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.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” (Sire Records, 1981)

This month’s Classics Critiqued choice has direct links back to last month’s choice “Remain In Light” (1980) by Talking Heads. In fact, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” was recorded and intended for release before “Remain In Light” something left Brian Eno feeling bitter as he felt “Remain In Light” overshadowed his and Byrne’s collaborative effort. In this article I explore the concept behind the album, the recording process, the issues it bought to the music industry and the world’s attention and its legacy and influence on the musicians who were captivated by the album.

“My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” began life as part of three recordings sessions held in RPM and Blue Rock Studios in New York in August and September 1979. These recording sessions featured Bill Laswell (bass), David Byrne (guitar), Laraaji (zither/dulcimer) and a host of downtown buskers recruited by Eno, these musicians jammed together while Eno managed the mixing desk, recording the messy results. Between the sessions Eno would edit and mix the jams struggling to find something coherent. As the sessions progressed a direction slowly emerged blending together what Eno described as “disco-funk (fashionable in New York at the time), Arabic/North African music and black African music”. After making these recordings Eno busied himself collaborating with Jon Hassell on “Fourth World Vol.1: Possible Musics” (1980) before returning to the recordings with intention of recording a collaborative album with Hassell and Byrne that acted as “fake field recording of a non-existent tribe.” The trio would meet up in December 1979 after Byrne had returned from four months of touring Talking Heads “Fear of Music” (1979) they would listen to records released by the French label Ocara who released authentic music from around the world. Their concept for the album evolved as Byrne recalled into “… a field recording… of the future”.

Eno left New York on New Yea Eve 1979 to fly to the West Coast for a lecture tour in his luggage was the tape from the summer sessions which intended to continue developing while on the West Coast. He began work in earnest shaping what would become ‘Mea Culpa’ and adding to it one of ‘found vocals’ that would become one of main talking points around “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”. In January 1980 Eno meet a satirical rock troupe called The Tubes who he played the demo of ‘Mea Culpa’, impressed by what he heard drummer Charles Lenprere ‘Prairie’ Prince offer his services to Eno. He was put to work in L.A.’s Eldorado studio not only to play conventional percussion instruments but also what Eno named the ‘banging board’ a drum kit from which drums were removed and replaced with cardboard boxes and pots and pans adding further texture to the already multifaceted sound. At this juncture Eno contacted Byrne and Hassell to join in L.A. to continue developing the now burgeoning project, Byrne who was still tired from touring and was suffering writers block jumped at the chance but Hassell a jobbing composer had to turn down the invitation and Byrne became the sole collaborator on the project.

By now Eno had established a rough method for creating tracks for the album. He slowly built up layers of sound before then stripping the track down and then beginning the process again. He’d become obsessed with the idea of ‘interlocking parts’ as he explained ‘Instead of having a few instruments playing complex pieces’ he explained, ‘you get lots of instruments all playing very simple parts that mesh together to create a complex track’. It was this approach that informed the “complex, ever-shifting webs of texture rhythm” that made up “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”.

Early on in the process of conceptualizing and creating the album Eno and Byrne decided that neither of them wanted to sing on album. This was because they believed that people perceived that the person who was singing the song had written the song and they wanted to create music that would be perceived differently. However, both agreed that there should some sort of vocals present on the album. So they decided to use recording both from the Ocara records that they’d heard and radio broadcasts of phone-in callers, right-wing radio hosts and evangelical preachers. It was these vocals that were the most controversial sounds on “My Life in Bush of Ghosts” provoking negative critical reviews. Rolling Stone magazines Jon Pareles said the album asked “stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism’, he went on to accuse the duo of having “trivialized the event” when sampling an exorcism on ‘The Jezebel Spirit’. Pareles asked “Does this global village have two way traffic?” and L.A. Times critic Mikal Gilmore said the album had moment of “gimmickry”. These criticisms and the music press’ general perception of the album as an afterthought after its delayed release, due to Talking Heads having to deliver a new album to Sire and a number of sample clearing issues left Eno feeling bitter and that album deserved more praise.

In retrospect, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” critical opinion has generally been revised and the album is now seen as the innovative release it always was one that preceded sampling by several years and challenged ideas about authorship and audience perception of who wrote and/or performed a piece of music. It still sounds revelatory in a world where music fans accepted the person whose name on the cover as the writer of the music, while being able to recognise when sampled material has been used by the composer.

Over the last thirty one years “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” has steadily gained a cult following among both music fans and music creators alike. The album preempted and was an influence on acts such as Big Audio Dynamite, the Chemical Brothers and El-P and his original hip-hop group Company Flow, whose abstract hip-hop was compared to the album. It also had an impact on the making of Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece “Fear of the Black Planet”, DJ Shadow’s sampling watershed moment “Entroducing” (1996) and early drum ‘n’ bass innovator A Guy Called Gerald’s classic album “Black Secret Technology” (1995). All-in-all its difficult to imagine the musical landscape of the last 30 years without “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” even if the album is sometimes overlooked in this respect, the argument for its place in the lineage of electronic music still stands firm.

Let us know what you think of “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” in the comments below or via our Twitter.

Listen to “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” here.

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