TALKING HEADS, Remain in Light (Sire, 1980)
CORE BAND: David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz
INSTRUMENTATION: LEAD VOCALS by David Byrne; GUITARS by Jerry Harrison, David Byrne and Adrian Belew; BASSES by Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, and Brian Eno; KEYBOARDS by Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Jerry Harrison; DRUM KIT by Chris Frantz; PERCUSSION by Jose Rossy, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, and Robert Palmer; ADDITIONAL VOICES by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Nona Hendryx; TRUMPETS AND HORN ARRANGEMENTS by Jon Hassell
- Born Under Punches
- Crosseyed and Painless
- The Great Curve
- Once in a Lifetime
- Houses in Motion
- Seen and Not Seen
- Listening Wind
- The Overload
Every now and then, I get a hankering for an artist or band from years past, and that band’s music is all I want to hear for the next several days. It usually happens with R.E.M., Yes, Radiohead, and Peter Gabriel. And it really kicks in when I get the urge to hear Talking Heads.
Like many other bands in my world, I cannot say exactly when Talking Heads came into my musical orbit. To my mind, they’ve always been there. I suppose they may have gotten their hooks into me via MTV in the early 80’s, when the maverick cable channel actually played music videos. It seems impossible to believe that nearly two entire generations of music fans have no concept of this. But it’s true: MTV meant “MUSIC television,” and the Talking Heads played a key role in the rotation.
Naturally, this O.C.D. band period leads me to certain albums within the band’s catalog. I’ve always enjoyed Fear of Music, I Zimbra, Speaking in Tongues, and More Songs About Buildings and Food. And I think Stop Making Sense is one of my favorite live albums of all time. But if I’m playing Talking Heads, it is all but guaranteed that Remain in Light will be getting considerable airplay.
There can be no doubting the immense popularity of Remain in Light, which was originally released in 1980 (a year before MTV came on the air, leaving plenty of time to create videos). And since radio was my guide to just about everything music at the time, this no doubt had an effect on me. But what made this album stick in the forefront of my mind was its sheer musical brilliance. Never has an album with such a relatively simple initial concept created so many delightful ear worms, worthy of multiple plays that never get old!
After bursting onto the college radio scene in the late 70’s, Talking Heads made a steady rise into the musical mainstream. What I didn’t know until many years later was that the band was on the verge of falling apart before Remain in Light was ready to be recorded. Apparently, lead vocalist David Byrne had become a bit “much” for bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, who had become more interested in making their own record with their own band, since Talking Heads were being viewed as Bryne and his three supporting players. (They did shortly after, with TomTom Club, whose “Genius of Love” not only became a hit in its own right, but served as the basis for a Mariah Carey mega-hit called “Fantasy.”) Even producer Brian Eno was growing weary of the band and its drama. But they managed to pull it together long enough to make their way Compass Point Studios in Nassau, The Bahamas.
Once there, Eno suggested an interesting approach. Rather than stick with the “art rock” approach that had gotten the band to this point, Talking Heads drew on influence of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, whose use of funk and polyrhythms led the band to create a series of single-chord jams Byrne could groove with and write almost rap-oriented lyrics to.
In addition to layers of additional percussion that gave the music more of a “world” feel, the band also brought in session aces in vocalist Nona Hendryx, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and guitarist Adrian Belew. (Note: my well-known love of Adrian Belew — long declared my musical idol — had nothing to do with my love for this album. In fact, I didn’t even know who he was! I wouldn’t become truly conscious of Adrian until 1985, three or four years after I heard Remain in Light for the first time.) The grooves they created as a unit were nothing short of a revelation.
As much as I appreciated the sound and songs on Remain in Light, I didn’t fully realize its true genius until I started playing guitar myself. Eager to improve my rhythm playing — and knowing I wouldn’t have to concern myself with a bunch of chord changes and tricky time signatures — I decided to use this album to tighten up my chops. It was one of my better musical decisions. From the opening strains of “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” I found immense joy in replicating the chugging/two-note repeating guitar lick, allowing the band to do what it did around me. In time, I even got brave enough to try to sing the chorus while I played. What can I say? It was fun!
