Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Remain In Light’ by Talking Heads.
It was a violent time in music when Talking Heads dropped ‘Remain in Light’ in October of 1980. The Sex Pistols and The Ramones had just about killed rock music as we knew it and disco had arrived to fill the void. It was a war between the establishment – which had co-opted pop music and made it aggressively masculine – and the underground, represented by the music that had started in black and gay clubs and had started to penetrate the mainstream. Shock-jock Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition Night in 1979, in which he took over Chicago’s Comiskey Park for the purpose of blowing up disco records, epitomised the absurd authoritarianism with which the old guard greeted the changing trend in popular music, as they slipped into irrelevancy.
Steve Dahl and the anti-Disco brigade were afraid of where music was going, and so too was David Byrne. But as with all fears, there are two ways to face them; either deny the reality of the situation and attempt to resist the coming storm, or unbatten the hatches and let it take you away. As CBGB alumni, Talking Heads had both the mainstream rock and the underground funk in their veins, but the consolidation of these two variant ideals – one prizing intellectualism and showboating, the other simplicity and repetitiveness – would need some sort of outside influences to pull off.
The band-members themselves were not on the best of terms when it came time to produce this new album. The whole purpose behind ‘Remain in Light’ was to change the perception that Talking Heads was merely a front-man with a backing band and so much of the album was composed collaboratively, taking the band’s song I Zimbra as a starting point. However the final release of the album featuring the writing credits as “David Byrne, Brian Eno, Talking Heads’ didn’t help the situation. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz would go on to form The Tom Tom Club in the following months.
Brian Eno was the obvious choice for the producer’s role, having produced Talking Heads previous two albums ‘More Songs About Buildings & Food’ and ‘Fear of Music’. Here, however, Eno’s influence is more prominent, showing a direct link with his earlier work on David Bowie’s ‘Low’, particularly the kind of electronic sounds that appear on both What In The World and this album’s Born Under Punches, the kind of sounds we’d now associate with 16-bit video games.
To what extent Eno’s influence was strictly textural isn’t widely known, but Byrne clearly found in Eno a means of forging his variant musical ideas into something coherent. Besides the battle that was occurring on the pop charts, Byrne also had his ear tuned in to what was still underground. Nigeria’s afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti had already released his sprawling four-track ‘Zombie’, featuring the kind of musically thematic explorations Byrne would experiment with on ‘Remain in Light’. Kuti’s earlier ‘Afrodisiac’ played a huge role in influencing the sound Talking Heads were pursuing here.
It was Kuti’s polyrhythmic drums however that really captured Byrne’s imagination, using percussion to add extra dimensions to a straightforward rhythm. This African influence is clear on The Great Curve, with the hectic percussion smearing itself across the steady rock drumbeat while chanting voices pop up to add further dimensions to the recording. One thing Eno’s production is notably responsible for is giving all these disparate percussive, vocal and electronic sounds a beautiful depth that keeps the looping nature of the backbeats from ever feeling repetitive or flat.
This actually turns out to be one of the great innovations of ‘Remain in Light’; the fact that of the album’s eight tracks, not one of them features a chord or a tempo change. The bassline forms the base of each song from which the instruments and vocals launch themselves. The music here isn’t granted the lazy outs of all other forms of popular music up to this point. How boring does an eight bar verse followed by a four bar chorus suddenly become when compared with the seemingly formless variations Talking Heads discover when using one simple melodic theme as their starting point?
These restrictions throw up fascinating possibilities. Whenever a change in volume arrives in a song, it is due to the addition of a guitar or a vocal, as the percussion and basslines are unchanging. Once in a Lifetime even gives the impression of chord-changes in its use of guitar, particularly towards the end when Byrne sings “same as it ever was”. But that bassline beats away inflexibly beneath the sound of the guitar. Midway through Crosseyed and Painless we hear a guitar’s instrumental break, while on Seen and Not Seen the electronic sounds are given a prominent outing.
But the most fascinating exploration on ‘Remain in Light’ is that of the vocals. From the mix of African chanting and spoken word on Seen and Not Seen to the preacher-influenced “take a look at these hands” on Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) the experimentation with alternate ways of using the voice is completely unique in popular music. The influence of Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks is obvious, and indeed the arrival of rap music in the late ’70s was something the band simply had to incorporate into their sound. Indeed the Blow influence probably points more directly to the influence of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz to ‘Remain in Light’, as the link between The Breaks and The Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love is even more pronounced than is the former song’s connection to Born Under Punches, say.
The thing that is not adequately acknowledged about this album is that it is probably the most seminal album for some of the best acts to emerge in the past few years. Its use of African music is all over Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’, LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends is one long single piano chord played over and over in the style of this album, Vampire Weekend’s ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ mixes electronic-rock with African polyrhythms, St. Vincent (even before ‘Love This Giant’) has consistently shown interest in producing textured electronic rhythms rather than singing traditional verse-chorus rock music and her current stage set-up is very similar to ‘Stop Making Sense’-era Talking Heads.
It isn’t any great surprise that this is so. What Dylan did for folk music – gorging himself on it then spitting it back out all new and shiny – Talking Heads did for popular music in 1980. The band’s thirst for new sounds was so comprehensive that it even extended beyond what they had actually heard themselves, as is seen in the album closer The Overload. Supposedly they wrote the song to descriptions in the music press of what Joy Division’s music sounded like and indeed, “primal, moaning, dourly-paced” that song certainly is. In 2014, like in 1980, it feels as if all of music has already been explored. For that reason Talking Heads’ success in landing on a new individual sound with ‘Remain in Light’ is an inspiration to artists of any kind.