Talking Heads were at the core of New York’s underground punk scene in the mid to late 1970s. The hive of their activity was the legendary Punk venue, CBGB, playing alongside their fellow Punk Rock alumni: Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television and Blondie. But by the end of the ’70s, punk rock had run its course.
By 1980, Talking Heads had established themselves to mostly positive acclaim and with a growing collection of popular songs: ‘Psycho Killer’ and their cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’ were received well by mainstream audiences. Behind their success, at the heart of the band, were three guiding components: the tight rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz; their enigmatic frontman, David Byrne, whose Dada lyrics and subversive vocal style, resembled provocative performance art; and the band’s willingness to embrace different genres such as funk and disco. Talking Heads were taking interest in the work of mainstream artists at the time. This initiative opened gateways to popular audiences, while still pursuing creative and ground-breaking ideas that were ahead of their time.
On Talking Heads’ fourth album, Remain in Light, with the visionary producer Brian Eno at the helm, the band took their music to new and uncharted territories previously inaccessible to the genre. The profound impact of this album took the band’s image to a whole new level, affirming Talking Heads as true innovators in the canon of popular music.
Sound in Motion
The objective of Remain in Light was to push boundaries and create something danceable yet abstract and intriguing; with Eno as producer this potential was realised. The band first worked with Eno during 1979’s Fear of Music, carving out a new space for sound to materialise, particularly on the track ‘I Zimbra’ that explores Afrobeat, pioneered by Fela Kuti in Nigeria. Talking Heads took this experimentation further into Remain in Light using new percussion, synths, loops and fragments of noise into better and substantial compositions. It was as if they had a machine scrambling each element of the album.
The opening track ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes on)’ cranks up a fiery beat that orbits around weird animalistic sounds, with scattering guitar riffs creating a space-aged atmosphere to the song. The rhythm section, inspired by Afrobeat and Reggae, adds an excitement that’s looping itself around layers of sound and making it danceable. The song exposes the perplexing vocal-style of David Byrne very well. Byrne’s style is anti-vocal and eccentric — anti-vocal here meaning he rejects singing verses for manically preaching. The only conventional vocalisations come in the backing chorus: ‘All I want is to breathe / Won’t you breathe with me?’ This aspect of ‘anti vocalness’ remains strong through the album.
The beat goes on into the next two songs, ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ and ‘The Great Curve’. which keep up the exciting tempo and engage in more layered instrumentals. The structure of ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ loops around a bed of sounds, from bottles to cowbells, to blips of far-out noises. ‘The Great Curve’ concludes this fiery chapter of Remain in Light. The loop of congas, speedy backing vocals and the addition of horns come together to ceremoniously capture the spirit of the new sounds the band were experimenting with.
Turning the Great Curve
If ‘Born Under Punches’ is the fire of Remain in Light then ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is the water. It shows a turn in the course of the album, evolving into something fluid and transient. The song’s fluidity is fused by Jerry Harrison’s synthesizer, Tina Weymouth’s bassline and Frantz’s rippling drumbeat, taking the plunge each time he hits the tom-tom.
‘Once in a Lifetime’ is by far Talking Heads’ most popular song, propelling them to mainstream success and accompanied by a surreal music video that became iconic of the early M.T.V years. It features Byrne, bespectacled, dressed in a bow-tie and suit resembling an evangelist preacher and set against a series of erratic spasms. The video to ‘Once in a Lifetime’ reaffirms Byrne’s performing art quality with him taking on a theatrical persona, a choreographic method of presenting the song. The religious preaching is in full flow with Byrne forcing us to focus on our own existence in time, all the while floating on the surface with the other elements in the song as if being baptized. This feeds the second verse:
‘Water dissolving / And water removed / There is water at the bottom of the ocean / Under the water / Carry the water / Remove the water’
Byrne’s vocal style continues to be contemplative, while still rejecting the typical conventions of a lead singer. On ‘Houses in Motion’ his stream of consciousness narrative style becomes the focal point of this part of the album. When Byrne sings ‘For a long time I felt / without style or grace / wearing shoes with no socks in cold weather,’ he verges on philosophical monologue sooner than pop song. It is something only Byrne could get away with.
Same As It Ever Was?
Remain in Light has had profound implications for the band and for popular music. The album’s creative elements, their abstract ideas and sound experiments showed how diverse the band had become. But this was bound to mean the members would head in different directions; Byrne would later collaborate with Eno on his solo project album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts while Weymouth and Frantz formed Tom Tom Club producing the hit ‘Genius of Love’, which arguably gave birth to hip-hop. Stylistically, the album helped create the brand of Art-Rock, a genre that aims to build abstractly on the roots of alternative music. It developed possibilities well advanced for technology of the time, creating something innovative and long-lasting. Remain In Light took music to the future and beyond.
Words by Lewis Oxley
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