Speaking of which, my personal favorite moment is the album’s second track, “Crosseyed and Painless.” I have dared people to try and sit still while this song plays. I have yet to hear anyone tell me they can do it! I’ve never been one for any kind of dance music, but all that goes right out the window when this song is playing. Of course, I have to come up with those steps while playing my guitar, but the effort is well worth it. It mostly amounted to just jumping up and down anyway. The live version of this song (which I’ll address shortly) took the fun to the next level, since Talking Heads decided to add a couple more members to their live band, most notably Parliament/Funkadelic keyboard master Bernie Worrell.
I was in rhythm guitar heaven. But the band was just getting warmed up.
“The Great Curve” keeps the party going, and features Belew’s first really “out” guitar solo, with his lead slashing right through the groove being held by the rest of the band. It is one of many examples of the “organized chaos” Belew can bring to a song, where something seemingly atonal on the surface actually makes perfect sense.
What can I say about the album’s hit, “Once in a Lifetime,” that hasn’t been said a million times? It’s a delightfully quirky song, with lyrics that have been repeated in and out of context God-knows how many times. How many of us have pretended to chop at our arms with the opposite hand while repeating “Same as it ever was” over and over? Or asked where we could find our beautiful house? It’s a timeless single that isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Side Two is a bit more esoteric, finding the band really focusing on the grooves they’ve created. “Houses in Motion” features a killer “call and response” chorus that represents one of my favorite David Byrne vocal moments. The song is a bit slower, but still remarkably funky. It allowed me to do a few steps while my right hand remained in the rhythm’s pocket. I really didn’t need to do anything else. After all, I can’t top the solo already featured. “Seen and Not Seen” sounds like a continuation of the same thought, this time driven forward by the bass and keyboards. Byrne’s spoken word vocal adds just the right touch.
With what sounds like an African slit drum (thank you, Bill Bruford) leading the way, “Listening Wind” is a wonderful bit of world fusion colliding with just a bit of avant-garde guitar. The bass line bounces nicely, leaving amateur guitarists like me a little room to play elongated notes near the top of the register. Belew makes sounds reminiscent of the “seagull” sounds he would perfect with King Crimson on “Matte Kudasai” just a year later. “The Overload,” the album’s finale, is aptly named. Sound seems to come from everywhere, starting quietly and gradually gaining volume and intensity, while a seemingly melancholy Byrne sings right over the top. I found myself accidentally standing too close to my amplifier while this song played. My guitar’s pickups began to feed back in the most interesting way. Rather than step away from the noise, I turned the volume down just a bit, grabbed my Stratocaster’s tremolo arm (aka the “whammy bar”), and proceeded to bend the feedback’s sound to my will. It was gorgeous! Had I been in the studio, I like to think Eno would have looked at me and said, “That’s fantastic! Let’s give him a track on the record!”
At a scant (by modern standards) 39 minutes, Remain in Light seems to end as quickly as it started. But what a brilliant 39 minutes it is. The key is its relative simplicity. The band is doing a ton more with what seems like much less. Therein lies the key to its timeless quality. This does not sound like a 40 year old record!
And as amazing as this album is, things seem to go to the next level with The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, the live album that focuses on both the band’s ’77-’79 efforts (disc one), and the ’80-’81 incarnation (disc two). While the LP is great, true fans should seek out the CD version, which expands the playlists for both eras. A big key to the latter disc is Belew, who was relatively reserved in the studio but absolutely loses his mind onstage. It’s like he was let off a musical leash, with the band looking at him and saying, “Go for it!” He did. And he got there.
Remain in Light is an album of timeless quality and bountiful groove. It is the ultimate object lesson for bands who feel complexity is the key to creative genius. Sometimes, it’s better to keep things simple, let the music groove, and allow everything else to take care of itself. This album is one of the cases in point. In a nutshell, it is perfect.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I hear my guitar calling me.
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