Right, let’s bop to a marvellous dance number that tackles the meaning of life and our place in the cosmos, giving us a bit of a science lesson while we sit here tapping our toes!
To begin, a little background (warning: vast over-simplification to follow). In the aftermath of the Big Bang, as subatomic particles coalesced and formed the first atoms, we reckon that about three quarters of the matter in the universe was hydrogen, being the simplest of all atoms, with one electron circling one proton. There was also a fair bit of helium, which is two protons, two electrons, and a couple of neutrons. To this day hydrogen remains the most common element in the Universe, but on its own, it isn’t much beyond a darned good energy source (oh boy does it burn – type “Hindenburg Lakehurst New Jersey” into Google, you don’t believe me). At first blush the early Universe therefore doesn’t really look all that promising, and it’s hard to see how any amount of time can take us from a vast cosmic soup of free-floating hydrogen and helium to a guy in a leather jacket on the corner of Bay and Adelaide buying a hotdog (as the boys in Diner would say). You and I are made out of all sorts of heavy atoms which didn’t then exist, iron, carbon, magnesium, oxygen, you get the picture. What gives?
Well, as all of you know, one of the fundamental forces of nature is gravity, the tendency of objects carrying mass to attract each other. The mutual gravity of massive gas clouds condensed ever greater amounts of the hydrogen/helium together until there were balls of the stuff all over the place, crushing themselves together with enormous force, to the point at which the hydrogen atoms started to fuse. Nuclear fusion at that scale means you’ve got a star, kids, and stars, powered by fusion, crush their atoms together into heavier and heavier elements until they start to run out of fuel. Several variables, especially size, determine how stars will end their life cycles at that point, but one common outcome is a final cataclysmic explosion called a nova, or even bigger, a super-nova, and when those things blow they spew outwards all of the complex elements they’ve been busy manufacturing for all those billions of years, flinging them straight across their local galaxies. It’s like they’re sneezing heavy atoms. The very atoms we, in the end, evolved to make use of in our biology.
Thus we are all, as Carl Sagan liked to say, made of star stuff – or, as XTC would have it, we’re all light, cast by stars in their dying gasps. Hence the lyric:
Don’t you know
’bout a zillion years ago
Some star sneezed,
now they’re paging you in reception
Yup, marvellous and miraculous is our very existence, but for all of that, we’re not here for all that long, and the times we inhabit are often pretty shitty – better live a little while we can, eh?
Don’t you know
Upon the pillion of time’s bike
We roar onto the stage
and too soon we’re dead centre
Don’t you know
Buffalo Bill-ions raised his sight
He’s picking off the whole herd
as soon as we enter
So you won’t mind if I kiss you now
And maybe come on in for the night
Don’t you know, in this new Dark Age
We’re all light
Let’s see One Direction, or whoever the hell’s top of the pops this month, come up with something like that.
Led by songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC was one of those bands – Smashing Pumpkins also comes to mind – that did well enough, and earned respect, but was never as big as they should have been, or would have been if I’d had my ‘druthers. Throughout the decades from about 1980 to 2000, they produced album after album full of complex, deeply satisfying pop music that never shied away from big thoughts or big issues, even at the risk of sounding sophomoric, which they surely were not. A prime example is one of my favourites from their earlier years, Generals and Majors, which flogged the rather unremarkable idea that war is bad, but was such an engaging, satirical romp that it feels as if it’s restating the obvious because apparently we idiots out here still don’t get it. Their albums were sprinkled with songs like that, full of insight and social commentary that might have come off as preachy and smug, except, as the Rolling Stone Record Guide once put it, “they sweated hard enough to earn their pretensions”. They weren’t smug. They were passionately, urgently concerned about how many trite notions were actually God’s truth, yet still paid only lip service as we sat punch-drunk amidst the wreckage.
This was a group that could write something like Green Man, about how the Medieval Catholic Church appropriated many of the most powerful symbols of the paganism it sought to replace as a means of seducing the masses into the new faith, and pacifying the adherents to the old ways. The song even sounds medieval, and if I knew more about music I might know why – I suspect that like Eleanor Rigby, it’s based not on modern chords, but the more ancient “modes” that go all the way back to classical Greece, but of course I can’t really say. What I can say is that it effectively evokes the age when nearly everybody was a serf subject to Canon Law, and the feudal Lords gobbled up whatever spoils the Church didn’t grab first, and that’s a little bit beyond what you could expect from the average pop combo, no? Here:
That XTC even managed to get by, year after year, and keep their recording contract, well, it gives a fellow hope.