Last night (February 27) the Aurora Borealis turned skies in the UK crimson, deep purple, lime green, gold, scarlet and neon pink. It was a rare and spectacular display that occurred as far south as Essex, as well as Manchester, Northumberland and parts of Wales. What a treat.
In culture, the Northern Lights phenomenon is characterised in different ways. “What power disbands the Northern Lights/After their steely play?/The lonely watcher feels an awe/Of Nature’s sway,” wrote Herman Melville in his 1865 poem ‘Aurora Borealis’. The “retreatings and advancings (like dallyings of doom)” have inspired so many musicians’ work. The list of bands and artists who’ve written about the Lights are numerous: The Fall, Thin Lizzy, Super Furry Animals, Basshunter, Foreigner, The Fall, Jethro Tull, Marillion, Tom Tom Club, Darlia, Ian Brown, Brian Eno, Duke Ellington, B-52s…
It’s no surprise. There’s something innately musical about the aurora as they dance across the sky, pulsing and phasing in and out of extraordinary colour. Apart from the tick-tick-tick of hail storms and rumbling timpani-like thunder, the evocative Northern Lights are perhaps the most musical of the meteorological lot – and they lend themselves to characterisation. Lyrically they have been compared with elusive objects of longing and depicted as strange and powerful guides. Here’s 10 of the most interesting and beautiful uses of the Northern Lights in song. Have I missed any? Leave your suggestions in the comments below
1. ‘Aurora Borealis’ – C. W. McCall
McCall’s spoken word invocation of a summer night camping “10,000 ft up where the air is clear high in the Rockies of Lost Lake, Colarado” is a fine place to start. The Iowa-born country singer was a political activist with a skill at story-telling. Eventually he and his camping buddies see the Aurora Borealis: “They’re like flames from some prehistoric campfire, leaping and dancing in the sky and changing colors. Red to gold, and blue to violet…” You should check out the rest of the lyrics, they’re beautiful.
2. ‘Kino’ – The Knife
When The Knife sing about seeing the Northern Lights, they’re probably speaking from experience. Sweden’s one of the best places to see them and this track was recorded from a cottage on one of the country’s islands. It’s a muscular, driving song from the duo’s self-titled debut (1999). Technically Karin Dreijer Andersson sings “I saw the northern light above/And the eclipse of the sun” but the surreal nature of the sky-blaze accents the general strange theme of her story (“I am a rocket and a fish” etc).
3. ‘Northern Lights’ – St Vincent
St Vincent uses the image of a violent blaze as a symbol for the apocalypse. “Through my maudlin days, through my dry moments/I saw the morning Northern Lights/Convinced it was the end of times” she sings. There’s no evidence to suggest our ancestors believed they were a sign of the Rapture but the 16th Century astronomer Tycho Brahe believed the vapour of the aurora borealis brought on infections.
4. Nirvana – ‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow’
“Somebody else already used the word ‘aurora-borealis,'” drawls Kurt Cobain on ‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow’, the bonus track on ‘In Utero’. It’s no Sigur Rós soundscape but the reference augments the strange and sprawling narrative of the song.
5. Neil Young – ‘Pocahontas’
‘Pocahontas’ is on Neil Young’s 1979 album ‘Rust Never Sleeps’. It’s one of Young’s most accomplished, beautiful tracks. The song opens with a peaceful, atmospheric image – “Aurora borealis/The icy sky at night/Paddles cut the water/In a long and hurried flight” before Young describes a violent massacre of an Indian tribe by European settlers. The narrator then falls in love with Pocahontas and the song ends with a surreal appearance from Marlon Brando. Top notch Young.
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6. Joni Mitchell – ‘Little Green’
Another track from a masterful lyricist. Mitchell directly describes the sky as a stage and the Lights as some kind of orchestra: “Like the nights when the Northern lights perform” . She moves seamlessly from spring and crocuses through the theatrical aurora to a mournful payoff: “There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes and sometimes there’ll be sorrow.”
7. Fred Astaire – ‘You’re All the World to Me’
What do you get when you mix Fred Astaire with the Northern Lights? Perhaps the best ceiling dance in popular culture (watch below). ‘You’re All the World to Me’ is a song from the 1951 film ‘Royal Wedding’. “You’re my shining Aurora Borealis/You’re like Christmas at home by a tree/The blue calm of a tropical sea/You’re all places that leave me breathless.”
8. Enslaved – ‘Heimdallr’
You didn’t think you were going to get away without some Viking Death Metal, did you? Enslaved are a black metal band from Norway and Heimdallr is a Norse god with a massive horn, a gold horse and gold teeth. According to Enslaved’s lyrics he needs “less sleep than a bird”, which begs the question ‘how much sleep does a bird need?’, but then you’re in another internet black hole entirely. So where do the Northern Lights come in? Well, this example’s a bit more abstract. This Norse God lives by ‘Bilröst’, a mythical phenomena that may’ve been based on the Northern Lights. It’s a burning rainbow bridge that connects the world to the realm of the Gods. It looks like this. Thanks to Rob Burton (@ooobenblief) for this suggestion.
9. Frank Zappa – ‘Dont Eat The Yellow Snow’
In this 1974 Zappa classic he imagines himself as an eskimo instructed by his mother not to eat, you guessed it, yellow snow, and to be careful around huskies. The dream ends with him tripping out underneath the Northern Lights.
10. ‘Amber Waves’ – Tori Amos
Inevitably any reference by Tori Amos isn’t going to be straightforward. In ‘Amber Waves’, the narrator tells the subject of the song to “tell the Northern Lights to keep shining – Lately it seems like they’re drowning.” “They told me to tell you they wave,” she ends, setting them up as a temperamental soothing device to buoy a troubled young woman.