possibly the most awe-inducing moment in sci-fi cinema history required no special effects, just Rutger Hauer cradling a dove in a downpour.
Wire – “Outdoor Miner”
Ugh, another pop song about the larval stage of the Liriomyza brassicae fly? How many of those does a person need? Well, this one from 1979 for starters, as post-punk legends Wire take the decidedly offbeat subject matter and transform it into an affectionate (sorry, please forgive me) earworm about the life cycle of the serpentine leaf miner:
Face worker, a serpentine miner
A roof falls, an under-liner
Of leaf structure, the egg timer
He lies on his side, is he trying to hide?
In fact it’s the earth, which he’s known since birth
Wire had a general knack for conjuring catchy songs out of obscure, seemingly unmusical subject matter, be it map coordinates (“Map Ref. 41°N 93°W”), tabloid journalism (“Kidney Bingos”) or Hieronymus Bosch paintings of primitive surgery (“Madman’s Honey”).
Prolapse – “Doorstop Rhythmic Bloc”
Prolapse was one of the more inventive and exciting bands to come out of the fertile nineties indie rock scene, with co-lead vocalists Linda Steelyard and Mick Derrick (whose day job is archaeologist) excoriating each other in amazingly-titled songs like “Every Night I’m Mentally Crucified (7000 Times).” Steelyard and Derrick often sounded as if they were each performing a different song within the same track, as on what was perhaps Prolapse’s finest moment: the soaring, thrilling “Doorstop Rhythmic Bloc.” While Steelyard coos cryptically that “your lifestyle is an eyesore … your bowl of fruit is made of mud,” Derrick tours the globe, bellowing in his thick Scottish brogue about the HMS Ark Royal, the Danube Delta, the battle of Gallipoli and, most animatedly, “the Pyramids of Gizaaaaaa!”
Hen Ogledd – “Sky Burial”
“Sky Burial” by Northern England’s Hen Ogledd paints a haunting picture of a world where technology allows our minds to live on forever. The disembodied protagonist sings of “waiting at the black hole” for their love, who likewise has seemed to have left behind their mortal coil to be devoured by carrion birds (the titular sky burial) and is now just “fragments” in a “memory bank.” The song works well as a metaphor for love and loss, even better as an eerie condemnation of the virtual immortality we all attain by spending our days posting and scrolling, liking and disliking, “rusting into the ground” in a pale imitation of being alive.
The Monochrome Set – “I’ll Scry Instead”
From 1982, “I’ll Scry Instead” by London’s Monochrome Set is an irresistible little tune, wryly breezing through a laundry list of pseudoscientific superstitions: astrology, palm reading, birth charts, crystal balls, gris-gris, etc., as the luckless and lovelorn narrator sends money to a charlatan hoping for guidance:
Dear Miss Rosa Lee
Tell me my destiny
I enclose my vibes with a print of my palm
I’d like the full works, plus the box of assorted charms
He finally, ruefully acknowledges he’d “do better with a fortune cookie,” a happy ending to a story that seems absolutely quaint compared to 2020’s catastrophically antiscience disinformation avalanche that the world attempts to dig itself out from in 2021.
Bailter Space – “Galaxy”
New Zealand’s Bailter Space has been making their singular brand of droning guitar music since 1988. They released two classic albums within the nebulous (see what I did, etc.) space-rock genre of the nineties, Robot World and Vortura. “Galaxy,” off the latter album, is surely one of the most narcotic songs ever recorded. Intertwined guitars softly buzz atop a leisurely groove while vocalist Alister Parker murmurs, mostly unintelligibly, and gentle clouds of distortion eventually envelop the entire track. What is it about? I couldn’t say, but I can definitely hear him singing “galaxy” though, which is more than good enough for this list!
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