The palaeontology of pop

At the 2011 annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association in Plymouth, an idea was touted of hosting a fossil-themed musical event.  In the end it didn't happen, but there was a fair bit of interest, so maybe it will get resurrected at a later date.  Even if it doesn't, it got me thinking.

A Cretaceous hermit crab has been named for Michael Jackson.  His death had been announced the day the fossil was discovered, so the research team (Fraaije et al. 2012) decided to immortalize the King of Pop.  The fact the generic name - Mesoparapylocheles - sounds like something Mr Jackson might have sung on one of his more nonsensical vocals is probably just coincidence.

As noted in one of the articles, this isn't the first time palaeontology has commemorated pop.  Australopithecus afarensis is better known as Lucy, thanks to the Beatles' "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" being played repeatedly during her excavation.

The first Pliocene pop star

Dire Straits even made it into Nature, when frontman Mark Knopfler was immortalized as a species of dinosaur.  Masiakasaurus knopfleri Sampson et al., 2001, was agressive and strange-looking, with bizarrely angled teeth, but the specific epithet was not an insult.  The palaeontologists apparently found the best fossils whilst listening to Knopfler's music, so decided to honour him: a true dinosaur of rock.

But whilst scientists are obviously interested in popular music, is there any evidence of the reverse?  Have fossils ever made it into the song-writers' pantheon?

In my formative years, the only fossiliferous song I knew of was "Walk The Dinosaur", by Was (Not Was).  That was pretty tenuous, though.  An opening line of "It was a night like this / 40 million years ago" didn't indicate a genuine grasp of late Mesozoic geochronology.

As an undergraduate, therefore, I wrote my own.  And when I say 'wrote my own', I mean 'butchered other people's'.  The only one I am proud of is "I Will Survive", the Gloria Gaynor disco classic, which, when fossilized, begins:

At first I just decayed,
Then I petrified.
Kept thinking I would never crop out
On some mountain side.
But then I spent ten million years
Sinking down till I was gone.
And I grew strong.
And I turned into silicon*.


Countless others, from Permian Rhapsody to Paranoid Echinoid, were just rubbish, but I wasn't the only numpty attempting it.  A cursory online search reveals a few like-minded souls.

Having thought that might be as far as palaeo-pop got, however, the last few years have shown signs of traffic coming the other way.  Genuine musicians are writing great records that actually include geological and palaeontological themes.  The times they might be a-changing.

New York band They Might Be Giants have always been experimental.  Best-known for their 1990 Top Ten single "Birdhouse In Your Soul", they've written tracks about James K. Polk, metal detectors, and palindromes.  In 2009, though, they came up with Here Comes Science, a rather novel rock album.

Aimed at children (but far too accomplished and amusing to be wasted on them alone), HCS features such gems as "Why Does The Sun Shine?" (The sun is a mass / Of incandescent gas / A gigantic nuclear furnace) and "Photosynthesis" (Does not involve a camera / Or a synthesizer).  And, best of all, "I Am A Paleontologist."

OK, so it makes the assumption that all palaeontologists dig for dinosaurs, but it's such a catchy song I'm prepared to overlook this.  It was written for band member Danny Weinkauf, "who likes to pretend he is one," and name-checks evolution, mass extinctions, stratigraphy, and taxonomy.

It's like pieces of a puzzle
That I love to try and solve
It's so fun to think about
How a species has evolved.

It even caused a hard-rock friend of mine to express a wish he was a palaeontologist.

On this side of the Atlantic, vertebrate fossils have been interpreted in a slightly different way.  2011 saw indie-rock monsters Kasabian release Velociraptor!  "We just loved the word, that was the initial attraction," guitarist Serge Pizzorno told the Daily Telegraph.

"Then we found out that they were hunting in packs of four," Pizzorno continued.  "They were like a band and that's how they survived, they stuck together.  And we found out they had feathers.  They were obviously like a glam-rock band with feather boas, so it was perfect."

Leicestershire theropods?

Dinosaur palaeoecology and the phylogeny of feathers.  Who'd have thought such things could make it to the top of the British album charts?

As if to prove this wasn't a one-off, singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss (aka Emmy The Great) released her own take on the subject.  Her rather more subdued album Virtue was apparently inspired by the futility of dinosaur reproduction.  "Some just said it out loud once," Moss said, "and it made me laugh.  The point of the song is 'What did it do?'"

Beginning the song with some weird primaeval squawking, possibly featuring Jurassic bush crickets, Moss notes apocalyptically that "Dinosaur sex led to nothing / And maybe we will lead to nothing."

As we - and perhaps Kasabian - now know, dinosaur sex wasn't quite as futile as Moss would have it.  It did, for the theropods at least, lead to birds.

Dinosaurs also led to birds for the great Jarvis Cocker.  Always a poet of pop, the Pulp singer branched into a new clade with his 2009 solo record Further Complications.  Living in Paris, he found himself inspired by finding females among the fossils.

"I was in the Museum of Palaeontology on the Jardin des Plantes, looking at this dinosaur skeleton," Cocker recalls, "and there was an attractive women there."  So he wrote the song "Leftovers" about the encounter.

I met her in the Museum of Palaeontology
And I make no bones about it.
I said,
"If you wish to study dinosaurs,
I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted."

For a gent whose sartorial choices have often been filed under the style sub-group 'palaeontology professor,' this seems entirely appropriate.  Whether he'd waggle his arse at Michael Jackson's hermit crab is a different matter.

I can't find a good video of Leftovers, so here's Disco 2000 instead (with disco floor visuals by Stef).

Talking of professors, it would be remiss of me not to mention Greg Graffin at this point.  Lead singer of the Los Angeles-based punk band, Bad Religion, Graffin is also a lecturer of palaeontology at UCLA.  His scientific interests inform his music, and he has compared the theory of evolution with punk rock, recently co-authoring a book called Anarchy Evolution.

Rather less confrontational in her approach, but equally geologically grounded, is Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter Laura Veirs.  After graduating in Earth Sciences with Mandarin, Veirs apparently decided to become a musician during a disappointing field expedition to China.

Such a notion almost sounds impossible, given the Chinese palaeontological finds of recent years, but it worked out for Veirs.  Her music career took off, culminating in the beautiful 2010 record July Flame.  Though fossils are disappointingly absent, her songs often reference geological terms, from glaciers to magma and spelunking.

I reckon it's the start of a new era: the Anthropopscene.  If you don't believe me, just look at the 2012 Grammies.  Veir's Oregonian musical neighbours Bon Iver were nominated in the Best Song category.  The song title?  Holocene.  And even though it lost out, it did so to Adele's "Rolling In The Deep," which can only be a paean to turbidites.

Further proof was to be found at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival in May.  There, Robyn Hitchcock and John Hegley collaborated to launch the 2012 Jurassic Coast Earth Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad.  Hitchcock, former lead singer with The Soft Boys, and Hegley, a noted performance poet, performed 'A Celebration of Time'.

So, if there is a "Fossils Rock!" event in Dublin, maybe we can invite some of these closet palaeontologists to come along and perform.  Kasabian, Bon Iver, Jarvis Cocker, They Might Be Giants, Bad Religion, Emmy The Great, Laura Veirs, Robyn Hitchcock: it's a line-up Glastonbury would be envious of.

(A very similar version of this post appeared
in issue 79 of the Palaeontological Association newsletter)