Talking 40 years of Remain In Light
“My skull is a drum; each great beat drives that leg, like the point of a stake, into the ground. The singing is at my very ear, inside my head. This sound will drown me!” – Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living God of Haiti (1953)
I dashed up the stairs to John Berry’s loft, hard on the heels of Mike D. We were on our way to a Young Aborigines rehearsal, and babbling excitedly about a new album. “I love the way they seem to divorce words from their meanings,” I yelled at Mike, “you know, ‘Define, define/So say so, so say so.” Mike had a slightly different take, yelling back at me, “Yeah, maybe…I just heard it as conversational – “so say so” – just things you say every day.” This wasn’t an argument – we would have plenty of those during rehearsal – but rather just the start of an attempt to absorb the brilliance of Remain In Light by Talking Heads, which had just landed in our universe with a seismic impact.
“The skills and attitudes we wanted to develop were based on our understanding of African musical concepts of interlocking and interdependent parts and rhythms that combine to make a coherent whole.” – David Byrne, Press Notes, 1980
Talking Heads had flirted with rhythmic interlock and interdependence on “I Zimbra,” which kicked off 1979’s Fear Of Music with a burst of brittle funk. But if you hadn’t seen the newly expanded band perform in August 1980 at the Heatwave Festival in Ontario’s Mosport park, or the Dr. Pepper series in New York’s Central Park, you were completely unprepared for what sounds would emit when you dropped the needle on Remain In Light, which came out 40 years ago this month. A quick downbeat, a vocal expulsion, and then a thicket composed of bass, chicken-scratch guitar, keyboards both barbed and ambient, and a relaxed beat underneath it all that betrayed its origins in Compass Point Studios in Nassau. David Byrne enters, sounding more commanding than ever: “Take a look at these hands/Take a look at these hands/The hand speaks/The hand of a government man.”
What was this exactly? It was hard to say, but we picked up immediately on a furious, danceable energy, and responded in kind: we danced, furiously. It also felt bigger than earlier Talking Heads, less pinched and cerebral, and more sweaty and visceral. A quick glance at the credits told us that this record had also been made differently than their three prior albums, which seemed to follow a standard “band writes songs, band goes in studio with producer to record them” protocol than what was going on here. Guitars, the credits related, could be played by Adrian Belew, Jerry Harrison, or Byrne. Basses? Take your pick from Harrison (again?), Tina Weymouth, Byrne uses or Brian Eno. Keyboards…could be any of the above. Drum kit was Chris Frantz alone, but everyone contributed percussion with the addition of Robert Palmer and José Rossy. Rossy, who became an in-demand player after being hired by LaBelle in 1976 ,was probably recruited by Nona Hendryx, who contributed vocals to Remain In Light alongside Byrne and Eno.
“A good rhythm, if it is to enhance itself, should both fill a gap in the other rhythms and create an emptiness that may be similarly filled.” – John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1979)
All of this was explained slightly when I chanced upon a test pressing of Remain In Light during a fortuitous visit to music critic Chip Stern’s apartment, where he was selling off promo copies for cheap. Mike D. was there, too, and he got his hands on Marty Thau’s 2×5 compilation while I grabbed up albums by Ornette Coleman along with the Talking Heads record. Within the plain white sleeve were press materials, including a note from Sire publicity head Audrey Strahl (“get to work on the band’s wonderful new sound!), and a two page letter from David Byrne. “The initial recordings in Nassau were of largely improvised playing by the band and Brian,” he wrote, adding, “This playing did not consist of ‘jamming’ or ‘soloing’ in the conventional sense, since once a part, or group of alternating parts, was found to be appropriate, it would be repeated with very little variation throughout a piece.” A key point was this: “In an attempt to break entrenched playing patterns the musicians would not always play their ‘assigned’ instruments; thus in a given number Eno and I might play basses, Weymouth play synthesizer, and Harrison percussion.”
“The famed unity of the arts in African performance suggests a sensible approach in which one medium is never absolutely emphasized over others. Sculpture is not the central art, but neither is the dance, for both depend on words and music and even dreams and divination.” – Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Art in the Collection of Katherine Coryton White (1979)
Byrne’s note goes a long way towards illuminating the unified nature of the music we heard on Remain In Light. Although inter-band tensions are touched on in Frantz’s memoir, Remain In Love, and a recent interview with Jerry Harrison, it’s impossible to miss the sense of joy and togetherness they must have felt at discovering a new thrust to their music as they laid down the basic tracks. Even Eno and Byrne’s further work on those recordings back in New York, where, according to Byrne “some of the pieces were changed quite radically,” couldn’t crush that sense of wonder. Side One’s three expansive tracks, “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “The Great Curve,” were all unstoppable and became highlights on the road. The second phase of recording is also when Hendryx got involved to help with vocals, and some of the album’s truly virtuosic passages were laid down by Belew, who burns up “The Great Curve” just as Robert Fripp had Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” seven years earlier.
Side Two opens with a master-stroke when it slides into the hypnotic “Once In A Lifetime,” its funk groove paired with what sounds like a Steve Reich keyboard halo whirling overhead, and Byrne starts almost preaching those brilliant lyrics: “And you may find yourself/Living in a shotgun shack/And you may find yourself/In another part of the world…” ending with the immortal question: “And you may ask yourself, well/How did I get here?” Then we get the ecstatic gospel of the chorus, with exquisite call and response by Byrne, Eno, and Hendryx: “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down/Letting the days go by, water flowing underground/Into the blue again after the money’s gone/Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground.” This is Byrne as lyricist finding that combination of radio-reverend vernacular and Warholian opacity that would come to define his writing even more on future albums. It wasn’t until My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which Eno and Byrne had made before Remain In Light, came out a year later that we understood that some of his inspiration came from actually listening to evangelical preachers on the radio.
VIDEO: Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime”
Emotionally, the album cools down after the high of “Once In A Lifetime.” Driven by Frantz’s dumbfoundingly locked-in drumming, “Houses In Motion” is tense and fascinating, with Afro-beat guitars and “Fourth World” trumpet stylings by Jon Hassell, whose album with Eno had come out in January 1980. By the time we get to the dread-infused “The Overload,” which closes the album, there’s no question that the party is over. Any student of Eno’s solo albums can’t help but wonder exactly how much synth stuff he loaded on to that track – my purely scientific answer is: A LOT. It sounds a bit like an excerpt from one of his ambient albums with a drum part underneath. Byrne’s doom-laden singing seems to take more from Ian Curtis than any preachers. “The Overload” was the darkest song on any Talking Heads album by far and an intriguing way to end the album.
In any case, it was Side One that we put on to dance to after rehearsals, alongside Uprising by Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Off The Wall by Michael Jackson. That was good company for a band that was scrapping it out at CBGB’s just three years earlier! We were also encouraged in our own music by Remain In Light’s polyglot approach. Though Young Aborigines went nowhere, I continue to think that our attempt to combine post-punk, funk, salsa, and dub was a noble one. Our overwhelmed and overjoyed response to Remain In Light was echoed by critics, who had universal praise and sent the album into the Top 10 of nearly every year-end list in 1980 and at the end of the decade. Its reputation has only grown in the last four decades; most recently, Rolling Stone put the album at number 39 on that list everyone is talking about. Missing from my test pressing was the marvelous cover, designed by the late, great Tibor Kalman and M&Co. Featuring computer illustrations provided by MIT, it seemed to promise a limitless future where man and machine are ever more interconnected. And it just looked cool.
Remain In Light is a cornerstone record that, even as it has become familiar, refuses easy explanation. Mary Gaitskill’s attempt, in the liner notes to the Once In A Lifetime box set, is as good as any: “It was like the hard, clever forms of their old songs had burst, and something was pouring out of it – something that had always been there. Listening was like going through a tiny door and coming out somewhere vast, with thousands of doors and windows to a thousand other places.”
Every year, a new audience enters that tiny door and discovers the grandeur of Remain In Light. While I wouldn’t give up my long history with the record, I envy them the experience.
Note: The three books quoted above comprise the bibliography David Byrne included in his press notes.