We don’t get a very exciting celestial display at night here in Singapore. Light pollution aside, we should really be in the ‘goldilocks zone’ for astronomers. At just 1.3 degrees north of the equator, there must be majestic representation from both the northern and southern hemispheres somewhere up there. When Stanford Raffles arrived on the edge of this steamy, swamp island 200 years ago he probably had a pretty spectacular view of the heavens, albeit through gin soaked eyes (allegedly). Today, surprisingly the brightest objects in the sky are the planets (and planes – less surprisingly). Recently I’ve been able to see Mars, Venus and Jupiter all tricking about on the horizon looking like little blinky bobbins rather than the massive alien spheres of rock and gas of which my science informs me they are.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the night sky in the western cape of Australia, in the Southern Central Cape of South Africa, the Atacama Desert of Chile, the central plains of Canada and from the rural north of Scotland and I can say hand on heart that it beats the hell out of pretty much any terrestrial view that we have going on in the day time, which is no mean feat. Maybe it was my love of the night sky that drew me to science. More likely it was my inability to show aptitude at the alternative subjects.
To say I was schooled in the physical sciences seems to imply that I got beaten up a lot as a child. Better to say I was present during some science for a part of my education. My young brain showed just about enough capability in the subject to encourage me to pursue it to the point that i got rapidly out of my depth. Physics at all levels mixes a healthy dose of the unbelievable with a large portion of the unfathomable. When it reaches a certain level, however, scientists have to start abstracting things into the impossible in order to establish a frame of reference with which to comprehend reality. Now imagine for a moment an electron of negligible mass travelling close to the speed of light in a one-dimensional box. Sure. Ok. Pass me a bottle of wine, a biscuit tin, a small cat and some weapons grade plutonium. Now let me demonstrate something named after that German guy (probably)
It should be clear from this that I was not a gifted physicist. Also, that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
However, even when you can comprehend a modicum of the science behind it, on a clear night away from the city lights, nothing prepares you for the sheer vastness of the celestial firmament. Knowing maybe a little bit about the scales, distances and magnitudes of swirling, exploding violence that exists up there, doesn’t escape you from the in-describable beauty. The colours, the cloud nebula, the pulsars, comets, red giants and white dwarfs, the life-cycle of boiling, burning matter exuding energy in quantities that would simply vanish us into dust. The fact that everything we see has already happened, sometimes many years in the past, doesn’t detract from the visceral presence it has in our moment of now. As your eyes adjust and the parts of the earth in the periphery of your vision evaporate, even if it’s just for a few seconds, you can find yourself reduced to your biology. The electrons in the atoms of your being connecting with the stars and the beating of your heart matching the gentle pulse of time into infinity. Likely you are left with more questions than answers. Questions like, what would Bowie do…?
That’s a pretty round-a-bout way of introducing Life on Mars as the first song of four on a planetary theme for this ‘issue’ of ivtunes.
I can’t imagine that David Bowie hasn’t made it into 4 tunes before, but in the spirit of moving in a linear direction with time, I will assume that the past is irrelevant. What to say about this song? Some say it’s one of the best he wrote. I say too many good ones to choose from. A wonderful musician without whom the world is a little greyer.
Its fair to say the next song can trace its genealogy back to Bowie, as Grant Lee Philips of Grant Lee Buffalo is clearly a fan. I think this band were underrated in the UK in the 90’s, maybe just in my unsocial circles, but this song always stuck with me for some reason. Jupiter and Teardrop is the second track from their first album Fuzzy. If you are not familiar with them and want to sink into some 90’s California alternative indie rock, you could do a lot worse. (possibly their second album for example)
Now finally this gives me a chance to dig out some Portishead. Wow. This album, Dummy, blew my mind when I first heard it. It still makes the hairs on my neck stand on end when I hear the opening to Mysterons. There is no bad tune on the record. Wandering Star is another exemplary piece of juxtaposition with the menacing electronic bass, Beth Gibbon’s haunting voice and Geoff Barrow’s scratchy noodling. Dark stuff.
Finally Spiritualized with the title track from their 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space. I remember buying this CD. It came in a cardboard box that had a single plastic blister pack pill container holding the CD. Uniquely annoying in that it never fit properly in any of my CD cases #90sfirstworldproblems. This album was apparently written by singer /songwriter Jason Pierce in the aftermath of his relationship implosion with keyboard player Kate Radley (who contributes her voice for the first 5 seconds of this track) It is certainly heart wrenching in places. Like seeing a lost dog in a rainstorm. Probably he needed a hug and a nice cup of tea. But then we wouldn’t have this record. So I’m glad he opted for the bag of drugs and some alone time.
I’m not going to link a video this week, but something slightly different. Listening to Portishead again took me down a wormhole into some other similar eclectic artists from the time. Including another firm favourite in Massive Attack. Somewhere along that journey I stumbled across this clever little mashup of the two. This is a good example of positive addition, created by someone who has shown both tunes the right amount of respect. Sadly or happily for Massive Attack I can never hear the track Tear drop without visualising an unshaven Hugh Laurie hobbling down a hospital corridor bellowing something about lupus. I must go easy on the gin.