“Jam Session” in the Field

By Andrew Du

Students playing soccer with the locals in the dried up Il Eriet river in 2007.
Students playing soccer with the locals in the dried up Il Eriet river in 2007.
October 22, 2012

Do you know the story of “Under Pressure,” the 1981 rock hit recorded by Queen and David Bowie? With a memorable bassline and soaring vocals, it is no wonder why VH1 included the song on its “100 greatest songs of the 80’s” list. It has stayed in public consciousness for decades having been covered by countless bands, featured in numerous movies and commercials, and even plagiarized by a beatboxing, breakdancing fledgling rapper. And yet, what may be the most fascinating aspect of this song lies in its creation.

After dinner together one fateful night, David Bowie joins Queen in their studio in Montreux, Switzerland for an impromptu jam session. After Queen bassist John Deacon composed the famous bassline, subsequently forgot it, and thankfully remembered it, Bowie and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury proceeded to lay down the vocal track (all of this can be found in the Queen documentary, “Days of our Lives”). Each would improvise lyrics (hence Freddie’s scat singing and multiple “day dups”) while the other was kept out of the studio, and the two sets would later be joined into one “coherent” song. That’s pretty amazing considering how well the two sets of lyrics complement each other (even though David Bowie did “cheat” and listen in on Freddie while he sang). The end product is one of the most brilliant rock songs ever recorded.

The reasons for my anecdote are two-fold:

  1. I am a huge Queen fan, and “Under Pressure” is one of my favorite songs. Dr. Bernard Wood is also a big Queen fan and has told me he has struggled to try to incorporate Freddie Mercury into his CASHP blog. I can proudly say that I beat him to the punch, albeit in a forced, clumsy fashion.
  2. Some of the best ideas and creations come from impromptu “jam sessions,” and the same can be said for science.

This past summer in Ileret, northern Kenya, our field team experienced a flash flood. Our annual campsite is located on the banks of the Il Eriet, a seasonal river that is always dried up when we arrive. Nevertheless, on the evening of July 4th, it started raining and by approximately 2 am, the river was roaring with life. The whole camp had to be awoken to help relocate away from the river lest food and equipment be swept away. Through teamwork and assembly lines (one had to actually cross a recently formed chute channel), we did so quickly and efficiently.

The flash flood, however, separated us from our field site, so we could not do any research for days. Enter Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to make the most out of an unfortunate situation. She agreed to take out a group of students to walk along the now receding river for an impromptu study of how modern fluvial processes shape the geomorphic landscape and influence the distribution of bones. Never had I been such a strong believer of the tenet, “The present is the key to the past,” until that day. We saw freshly made dunes draped with mud, which was never intuitive to me until that moment. The mud drapes were littered with raindrop impressions, which were dead ringers for what one finds in the geological record. Every now and then, the river bank on the cutbank side would collapse as it was undercut by the flowing river, demonstrating convincingly how a river can migrate across and erode its floodplain belt. The few bones we found (informative in and of itself) were oriented either parallel or perpendicular to flow and would often be trapped by patches of vegetation. In short, it is absolutely amazing how much better one understands the static geologic record by studying the linkage between modern dynamic processes and their respective traces. Thank you, James Hutton and Charles Lyell.

The final lesson here is when a rare opportunity comes along (whether it’s David Bowie visiting or a flash flood), take advantage of it and enjoy a killer jam session. You’ll be surprised at what happens.