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Eric Idle on “Galaxy Song,” the New Biological Version

So it’s the last night of What About Dick? at the Orpheum Theater in May, and after each of the four shows, the cast goes to the bar to greet the audience. I can see Billy Connolly beaming, Eddie Izzard holding forth, Russell Brand winking at every girl in sight (the tramp), Sophie Winkelman smiling nicely at the throngs of men around her, Tracey Ullman animated and inevitably hysterical, Jane Leeves her quiet and sweetly demure self, Jim Piddock surrounded by very funny people, and Tim Curry quietly enjoying himself, pondering whether to sneak out for a smoke. I have shaken many hands. The audience on this last night has been, if possible, even more raucous than the previous three nights. Faced with this cast of comedy legends, 2,000 people have whooped and yelled themselves hoarse as these nine hilarious comics have done their versions of my play. Nobody has laughed harder than me. At times the spirit of anarchy on stage has made me weep helplessly with laughter. Eddie, eyes twinkling, would carefully insert some gloss on my original line and then look across at me like a naughty schoolboy with a sly grin, waiting for my reaction. It was always joy. As the author I was certainly the schoolmaster, but half of me always remained with the performers as I too was on stage performing. So it was our joy after the show to meet a happy buzzing crowd who told us how funny we were.

I was standing by the bar having a breather when a friend introduced me to Brian Cox. Or Professor Brian Cox, as he called him. I wasn’t that familiar with his work, but Brian is a very genial soul and very intelligent, and within seconds we had dropped all discussion of What About Dick? and were engaged in contemplating the depth and beauty of the Universe. Brian had lately been filming an octopus and was explaining how their eyes had formed independently from ours and how this one had mocked him, and when he put his arms up in a boxing stance, the octopus had responded, also putting its arms up. We had a jar or two and it was an all-embracing conversation about the things that fascinate me most in the Universe, in particular where does life come from? Brian talked about temperature gradients and hydrothermal vents, and then moved on to the Higgs-Boson particle whose existence was expected to be verified any day, for as well as being Professor of Advanced Physics at the University of Manchester and a Royal Society University Research Fellow, Brian also works at CERN.

I soon found out that the great thing about Brian is that he loves knowledge and he really loves imparting it. When he replies to any question you can see the great joy he takes in informing, and he has a smile on his face as he gets into the cosmic details. In short, a bloke right up my alley. After a time, he says, “You wouldn’t consider writing a song for my new series would you?” It’s clear he knows about the “Galaxy Song” and we discuss it a bit, and I say “what’s the subject?” and he says “the wonders of life.” “Oddly enough,” I say, “when I was adapting The Meaning of Life for a musical which never made it past seven drafts and some lovely songs, I did a biological version of the “Galaxy Song,” which did for Biology and the chemistry of life what the original had done with astrophysical distances. I’ll dig it out and send it to you.”

So began a long and utterly painless collaboration, at first by email and then latterly by a series of excellent dinners, which involved a whole new set of lyrics and a re-recording of the classic “Galaxy Song.” After a series of fascinating emails with Brian during which he would update me with the latest thinking on facts, suddenly changing five point six to four point seven, (tough on a lyric writer!), we recorded the track in John Du Prez’s studio in L.A. with Larry Mah in May before we all split for the summer. John polished the track in Portugal, and recorded a lovely string quartet over it in London while he was recording the soundtrack for What About Dick? and sent it to me in France. Of course it sounded beautiful but I wasn’t happy with the lyrics or the way I sang them. I knew I needed to make a nod to the original, but I had to find a convincing way of singing it now, at my age. So I sat under the Milky Way in Provence which posed nicely for my lyrics and played and sang it till I was satisfied. We decided I’d record the whole lyric again in London when I went in for the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games in August.

So there I was recording again with Andre Jacquemain, a delightful man who has been recording Monty Python ever since the beginning. We set to work taping the new lyrics, which I had been obsessively polishing and then Brian popped in and things got really interesting.

“There’s just one thing that is problematic,” he said, after listening to the track. And remember, this was the keyboard player from D:Ream. Was he going to dislike the way I sang it? The backing? What?

“It’s the number of stars in the Universe. You say “Two thousand billion suns.” It doesn’t seem right to me. It seems way under, I mean there are fifty billion galaxies and if each has a hundred million stars…”

He picked up a pencil from the control desk and started to work on some figures. Andre and I exchanged an amazed look. Were we really seeing this? After a moment or two he said “that’s more like a billion trillion suns.”

“Oh, that’s much better” I said, “I like that.”

“And the width of the Universe, you say ‘fifteen billion light years,’ but some people argue that while we are observing the light from it, it has been expanding during the time it took that light to reach us, and so by now in real time” — he reached for the pencil again — “it’s more like ninety billion light years.”

“You got it,” I said, and popped in and made the changes, my brain reeling at the fun of altering lyrics which are actually about something. While I was recording the new bits, he downloaded the end of the episode he wants to use the song on and selected which bits of the new lyrics he wanted to use for the credits. And then he took a picture of me and him in the control room for his Twitter.

His Twitter: @ProfBrianCox

My Twitter: @ericidle

So here are the lyrics we recorded, and if you go to Brian Cox’s Facebook, I’m sure you’ll learn a lot more about The Wonder of Life, which is scheduled to air on the BBC in Britain in January and when it will air in your particular neck of the Universe: www.facebook.com/ProfessorBrianCox.

Galaxy DNA Song

Just remember you’re a tiny little person on a planet
In a universe expanding and immense
That life began evolving and dissolving and resolving
In the deep primordial oceans by the hydrothermal vents
Our earth which had its birth almost five billion years ago
From out of a collapsing cloud of gas
Grew life which was quite new
And eventually led to you
In only three point five billion years or less.

Deoxyribonucleic acid helps us replicate
And randomly mutate from day to day.
We left the seas and climbed the trees
And our biologies
Continued to evolve through DNA.
We’re 98.9 per cent the same as chimpanzees
Whose trees we left three million years ago
To wander swapping genes out of Africa which means
We’re related to everyone we know.

Life is quite strange
Life is quite weird,
Life is really quite odd
Life from a star is far more bizarre,
Than an old bearded man they call God
So gaze at the sky, and start asking why
You’re even here on this ball
For though life is fraught
The odds are so short
You’re lucky to be here at all…

Standing on a planet which is spinning round a star
One of just a billion trillion suns
In a Universe that’s ninety billion light years side to side
Wondering where the heck it all came from.
You’ve a tiny little blink of life to try and understand
What on earth is really going on
In biology and chemistry
Which made you you and made me me
But don’t ask me I only wrote the song.

Recorded Version
(c) Idle/Du Prez, Python (Monty) Ltd.

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