This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Talking Heads – “Remain In Light” (Sire Records, 1980)

This month’s selection for Classics Critiqued has long been a personal favourite since my teenage years. It’s also an album that regular features in critics’ Greatest Albums lists, even making it to No.2 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the ‘80s. That album is the avant funk masterpiece that is “Remain In Light” by Talking Heads. This seminal album was the band’s fourth and the third produced by English pop and rock music auteur Brian Eno. It was the band’s creative high water mark and signalled the end of their initial experimental phase before they became a poppier proposition for the remaining 12 years of their career.

Prior to the band getting together to create “Remain In Light”, David Byrne (vocals/lyrics/guitar) and Brian Eno  retreated to Los Angeles to create what would become their first collaborative album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (1981). Although the concept behind “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” continued to evolve during its creation the idea of creating a “fake ethnic record” seemed to run through the core of the result and provided inspiration for “Remain In Light”. Eno envisioned “Remain In Light” as creating a psychedelic vision of Africa. As Simon Reynolds observed in his book “Rip It Up and Start Again”: “Musically, “Bush of Ghosts” took the ideas of ‘Drugs’ and ‘I, Zimbra’ to the next level. Rampant texturology: Eno and Byrne drastically extended the sonic range of conventional instruments through processing and effects. And the technique of interlocking: each instrument played very simple parts, which they then meshed into complex, ever-shifting webs of texture rhythm”. Add all this together with Talking Heads own brand of New Wave rock music and you create an innovative album that almost completely blurs the lines between funk, Afro beat, traditional African music and American art rock.

In July 1980 Talking Heads reconvened with Eno at the Bahamas Compass Point recording studio, where Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums) had been holidaying together (they had become a couple shortly after Weymouth joined Talking Heads in 1975) to lay down the backing tracks for what would become “Remain In Light”. In a change from their usual writing/recording routine the band decided to jam ideas that were simultaneously recorded to then be edited, overdubbed and arranged in the second phase of recording, a highly unorthodox approach for a rock band in 1980. The band had decided on this course of action in order to move away from the conventional idea of lead singer and backing band and to craft songs in a more democratic way rather than relying solely on Byrne to write songs. This decision came about when Weymouth and Frantz had discussed leaving the band before all the members took a much needed break earlier in the year. After these recordings were made the band returned to New York’s Sigma Sound studio with the backing tracks more or less completed. Work continued at the New York studio where earlier in the year Jerry Harrison (guitar/keyboards) had produced an album for singer Nona Hendryx. She later provided backing vocals to “Remain In Light” that would enrich the rhythmic backing tracks. At this point the album entered phase two with Byrne struggling to write lyrics and vocal melodies to the backing track which featured only one or two chords. Meanwhile Eno, Harrison and engineer Dave Jerden edited the recordings into loops and overdubbed them with additional keyboard and guitar parts. Weymouth and Frantz rarely attended these session as one, their rhythm parts were already recorded and two, they felt pushed out by the close friendship of Eno and Byrne. Weymouth was particularly angry, describing their friendship as, “…they were dressing like one another…like two fourteen-year-old boys making an impression on each other”.

Eno, Byrne and Harrison all attended a Adrian Belew gig at the New York Plaza and were so blown away by his abstract guitar style that Eno asked if he could come down to Sigma Sound to contribute parts to the album (the pair had previously met when Belew played on David Bowie’s “Lodger” (1979). Belew turned up the next morning with his Roland GR30 guitar synth creating “the metallic distortions and wild spidery notes” heard on ‘The Great Curve’. This new addition “made the music radiate anew and provided an oddly companionable contrast” to the polyrhythmic African funk of the backing tracks. Jon Hassell, another one of Eno’s previous collaborators, played and arranged the stunning gauzy horns on ‘Houses In Motion’.

Their new approach to the writing and arranging of the music caused a problem for David Byrne who had to rethink his approach to writing lyrics and melodies as well as moving into new areas of subject matter. In an interview with Simon Reynolds, Byrne recalls “realizing that this music that was kind of groove-based implied a whole different social and psychological thing – much more ecstatic and trance-like. I realized I couldn’t think about the same things or at least not in the same way, if I was going to be true to what the music felt like. After “Fear of Music”, where I’d done a bit of recording the music first and putting words it later, I took a leap and said ‘Ok, I won’t go in with any lyrics at all.’ That meant I had to write words to fit the music. If I was in a neurotic or tense state of mind, it might not be suitable for the music because the music might not feel like that. I had to write in response to the music.” Reynolds also observed the following change in lyric tone and content. “If “Fear of Music” was about neurosis, “Remain In Light” reached for psychic wholeness, life newly reintegrated with nature and the body.” Talking Heads no longer dealt in white angst (with the exception of album closer ‘The Overload’). Instead it reached for the ecstatic both in terms of the lyrical content and delivery which took from Byrne’s love of soul, Eno’s of gospel and the band’s new found Afro beat influences. Even Eno’s usual restrained English delivery reached unexpected levels of passion when he sang backing vocals with Nona Hendryx who bought this out in him.

Byrne included a bibliography with the album’s press kit to illustrate the lyrics African inspirations; he cited Professor John Miller Cheroff’s “African Rhythm and African Sensibility” as the main influence. The book discussed the role of music in West African culture. The lyric that really stood out was “The world moves on a woman’s hips” from ‘The Great Curve’, which was inspired by “African Art in Motion” by Professor Robert Farris Thompson, though it could just as easily have come from a Fela Kuti song. The lyrics also dealt with identity with Byrne pondering “well, how did I get here” on ‘Once In A Lifetime’ to ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ on which he declares “lost my shape, trying to act casual/can’t stop, I might end up in the hospital”. So it appears he wasn’t able to fully exorcise his angst in the lyrics, though the delivery and backing tracks delivered plenty of ecstasy.

The legacy of “Remain In Light” is an interesting one. It’s difficult to pick out any bands/artists that have been directly influenced by the album and ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is the only song from the album that’s ever been covered. The song was also sampled by many rave and hip-hop acts who loved the song’s brilliant groove and easy conversion to an instrumental loop. It’s here we find the album’s key influence, the way the songs were put together preceded sampling and loop-based dance music. It’s in the DNA of these aforementioned tracks (and some more adventurous hip-hop tracks) that we find “Remain In Light”’s true decedents. “Remain In Light” is a truly unique album that stands up to even the toughest scrutiny even today, thirty two years on.

Let me know what you think of “Remain In Light” in the comments section or via our Twitter.

Listen to “Remain In Light” here.

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