Song of the Day: Biography in Music (Day Five). “Pioneer of Aerodynamics, Thought He Was A Real Smart Alec …”

Alec Eiffel is a song from the Pixies’ fourth album Trompe le Monde (1991).  The song, written by frontman Black Francis and released as the third single from the record, is about French Engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (15th December 1832 to 27th December 1923), designer of the Eiffel Tower and also the Statue of Liberty and tells of how, when the Eiffel Tower was being built, people thought it was a bad idea.  Alec Eiffel is a song about how people bring down other people and their ideas.

Construction work on the Eiffel Tower began on the 29th January 1887, with the building being completed on the 15th March 1889.  It was formally opened to the public on the 31st March 1889.   During its design and construction stages, the Eiffel Tower was subject to some controversy, attracting criticism from both those who did not think it was feasible and those who objected on artistic grounds.  When work began on the tower at Champ de Mars, the ‘Committee of Three Hundred’ was formed, with one member for each metre of the tower’s height.  The committee was led by Charles Garnier and included some of the most important figures of the French arts establishment, including Adolphe Bouguereau, Guy Maupassant, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet.  A petition was sent to Jean-Charles Alphand, the Minister of Works, and was published by Le Temps.  Part of the criticism against Eiffel’s idea read:

“To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour de Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of le Invalides, the Arc de Triumphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.  And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal”.

Starting with the line, “Pioneer of aerodynamics (Little Eiffel, Little Eiffel)”, Francis describes how, during his lifetime, Eiffel carried out important work in aerodynamics, as well as meteorology.  Eiffel’s interest in these areas was a consequence of the problems he had encountered with the effects of wind forces on the structures he had built.  His first aerodynamic experiments, an investigation of the air resistance of surfaces, was undertaken by dropping the surface to be investigated together with a measuring apparatus down a vertical cable stretched between the second level of the Eiffel Tower and the ground.  By doing so, Eiffel definitely established that the air resistance of the body was very closely related to the square of the airspeed.  He then built a laboratory on the Champ de Mars at the foot of the tower in 1905 and later built his first wind tunnel there in 1909.  The wind tunnel was used to investigate the characteristics of the airfoil sections used by early pioneers of aviation such as the Wright Brothers, Gabriel Voisin and Louis Bieriot.  Eiffel’s work established that the lift produced by an airfoil was the result of a reduction of air pressure above the wing rather than an increase of pressure acting on the under surface.  After complaints from nearby residents about the noise generated by the wind tunnel, Eiffel moved his experiments to a new establishment at Auteuill in 1912.  At this new site, it was possible to build a larger wind tunnel and Eiffel began to make tests using scale models of aircraft designs.  In 1913, Eiffel was awarded the Samuel P. Langley Medal for Aerodynamics by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.  Presenting the medal, Alexander Graham Bell said:

“… his writings upon the resistance of air have already become classical.  His researches, published in 1907 and 1911, on the resistance of the air in connection with aviation, are especially valuable.  They have given engineers the data for designing and constructing flying machines upon sound scientific principles”.

In celebration of Eiffel’s work in aerodynamics, the music video for Little Eiffel features the Pixies playing in a wind tunnel with physics formulas in the background.

The second line of Alec Eiffel, “They thought he was a real smart alec (Little Eiffel, Little Eiffel)” was explained by Francis in an interview with Melody Maker at the time of the album’s release:  “Because of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, but also because it’s funny:  In Australia, you often say ‘It’s a smart Alec’ for a guy who’s nice but not very bright”.  However in reality, Australians actually use the term to describe somebody who is speaking out of turn; often in a way that makes them appear more intelligent than the person or group that they are addressing.  In the UK and US, a “smart Alec” is the opposite of Francis’ description, meaning somebody who is intelligent but mean or sarcastic.

The following line, “He thought big, they called it phallic” refers to some peoples’ view of the Eiffel Tower at the time of its design and construction, an observation that is still attached to the building to this day.  As recently as 2013, several feminist groups in France called for the tower to be demolished, with Marianne Caster, the leader of the campaign, telling newspaper, The Local:

“For too long we have lived under the shadow of this patriarchal monstrosity.  Every day, women in this city are forced to glare up at the giant metal penis in the sky.  It may be good for tourism but as long as it stands there, France will never have ‘egalite’ [liberty, equality, fraternity].  Since 1889, women have been forced to gaze up at this example of French industrial machismo and colonial arrogance”.

In his 1979 collection of essays, The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, French philosopher Roland Barthes asserted that the tower is really nothing; not a museum, nor is there anything to be seen within it.  Barthes went on to say that the reason people go to see the Eiffel Tower is because it stirs the human imagination and people are able to attach their own vision to it, thus making the tower “the symbol of Paris, of modernity, of communication, of science or of the nineteenth century”.  Barthes continues to tell of how the tower can become a “rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect”.  He concludes by saying, “In the great domain of dreams, it means everything”.  It is important to note here that the back cover of the artwork for Alec Eiffel features the Eiffel Tower in the form of a rocket, linking in with Barthes idea that in the imagination of the person viewing the tower, it can become a “rocket” and so forth.

Further into Alec Eiffel, Francis continues to tell of how Eiffel’s detractors thought the project was lunacy, with lines such as “Little Eiffel stands in the archway (Little Eiffel, Little Eiffel), Keeping low, doesn’t make no sense”.  In a Melody Maker article in 1991, they describe the line thus:  “It’s not certain whether lines like “Little Eiffel stands in the archway, Even though it doesn’t make no sense” are an observation of the lunacy of the architecture or the song itself, which features a sixties-style zither!”  It should be noted here that Melody Maker misquoted the line, it being “Keeping low, doesn’t make no sense” rather than “Even though it doesn’t make no sense”, which answers Melody Maker’s question.

Put to a musical backdrop which sounds like a whirlwind, complimenting the song’s subject, with Eiffel using the wind tunnel in his quest to understand the concept of aerodynamics, Alec Eiffel is just one of a myriad of great Pixies songs.  This is a song of unique subject matter and vision as wonderful as that of the Eiffel himself, executed in a way that only the Pixies ever could.  As Francis said himself in his 1991 Melody Maker interview:  “I thought it was important to speak about Gustave Alexandre Eiffel, as he is considered as the pioneer of aerodynamics.  Fascinating subject”.