Remain in awe: Talking Heads and the birth of “world music”

While we are on the subject of anniversaries, it occurs to me that 2010 marks 30 years since the release of Talking Heads’ fourth studio album, the seminal Remain in Light. At the very end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, there was a burst of interest in polyrhythms, African and other international musical styles, sampling, looping and other techniques that suddenly breathed new life into what had been a completely moribund field in what can best be described as post-prog-rock that had been devastated by its own ludicrous excesses, the punk counterattack and, of course, disco. Rhythmic complexity suddenly presented itself as the new path to sophistication in rock music, as was illustrated by albums such as Peter Gabriel III, King Crimson’s gamelan-influenced Discipline and, above all, Remain in Light. The trend culminated with Gabriel’s 1982 release of the groundbreaking Music and Rhythm double LP, designed to raise money for the first Womad Festival, which alternated between contemporary Western rock music tracks and both traditional and pop music from the Third World. Music and Rhythm was, for example, the first time many of us heard the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. With Music and Rhythm, the die was cast and a number of rapid developments, especially Gabriel’s establishing of the Real World label for releasing album after album of international music for the Western market, in effect produced a new genre, or at least a new record store section, “world music.”

It’s not that rock musicians hadn’t flirted with non-Western musical forms or instruments before 1980, for instance the Beatles’ infatuation with Indian music or least instruments, or the Rolling Stones’ encounter with the Jajouka musicians of Morocco. But the focus on complex polyrhythms inspired by African music and Indonesian percussion required and invited an intensity of engagement that was genuinely new. Remain in Light was particularly influenced by the work of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian superstar whose music still represents the apotheosis of African pop or, as he plausibly called it, African classical music. His influence is everywhere on Remain in Light, and it’s only been confirmed by the inclusion in the 2006 re-release CD of four outtake tracks, the best of them called simply “Fela’s Riff” (and what a riff it is). The Fela-inspired polyrhythms and complex layering of rhythmic patterns combined with producer Brian Eno’s sampling and looping experiments to produce an entirely original and still awe-inspiring soundscape. The LP has held up exceptionally well over the past 30 years and still sounds in many ways original and certainly unique.

It opens inauspiciously with its least impressive track, although its weaknesses have become much more evident over time than they were when it’s sheer originality was more striking, and even shocking. Born under Punches ultimately doesn’t hang that well together as a song and, alone on the album, sounds somewhat forced. However, by the second track, Crosseyed and Painless, it becomes immediately obvious that we’re in the terrain of greatness. David Byrne had spent his career up to that point largely concentrating on extremely paranoid songs expressing serious fear about small furry animals, the government and even the air. The attempt to marry rhythmic frenzy with the barely contained hysteria of Byrne’s paranoid voice isn’t, as I say, entirely successful in Born under Punches. But in Crosseyed and Painless, a powerful and insistent rhythm drives forward as he starts reporting with deep alarm that he has “lost my shape” and is generally undergoing some kind of profound physical calamity. The perfection of the pairing is immediately obvious. The third track on side A of the LP, The Great Curve, I think ranks at the very highest order of rock music. The barely controlled frenzy of its rhythmic introduction, the suggestion of Fela-like horn-ish sounds, and vocals that weave in and out of triple and quadruple layering are a remarkable achievement. And, unlike Byrne’s usually paranoid lyrics, The Great Curve is an unexpectedly buoyant affirmation of some goddess, women generally, or perhaps the sheer power of sexuality. The whole track feels like an excess of abundance, a celebration, an exuberant shout, not from the heart, but from the pelvis.

