Parodies of the periodic table are now so widely used as to have become a cliche. The better ones attempt to suggest some sort of systematic relationship between items under consideration and draw parallels with the relatioships of the real atomic elements. For instance, there are several blocks in the real periodic table, with unreactive elements in one column and similar elements near each other either in a diagonal or vertical relationship, with the three long rows in the middle all being hard metals, usually silvery with high melting points, the rare earths having very similar chemical properties to one another, and characteristics changing as you work down the columns. Thus the most common element suggested as the basis for life instead of carbon is the one directly below it in the column, namely silicon, and the halogens proceed from the highly reactive gaseous yellow gas fluorine to the purple, unreactive solid iodine and beyond into two highly unstable but unreactive solids, through the red fuming liquid bromine.
As regards music, there would seem to be two possibilities. One would be to arrange bands into different rows and columns, with the heavy metal bands inevitably occupying the lowest row of transition metals. Led Zeppelin has an obvious place below Bowie’s brief outfit Tin Machine, Iron Maiden is similarly already clearly allocated a place in the first row of the transition metals and Queen clearly belongs in Mercury’s location. Slightly less heavy sounding bands could then be placed above the heavy metal bands and the lightest and fluffiest bands belong at the top. If one could somehow capture the essence of the difference between Tin Machine and Led Zeppelin and apply that to Iron Maiden, thereby producing first Ruthenium Mother and then the ultimate heavy metal band Osmium Crone, it gives one some kind of method in producing a very slightly meaningful table, and possibly a source of possible new band names. Likewise, a Zeppelin is a kind of machine, so taking that up the table gets one to something like Geranium Contraption, and I can’t see the wood for the trees now and have no idea if that’s a good band name or not. This is a fruitful and stimulating approach, but also takes a lot of work and could provoke disagreement. It’s probably better than the other way though.
Which is the one Sarada and I came up with while imbibing at a local hostelry yesterday, inspired, if that’s an appropriate word, by the fact that it was our silver wedding anniversary. This event did various things to my brain, one of which was to inflict an earworm on it in the form of Echo And The Bunnymen’s ‘Silver’, and naturally that also suggested Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (gold). From that apparently fecund launchpad it would be easy to conclude that at least many of the more familiar metals, such as iron and tin, would have well-known songs named after them, but in fact it proved to be remarkably difficult to extend it beyond just those two. It would be possible to cheat and add, say, Eagles’ ‘Hotel Californium’ or something similar, but this would be cheating and groansome. Less cornily, songs on the subject of the elements concerned are more promising and allow for a little flexibility. The obvious element to follow silver and gold for me would be carbon, which exists in several forms, meaning that ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and The Police’s ‘We Work The Black Seam’ would be equally admissable and I would prefer the second for its worthiness. Nevertheless the well runs dry very quickly.
The names of the elements provide a telling history of science which also reflects their properties. Before the diamond gramophone needle got stuck on “-ium”, their common names varied quite a bit, so we have for example carbon, sulphur, iron and zinc because they either occur on this planet in a readily recognisable relatively pure form or were extractable using well-known techniques rather than the relatively advanced technologies needed to get hold of something like xenon or technetium. The nature of these words is also reflected in the symbolic significance of the different substances. On the whole, songs with the names of elements in them are not detailed essays on their chemical and physical properties so much as metaphors. There are a couple of exceptions to this. It would be silly of me not to mention Tom Lehrer’s ‘Elements Song’, although that doesn’t actually follow the oreder of the table and has been modified and extended since it was first written. I haven’t checked, but I’d be very surprised if They Might Be Giants haven’t either recorded a cover of it or done one of their own, though it would be pretty redundant. There are a couple of other songs which are literally about the materials themselves. Shellac’s ‘Copper’ is, amazingly, apparently literally about the metal copper, how good a conductor it is and so forth, but it’s very much the exception.
Doing this with elements is unlike trying to guess every US state or even name a song which refers to or is named after a state, such as ‘Indiana Wants Me’ or. well, ‘Hotel California’. Doing this would probably involve a few dead easy titles followed by steadily harder ones until you had to find one for Delaware or something, and you’d have to exclude the state songs in order not to make it like painting by numbers. In the case of elements, the curve of difficulty is exponential and might even have been impossible to traverse in pre-internet days. Once you’ve got ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’, most of the time you’d be hard-pressed to name more than a couple of others, and if you do look them up on the internet you find that whereas there are quite a few songs of this nature, they are usually by bands nobody has ever heard of. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, but it’s almost like writing a song about an element is almost the kiss of death for a musical artist. This might be because doing that would generally be too nerdy to be popular, which might be reflected in other sounds by the same group.
Element songs fall into a number of categories. The rarest such pigeonhole is the song which is literally about the element. ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ are well-known examples of this kind. The Loved Ones’ ‘Arsenic’ might also fall into this category, as does the aforementioned ‘Copper’. A particularly literal instance is Against All Authority’s ‘The Source Of Strontium 90’, which is a consciousness- and money-raising piece about nuclear power and its impact on health.
