As some of the most prestigious alumni of the art-school music movement, it would be all too easy for each of the Talking Head’s albums to be featured as a part of our on-going series. In this week's instalment of Classics Revisited, Ben Buffery guides us through the meandering and modulating Remain in Light, a record culturally notable for its significant acknowledgment of the roots of African music in an otherwise divided society.
Talking Heads have always been a band unafraid of welcoming other genres into their sound. Whilst their punk contemporaries rarely moved away from driving rhythms at breakneck tempos, guitarist/vocalist David Byrne brought groove, marrying funk and punk in a way never seen before. In 1980, the band took one step further, attempting to bring the afro-beat sound into their own music - and in doing so made rhythm and groove the central feature of Remain In Light.
The album utilises afrobeat as an inspirational foundation, especially Fela Kuti’s 1973 release Afrodisiac, an album shown to Byrne by Eno. Songs were born out of jams of I Zimbra, the first track lifted from previous album Fear Of Music. And this writing process is a testament to the talent of each member of Talking Heads. The best parts of each jam were isolated and learnt to be played repeatedly. David Byrne likened the process to the band turning into “human samplers”, and the quality of Talking Heads as musicians is the skill at which they pull off this feat.
“Whilst the chord progression may stand still, the listener will find themselves doing quite the opposite.”
Grooves, melody, bass-lines and such are all squeezed out of one chord, with the album making excellent use of minimalism. This grounds the song. Instruments and ideas may float into the background; a splash of trumpet here, a melody line here. But we stay in the same place, while everything is happening around us. And whilst the chord progression may stand still, the listener will find themselves doing quite the opposite. Remain In Light begs to be danced to, especially in the first three tracks. This trio is a buffet of addictive grooves, stabbing bass-lines, and scratchy guitar, all coming together – to make something you cannot help but flail around to.
However, it is the input of producer Brian Eno that really elevates this album. So much so there was dispute as to whether Eno could be credited as a “fifth Head”. Eno’s production is gorgeously bubbly and electric, and so much of Remain In Light’s unique sounds can be credited to his involvement. Whilst he had a hand in previous records Fear Of Music and More Songs About Buildings And Food, its really Remain In Light where his and Byrne’s partnership yields the best results. Sounds that are forty years old still sound fresh and exotic, and it is thanks to Eno that this album manages to sound so timeless.
Lyrically, Remain In Light can be quite obtuse - Byrne’s style for this album was born out of his own writer’s block. Borrowing the prevalent ‘stream of conciousness’ style from afrobeat music, some songs can feel as though they evade meaning. Often, it is only the vocal delivery and tone of the song that clues the listener in on what Byrne is really trying to get communicate.
However, this isn’t the case entirely; Once In A Lifetime and Listening Wind contain much more clear cut messages. Once In A Lifetime, one of Talking Head’s most popular hits, delves into the banality of middle class existence, almost descending into a midlife crisis. The lyrics explore notion of floating through life; days so uneventful that you struggle to realise how exactly you have ended up where you are, or if where you are is where you want to even be. This monotony is compounded with Tina Weymouth’s jaunty, bouncing bass-line remaining constant throughout the song, challenging You Can Call Me Al for the funkiest song about a midlife crisis. Byrne’s sermon-like delivery almost seems to be tempting the listener to crave more than just a house a wife and a car, not to let the days go by, not to let the water hold you down.
Remain In Light celebrated its fortieth birthday this year, and it in that time there hasn’t really been an album quite like it. A storm of talent and creativity, bursting with life and animation which will always remain musically relevant.
Written by: Ben Buffery
Edited by: Louise Dugan