Side B of the LP begins in a slightly different vein, with the legendary Once in a Lifetime, an irresistible blend of shimmering, base-heavy funk with Byrne declaiming from some imaginary pulpit about the kind of dissociative state of lost personal narrative in which individuals may suddenly realize they have no idea how, precisely, they came to be in the situations they have crafted for themselves. The fifth track is another of the LP’s greatest achievements, the hypnotic, shuffling Houses in Motion that features an extraordinary and very early performance from the Canadian electro-trumpet player Jon Hassell, justly celebrated for his collaborations with Brian Eno. As with so much else that was recorded between 1980-82, this was the first taste of something that would become very familiar shortly but which was, at the time, absolutely flabbergasting. The next track, Seen and Not Seen, seems almost like an addendum to Once in a Lifetime, with a similar shimmering, base-heavy funk track providing the background for Byrne’s ruminations on identity crisis, though spoken softly this time rather than declaimed. More than any other track, Seen and Not Seen set the stage for the equally groundbreaking 1981 Byrne-Eno collaboration LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which had an almost incalculable influence on the music scene, setting the stage for so much found-sound, sampling, and East-West funky fusion, and its traces can still be seen in numerous styles including the popular “Buddha Bar” CDs.

Special attention is warranted for the seventh track on the LP, The Listening Wind, which qualified at the time and even more now as one of the edgiest rock songs ever written in terms of subject matter. It tells the story of a young terrorist called Mojique who is involved in bombing attacks on American targets. Where, precisely, this is supposed to be set is unclear, but the song has a distinctly Middle Eastern feel and some Arabic instruments are plainly being deployed. The lyrics play on the themes of wind and dust as the inspirations and allies of Mojique, which is also certainly evocative of Middle Eastern landscapes. This was a dangerous subject matter at the time, and post-9/11, obviously, it can acquire a whole new significance. If Talking Heads ever performed it live, or otherwise tried to promote it other than including and leaving it on Remain in Light, I’m not aware of it. But, leave it to Peter Gabriel to have resurrected the song on his recently released CD, entirely of covers of other bands’ material, called Scratch My Back. His performance of The Listening Wind is soft, sensitive and heartfelt, as is the entire CD. There isn’t much in common between the two existing versions (excluding Phish’s forgettable re-recording of the entirety of Remain in Light), except an unexpected tenderness towards Mojique and his emotions that doesn’t necessarily convey any approval of his conduct but rather a willingness to refuse to dismiss his motives or his sentiments. The LP is wound down with the final track, The Overload, a ponderous, again bass-heavy dirge that almost might serve as a requiem for Mojique and/or his victims. Yet this track retains an incongruous, almost buoyant, and indeed almost euphoric quality that makes a careful engagement with Remain in Light an experience that is for want of a better word… trippy. It has a positively intoxicating quality from beginning to end.

Remain in Light is also noteworthy for having set the stage for what I think was undoubtedly one of the greatest live tours in rock history, the 1980-81 concerts performed around the world by Talking Heads as a 10-member expanded band, including a second, one might say lead, base by Busta “Cherry” Jones, percussion from the outstanding Steve Scales, additional keyboards by Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell, backing vocals by Dolette McDonald and Nona Hendrix (of all people), and absolutely superb lead guitar from Adrian Belew who was about to join the reborn King Crimson. In other words, even more than on Remain in Light, for the tour Talking Heads called on an astonishing array of talent to perform the intense, complex polyrhythms from the album and compatible earlier songs. The results, most extensively released on the live LP The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, are simply astonishing. If I ever had to be pressed on my favorite live album of all, this would have to be it. If anything, the live performances take the achievements in the studio and double down on them, increasing the complexity, the wildness, and the exuberance. To a very large extent, the tour was so artistically successful because it spun wildly out of the control of Talking Heads in general and even its canny leader David Byrne because the amount of talent on that stage was simply uncontainable.

For example, Houses in Motion, while it loses the subtlety of Jon Hassell’s delicate electronic trumpet, comes to life with an almost terrifying intensity. It never ceases to astonish. The Great Curve and Crosseyed and Painless similarly erupt with energy, as if the studio productions had been oddly contained. It’s like a jailbreak. A number of earlier songs from LPs antecedent to Remain in Light are similarly given extraordinary treatment including revelatory versions of Animals, I Zimbra, Drugs, and Life during Wartime.

A few weeks after acquiring the newly released live LP in the late spring of 1982, I returned to Beirut for a visit, with my prize in hand. It became the soundtrack of my life, especially songs like I Zimbra, Drugs, and Life during Wartime. In the manner of any good 19-year-old, I took them to be describing almost everything I’d ever experienced. At one point during the Israeli siege I was given five minutes to collect a small plastic grocery bag of belongings to take with me as I fled the country. I included a couple of changes of socks and underwear, large quantities of illicit and extremely Lebanese material, and one cassette, one side of which was exactly this. Even under those circumstances, I couldn’t leave home without it. The original LP was no doubt swept away with the rest of the rubble of the Jurdak Building. My experience of looking at the rest of the war from Nicosia didn’t lessen the intensity of the effect the songs on that cassette had on me. One day, I’m sure, I’ll write more about that in another context.

When I first moved to DC to work for ADC at the end of 1998, I packed light and brought no music with me at all. I distinctly remember lots of stuff turning around in my head, but what forced its way to the forefront of my consciousness walking back and forth to work day after day were these live performances, mainly the songs from Remain in Light, but also some of the others. The extremely complex, dense rhythmic patterns have stuck in a way very little else has, and have aged better than most. Remain in Light has to be seen as the single most important achievement for Talking Heads, but the live album ultimately is more memorable and more satisfying in my view.

It’s instructive to compare The Name of This Band is Talking Heads with the brilliant Jonathan Demme film and the CD of Talking Heads’ subsequent 1983 tour, Stop Making Sense. Many of the songs are the same, but the sound is radically different. The glorious mess of 1980-1981 was contained in 1983, and the original band members reasserted their control. The elements that had most strongly overshadowed the original members — Busta Jones’ lead base, Adrian Belew’s lead guitar and the soaring vocals of McDonald and Hendrix — were all gone, and the entire sound streamlined in good 80s style rather than wild and uncontrolled as it had been two years earlier. These concerts, which I saw several times in person, were much more visual affairs, and we know this because, along with the 1984 Demme film, there are at least two high quality videos extant of the 1980-81 tour, one from Germany and one from Italy. Do yourself a favor and watch some of this. It’s all on YouTube, as are many clips from Stop Making Sense. The contrast is extremely instructive. The Stop Making Sense tour was extremely impressive, and it was extremely theatrical, in a clever way, but also in a way that was antithetical to the original ethos of Talking Heads who wanted to present themselves as a band made up of totally ordinary people dressed in a totally ordinary way doing things to which the audience would say, “I can do that.” No one can possibly look at Stop Making Sense and have that reaction. But it lacks the shear, awesome power of the out-of-control 1980-81 performances, and deliberately so.

I don’t think it’s unfair at all to say that the changes were an effort by the original band members to regain control over their own show and their own sound. All four expressed extreme preference for Stop Making Sense over the 1980-81 tour and The Name of This Band. I can certainly see why. If one wanted to maintain the extraordinary feel and tone of the 1980-81 sound and yet cull the herd, the first to go would be two if not three of the actual Talking Heads, Byrne excluded, but even his role was being often overshadowed, particularly by Belew’s pyrotechnics. Don’t get me wrong — there is much to be said for Stop Making Sense, and certain songs from the older era really benefit from the streamlined arrangements and contained performances. Once in a Lifetime is a real highlight from 1983 and didn’t really work at all during the 1980-81 tour, because it requires a more disciplined sound to convey its scolding, pressure-cooker effects.

Found a Job from Stop Making Sense, even though it was recorded in late 1983 and released in 1984, is probably the apotheosis of the angular, rhythmic, slightly hysterical pop of the late 1970s of which Talking Heads were the most important practitioners. The performance of the song in the film is flawless and its conclusion never ceases to move. It’s significant that the high point of the film,which begins with Byrne alone and adds to the band bit by bit, is this moment when all four of the original Talking Heads are on stage together for the first time, and right before the addition of any newer, and indeed blacker, band members. That would never have happened in 1980 when Talking Heads were at the forefront of experiments that soon resulted in the new genre of “world music.”