Probably the most frequently found sort of element song is where the substance is used as a metaphor. ‘Silver’ and ‘Gold’ are obvious examples of this, and another two examples are Toyah’s ‘Neon Womb’ and Orgy’s ‘Platinum’. The former emphasises the technological impersonalism and coldness of never having been part of the human world – the protagnoist hasn’t even emerged from a human womb and all is strile and non-living, in a manner similar to some of Gary Numan’s oeuvre. The latter song uses the idea of platinum blond hair as artificiality, seeing things as you want them to be rather than as they actually are, presumably based on the idea that platinum blonde hair is completely artificial – there are no natural platinum blonde women or men. This idea of artificiality also occurs in ‘Silicon World’ by Eiffel 65, which is so obvious it’s not even worth going into, and ‘Chrome’ by VNV Nation, which is about hiding behind a metaphorical mask like chrome plating, so rather similar to ‘Platinum’ though still an original idea. The idea of artificiality is almost a category on its own, another one being Barenaked Ladies’ ‘Aluminum’, which compares the apparent silveriness of aluminium to the apparent genuineness of a person.
A frequent element department is instrumentals. Mike Oldfield’s ‘Platinum’ is one of several such examples. Others are Brian Eno’s ‘Vanadium’, Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Quicksilver’ (there is also a metaphorical song called ‘Mercury’ by Sufjan Stevens). These artists are often wont to use scientific-sounding titles or themes, and you might therefore expect Hawkwind to be over-represented here but in fact there’s only ‘Silver Machine’, ‘Diamond Ring’ and ‘Neon Skyline’. They did, however, do a song called ‘Valium’, which brings to mind a further class of songs which might be expected to be quite common: drugs.
Drug songs named after elements or with the names of elements in the lyrics are fairly common. The most famous is probably Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’ but others include ‘Sodium Pentathol’ from Anthrax and several songs whose titles refer to bromide such as the Atomic Rooster offering ‘A Spoonful Of Bromide Helps the Pulse Rate Go Down’. The odd thing about these is that in spite of the common juxtaposition of drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, none of these are about recreational substances or narcotics. The bromide references are to potassium bromide, a discontinued sedative which was rumoured to be used in the military as an anaphrodisiac, which is unlikely because it would’ve reduced alertness as well.
Another type of element song I would relate somewhat to the instrumental set. This is, depending on how you look at it, and also on the track itself, the art rock/pretentious cluster. There’s a group called Noxious Emotion which did a series of songs named after elements, including ‘Molybdenum’, ‘Iodine’, ‘Uranium’, ‘Nobelium’ and ‘Selenium’. I find these songs opaque and odd, which might reflect me not being in their demographic, but I can’t help thinking they’re probably pretentious nonsense.
Another surprisingly sparse theme, like the drug one, is the political. One might expect there to be lots of songs similar to ‘The Source of Strontium 90’, particularly focussed on nuclear power, atomic and chemical weapons or pollution, but in reality there aren’t many of these. ‘Hydrogen’, from Front Line Assembly, is along these lines, being about the H-bomb, but there don’t seem to be many more than those two. ‘We Work The Black Seam’, however, does belong here.
Finally comes the rather large number of songs which incidentally mention the names of elements, such as Del Amitri’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ (copper and tin) and nickel in Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’.
There are a large number of unrepresented elements, provided of course that one excludes Tom Lehrer and the like, which is basically a list. Among these are, I presume, all the rare earths, ironically considering their importance as electric guitar pickups – myriads of tracks only exist because of the likes of neodymium in magnetic pickups and also in loudspeakers, and there are other rare earths involved too. Then again, there are bound to be all sorts of mainly metallic or metalloid elements in musical instruments and electronics, such as zinc and copper in brass and presumably arsenic in the Fairlight CMI, whose phosphor might on reflection actually also contain a rare earth although that’s just a guess. More familiar ones which are nonetheless apparently omitted include beryllium, boron, fluorine, rather surprisingly phosphorus (although there is a band called ‘White Phosphorus’), argon, scandium, manganese, gallium, germanium, rubidium, yttrium, niobium and technetium, among many others, and it would be quite a challenge to include those in non-nerdy songs. Sadly I am no song writer, so it won’t be me doing that.
There seem, then, to be the following categories of element songs:
- Literal: Tom Lehrer’s ‘Element Song’ and Shellac’s ‘Copper’
- Metaphors of artificiality: Toyah’s ‘Neon Womb’ and Barenaked Ladies’ ‘Aluminum’.
- Other kinds of metaphor: David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’, Woodkid’s ‘Iron’.
- Instrumentals: Brian Eno’s ‘Vanadium’, Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’.
- Art Rock: The various Noxious Emotion offerings.
- Drugs: Nirvana’s ‘Lithium’, Atomic Rooster’s ‘A Spoonful of Bromide Helps the Pulse Rate Go Down’.
- Incidental mentions: Del Amitri’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’.
- Political: Front Line Assembly’s ‘Hydrogen’, Against All Authority’s ‘The Source Of All Strontium 90’.
In conclusion, the role of elements in pop lyrics and titles reminds me of the use of herbs in the Bible, probably because neither are usually supposed to be taken as science textbooks. They tend to be used metaphorically. The real oddity, I think, is that there are relatively few political or drug-based songs involving the subject and when there are drug-themed songs, they don’t refer to recreational drugs. I suspect this is because of the prevalence of organic compounds rather than inorganics in pollution, warfare and pharmaceuticals, but to test that hypothesis I would need to look at other chemical themes in songs. There are also quite a few remarkable omissions.