PRINT March 2003


1980: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light

IN THE WINTER OF 1980 Brian Eno went on radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California, and prophesied. He foresaw the advent of “fourth-world music,” he said, music not exactly here (Anglo-American rock) or there (tribal, folkloric, traditional). What he envisioned was an “almost collage music, like grafting a piece of one culture onto a piece of another . . . and trying to make them work as a coherent musical idea, and also trying to make something you can dance to.” Eno had left London two years before. He was living in Lower Manhattan and spending many of his working hours with David Byrne, the leader of Talking Heads, an art-rock band that thought it was a funk band, or vice versa. Eno had produced the Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), and their third, Fear of Music (1979), and was in the midst of recording an album with Byrne alone, an album of experimental pieces that layered dense, percussive grooves by Eno, Byrne, and eleven other musicians atop snippets of “found” voices—from a recording by a Lebanese mountain singer, say, or that of an Egyptian pop diva. The album would be released in 1981 as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a title borrowed from a novel by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola about a young man who wanders beyond the bounds of his village into the topographical and existential unknown. But Eno and Byrne did not go quite that far with Bush of Ghosts: This was “experimental” music that was meant to be appreciated, and was—at least within the bounds of SoHo. It had the flavor and contours of Otherness, but there was little here to dance to. Eno didn’t make records to dance to. Talking Heads did.

While making Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and the three other members of Talking Heads, along with Eno (by then a kind of fifth Head), recorded and released Remain in Light (Sire Records, 1980), an album that was the first to actually deliver on Eno’s prophecy. It is an album that also happens to be prophetic in its own right, anticipating not only the way popular music is made now and sounds now, or the more adventurous of it anyway (think of Moby’s Play or Radiohead’s Kid A), but also the way we live now—at some frontier where here and there are at once terribly conspicuous and disquietingly elusive.

Talking Heads gathered to record the album in the Bahamas in the spring of 1980. It had been decided that the band would build songs the way “I Zimbra,” the opening song on Fear of Music, had been built: from jamming together. These instrumental jams were harmonically minimal, but there was nothing simple about the music being made. The complexity, and the captivating freshness crucial to popular music, was all in the layered rhythms and timbral values: not song but sound. The band would work and rework riffs until exhausting them, recording them on long stretches of tape. Development, variation, resolution: These all came later, when Byrne and Eno took the many instrumental tracks for a given song and mixed them—essentially by turning this one on and that one off endlessly, ingeniously. Paradoxically, the wonders of the modern recording studio allowed for the making of a kind—a new kind—of communal, near-tribal music. Welcome to the fourth world.

The lyrics Byrne wrote once the music was done reinforce the music’s sense of existing along some once carefully demarcated but now permeable and restless border region. He was reading John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythm and African Sensibility; he was listening to radio preachers and a new vocal style out of the South Bronx called rap; he was also, he told me recently, trying to get beyond the strictly psychological, the self-conscious Self, into the mythic and magical (much as fourth-world chroniclers like Salman Rushdie were beginning to do). Byrne, you might say, was feeling a kind of protoglobalist urge: “And you may find yourself in another part of the world . . . And you may ask yourself—Well . . . how did I get here?” he talk-sings on “Once in a Lifetime.” Along the frontier between here and there, identity would be problematized (“I’m changing my shape—I feel like an accident,” the narrator declares in “Crosseyed and Painless”), and border crossings would be contested, as he darkly foresaw in the lyrics to “Listening Wind”: “Mojique buys equipment in the marketplace / Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone.”

With Remain in Light, Talking Heads wandered far, far from anybody’s idea of downtown, toward a future we are only beginning to understand we have arrived at, one thick with unimagined complication and, it must be hoped, possibility.

Gerald Marzorati is editorial director of the New York Times Magazine.