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Music History #4: "Cloudbusting"

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of Bill DeMain's new(ish) column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" appears twice a month—unless we can convince Bill that twice a month is not sufficient!

“Cloudbusting”
Written and Performed by Kate Bush (1984)

The Music

http://youtu.be/pllRW9wETzw

Kate Bush has always had a way of making esoteric subject matter into compelling pop music. “Cloudbusting,” the second single from her breakout 1984 album Hounds of Love, is a great example. At its heart, the song is about a father-son relationship, but the title and historical details make it clear that the father in question is Wilhelm Reich. A controversial psychiatrist-author-inventor, Reich dreamed up a rain-making machine called a cloudbuster. The song was inspired by a memoir written by Reich’s son Peter, detailing his father’s battles with the government over his inventions, and his incarceration late in life. In the video for the song, starring Bush and Donald Sutherland (the actor couldn’t obtain a work visa on short notice, so did it for free), the cloudbuster was made by some of the same designers who worked on the Alien movies. “Cloudbusting” reached #4 on the UK charts, and has since been covered by such artists as Charlotte Martin and Gemma Hayes.

The History

In 1953, two blueberry farmers in Maine offered to pay Wilhelm Reich if he could help end the drought that was threatening their crop.

In their fields, the 56-year old Reich set up the cloudbuster. Looking like a cross between a telescope and a pipe organ, the machine could supposedly form or disperse clouds, and cause or prevent rain. The next morning, there was a downpour and the farmers’ blueberries were saved.

Skeptics said it was coincidence. Maybe so. But there’s no denying that during his sixty years, Reich presented some strange, intriguing ideas about how energy flow affects the world around us.

Born in Austria in 1897, Reich started his professional life as a psychoanalyst, and was a part of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna circle. During the 1930s, Reich wrote several books, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which analyzed the effect Hitler was having on Germany, and The Sexual Revolution, about the effects of government-suppressed sexuality.

Fascinated with Freud’s concept of the libido, Reich extrapolated on the idea and began to formulate a theory of a cosmic life force, sexual in nature, that drove and connected all things in the universe. The force was ever-present.

He named it orgone.

Rain, Rain Go Away

Orgone – the word was a mash-up of orgasm and ozone – became Reich’s obsession. In 1940, he built the first of what he dubbed his “orgone accumulators.” Reich believed that metal repelled orgone while organic material, such as wool, absorbed it. Using alternating layers of the two materials, he built phone-booth sized boxes. Once the boxes had accumulated a concentrated amount of orgone, he would place his patients inside, as a means of curing everything from depression to the common cold. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but many claimed to be helped by the orgone accumulators.

From human subjects, Reich turned his attention to the heavens. He believed that there was an anti-orgone, which sapped life from the atmosphere and caused droughts. He called this DOR, or Deadly Orgone Radiation. The cloudbuster was designed to manipulate that DOR, causing clouds to form and disperse. The science is sketchy, but through an assembly of hollow metal pipes and cables inserted into water, the machine supposedly created a strong energy field that drained the DOR from the atmosphere.

In the late 1940s, the FDA had already slapped an injunction on Reich, preventing him from selling his orgone accumulators. After the publicity from the cloudbusting episode on the Maine blueberry farm, government agents started watching him closely. In 1956, he was charged with contempt, for violating the ban on marketing his inventions, and went to court. With no legal representation, he suggested that the judge read his books if he wanted to understand orgone.

Reich was sentenced to two years in prison.

Come Again Some Other Day

All of Reich’s theories and inventions might be dismissed as eccentric doodling, but the government’s actions after his imprisonment make you wonder if he was onto something more significant. In the summer of 1956, FDA agents supervised the destruction of all remaining orgone accumulators. A few months later, a staggering six tons worth of Reich’s private journals, papers and books were burned in an incinerator in New York City. It’s been called one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history.

In 1957, Reich died in prison from heart failure.

Today, there are inventors and alternative scientists carrying on Reich’s work. If you’d like to make your own cloudbuster, here's a video and a handy resource:

http://youtu.be/dqw7z2JJ-w4

See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"; #2: "Smoke on the Water"; "Yes! We Have No Bananas"

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Orchestra, a Symphony, and a Philharmonic?
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Remember when your brain exploded after your fourth grade math teacher told you “every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square!” Understanding the difference between an orchestra, a symphony, and a philharmonic is kind of like that. Every symphony is an orchestra, but not every orchestra is a symphony. Likewise, every philharmonic is a symphony, but not every symphony is a philharmonic.   

Okay, let’s take a breath. 

Orchestra is a broad term for any ensemble featuring a hefty lineup of strings. Two basic orchestras exist—chamber orchestras (small!) and symphony orchestras (big!). Chamber orchestras employ about 50 or fewer musicians (who may all play strings). As the name suggests, they play “chamber music”—older tunes written for private halls, aristocratic parlors, and glitzy palace chambers. Of course, contemporary composers still crank out chamber music, but the style peaked during the 17th and 18th centuries as wigged songsters like Haydn, Mozart, and Vivaldi tore up the scene.   

On the flip side, a symphony orchestra can boast more than 100 players, who are divided into strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. As that name suggests, they play “symphonies”— hulking pieces that usually require 18 to 25 different instruments. (Think of the heavy hitters of the 1800s: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and company.)  

Essentially, if an orchestra is big enough to play a symphony, it’s a symphony orchestra. Simple!

Okay, maybe not.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic are the same thing—sort of. They’re the same size and they play the same kind of music. The two terms exist to help us tell different ensembles apart, especially in cities that boast multiple groups. For example: New York City is home to both the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Brooklyn Symphony. They’re the same kind of orchestra, but they have different names so you don’t confuse them. The divide between symphony-philharmonic is just a matter of identity.

And that’s what makes them different. “Symphony orchestra” is a generic term, whereas “philharmonic orchestra” is always part of a proper name. So, you can call every philharmonic a symphony, but you can’t call every symphony a philharmonic—even though they’re the same.

And as for “pops?” That just means the orchestra isn’t afraid to let its hair down and play a jaunty show tune.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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