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!
Written and Performed by Kate Bush (1984)
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.
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: