Talking Heads - Remain in Light

by D R Pautsch Rating:10 Release Date:1980-10-08
Talking Heads - Remain in Light
Talking Heads - Remain in Light

In 1980, Talking Heads released three critically lauded albums and gradually developed their sound from the nervous tics and new wave of ’77 to the African funkiness of 'I Zimbra,' and the dense and stark Fear of Music.  What followed was perhaps their greatest album, one that would expand their sound as well as the band itself, but it would leave scars that have never healed.  Remain in Light is as much about the additional musicians as the four Heads, it’s as much about the producer as it is about the music, it’s as much about arguments as the harmony, it’s as much about an album that wouldn’t be released until 1981 as the last Talking Heads album.  Ultimately though, it’s about a band that found its dancing shoes and decided to change their sound and embrace funk.

The band were already showing signs of disunity after Fear of Music. Brian Eno played no small part in this, and whilst he undoubtedly is a huge part of the evolution of Talking Heads music, he is also a huge part of their acrimony that lives on until this day.  After the Fear of Music tour David Byrne left the band without a word and disappeared. The band didn’t know where he went until long after they reconvened in the Caribbean to record the follow up.  What they also didn’t know is that he had recorded a joint effort with Eno titled My Life in The Bush of Ghosts.  With a name appropriated from a book David Byrne hadn’t read it was revolutionary.  It contained samples, found music, and no vocals from either protagonist.  However, it was also about to be mired in legalities that would mean it would eventually be released a year after it was recorded and with some samples changed. 

Byrne at this point was finding inspiration from listening to preachers on the radio. Not their message, but their vocal delivery.  For his entire career Byrne has been fascinated by his vocals.  In the South Bank Show special on Talking Heads he can be seen explaining how he records different vocal takes and chooses the one he feels fits the mood of the song the best.  Now he felt the rapture and belief that these preachers could be translated into his music.  In his collaboration with Eno this was done by literally sampling them.  However, with Talking Heads he decided to imitate this approach.  It wasn’t just the vocal delivery that is a marked difference for Byrne though as lyrically he was evolving.  On Remain in Light he felt he no longer had to fill songs with his own neurosis and thus began to channell other characters.  It was the first album where he took on other personae.  Nowhere was this more evident than on ‘Weird Riff Song’ where he babbled like a preacher and sang about living in a big house with his beautiful wife.

When the group came together to record Melody Attack, the working title for Remain in Light, the remit was that everyone contributes and then the music would evolve.  That Byrne, under duress from Eno, changed the song writing credits on the album to remove all but his and Eno’s names drove the group further apart.  The other key factor for this album was to take inspiration from 'I Zimbra' and to use that as a template for the album.  With Eno driving the band on and apart and Byrne holding secrets, the music was laid down, largely without lyrics.  More expansive, funkier and more ambitious than before, this was music that both excited and scared the band.  The 'Weird Riff Song,' whose original riff can be barely heard in the chorus, was to lead off side two of an album that would have longer numbers on its first side.   However, it was again largely without lyrics.  For all the group's effort Byrne was blocked, and it took a visit to see Adrian Belew play live to unblock him.  His role on this album has been downplayed by himself but ultimately he inspired Byrne enough that he got over his writer's block and put words into 'Weird Riff Song,’  singing about removing water, again taking this from books he was barely familiar with.  Renamed 'Once in A Lifetime,' Talking Heads would have the radio friendly crossover their output so far had lacked.

That great music can be made despite the drama behind the scenes is nothing new.  What was new on Remain in Light was the sound.  Moving from Punk to Funk was a step many fans didn’t anticipate and some didn’t appreciate.  However, this move freshened things up.  On the opening track, 'Born Under Punches,' the mix of space and funk was laid down for the rest of the album to follow.  Full of squawks, rhythm and throwing back to the earlier 'Don’t Worry About The Government,' this was the sound of a band making a statement of intent.  Nothing from this point forward would be the same.  Gone would be the one word titled pieces about objects or things.  This was a world encompassing vision.  Byrne declared, "I'm a tumbler, I’m a government man," as he changed his viewpoint from loving buildings to a far more cynical vision.  The band, more importantly Byrne himself, had grown up, and the signs of maturity were everywhere.  Next up came 'Crosseyed and Painless,' a song that hit its funk straps from the very first boot and didn’t stop until its last.  Embracing rap with his facts, Byrne showed that he was not afraid of appropriating just lyrics and titles from elsewhere.  Driven by a light guitar riff, a bass that was simple but hypnotic, and passages of guitar from Belew that sounded like passing trains, it was mesmerising.  This wasn’t just a new version of 'I Zimbra,' it was a progression in every way.

Side one of the three longer numbers was rounded out by 'The Great Curve.'  This was the expanded Heads in full flow and Byrne in an earnest and urgent delivery.  Vocals intertwined over a drum that just pushed you onwards to the guitar breaks.  As with the rest of the album, there were no chord changes, but this music didn’t need any.  Byrne again stole from a book he had never read when he sang, "The world moves on a woman’s hips." That stark guitar noise, African sounding rhythms, and an almost religious ensemble vocal could coexist was a revelation.  Talking Heads might be appropriating music and lyrics from many places but they were also fusing it together in new and exciting ways.  Eno was surely a huge part of this.  He constantly challenged the band to innovate, and before the album he was convinced he would not produce another Heads album.  He was so taken by the direction he changed his mind.

Side Two was the shorter songs, a rule broken by its final one, kicked off by 'Once in A Lifetime.'  'Houses in Motion' employed a Middle Eastern flute and took the template into other parts of the world.  'Seen and Not Seen' was a spoken word hypnosis that again had Byrne looking at a protagonists' world view.  The free form noise behind the pulsing beat was not distracting, but a shimmering accompaniment that gave the lyrics further depth.  'Listening Wind' was a haunting, first people’s world view of the changes the white man had wrought on America.  The chorus was poignant, haunting and beautiful. The slow beauty of Talking Heads had been seen before on songs like 'Heaven,' but here it was given further weight through its lyrics and the space allowed.  'The Overload' was considered a song too good to be left off the album, despite it not really fitting with the rest.  Spoken, dour and stark this was Fear of Music Talking Heads, and a punctuation point on the end of an otherwise dance-enthused band.  A terrifying drone of guitar underpins Byrne in one of his most deadpan and wrought vocal deliveries in his career.

Remain in Light changed music at the start of the new decade.  It brought together the different tribes and laid the footprint of how to meld different genres together.  It’s a footprint that is still followed to this day.

Overall Rating (2)

4.5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Great review of the band at their peak. I was fortunate to see them on the Stop Making Sense tour. I guess the question is was the conflict worth the art and if this was the output the answer has to be “Yes”.

  • Rated 4 out of 5 stars

    That Middle Eastern flute was Jon Hassel's trumpet.
    I read that The Overload was an attempt at playing like Joy Division without having heard Joy Division, instead it's based on what they had read about those Mancunians.

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