"It' s about identity, about not having a clear sense of identity, and being cool with that instead of necessarily being alienated and feeling bad about that, turning that into something positive -- if I don't know who I am, then I can be anybody."
Remain In Light arrived in the final year of the 1970s, the decade of groove, and made a noble attempt at uniting the cooly detached New Wave (i.e. white) audience with the folks who'd pleged allegience to this thing called rap*; the stepchild of funk and soul. The success of that endeavor, intentional or not, is secondary to the indisputability of the album's status as a masterpiece in the most literal sense.
David Byrne and Brian Eno had collaborated before to explore their interest in African rhythm patterns and minimalist grooving; Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, and Found A Job from the album More Songs About Buildings and Food along with I Zimbra, Cities and Life During Wartime from Fear of Music all are prescient of Remain In Light. The greatest portion of ground, however, was broken when Eno and Byrne were holed up in their desert lair concocting My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from found sounds and arcane basslines. The album would not be released until a year after Remain In Light, but the Eno/Byrne co-writing team cemented itself well enough that RIL was originally slated to be billed as Byrne/Eno record with Talking Heads. This minor detail did not sit well with the rest of the band. Ultimately, credit for songwriting was given to David Byrne, Brian Eno and Talking Heads. This clash of egos and/or relative weight of creative input was at least partially responsible for the three year hiatus between Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues, and presaged the ultimate collapse of the band entirely.
The band itself was no longer a four-person affair as far as recording was concerned, either. Adrian Belew, known primarily for his work with King Crimson (and subsequently this album), was brought on to add his signature guitar drones and weirdness. Vocalist Nona Hendryx, who collaborated with Patti Labelle to lend voice to Lady Marmalade, contributed primarily to The Great Curve in which she sings five different interlocking vocal lines and was mostly allowed to improvise her parts around a basic structure. Jerry Harrison would go on to produce Nona's next album. Mr. Simply Irresistable himself, Robert Palmer helped out on percussion; why, how and the significance of this elude me for the moment. Fourth World experimental hornist Jon Hassell arranged the Motown-esque, stabbing horn parts for Houses In Motion. And while not a band member, and not yet necessarily famous, Dave Jerden engineered the recording session; he would go on to produce Nothing's Shocking and Ritual de lo Habitual with Perry Farrell for Jane's Addiction. Pull that out the next time you have to play Six Degrees of the Recording Industry.
With such primacy of groove over melody, prevalence of collage-like arrangement, lack of solos, oblique lyrics, intraband strife, and heavy participation from outsiders, perhaps the cover art becomes appropo; the Talking Heads' faces are made nearly unrecognizeable by mass superimposition of tiny red crosshairs.
Side One (this album was sequenced for vinyl, folks)
1. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) 5:46 - The opening track starts decisively with a "ha!" from Mr. Byrne, and we're off. Sub-linguistic hoots and hollers near the top are echoed by a burbling cascade of electronic noise further along, perhaps suggestive of humanity's musical evolution. "The heat goes on" is easily heard as "the beat goes on", and perhaps that's just as correct. There's a sense of disorientation, as the bassline is so sparse as to be almost random. Perhaps this is meant to underscore the lyrical themes of a guilty man (an assassin?) declaring his identity. "Take a look at these hands." "All I want is to breathe. Won't you breathe with me?" "Don't you miss it, don't you miss it, some of you people just about missed it." "I'm a tumbler. I'm a government man." "Fallen bodies tumble across the floor".
2. Crosseyed and Painless 4:45 - The track that probably would have been the single, were there 50% fewer strange droning sounds and less dissonance. The tempo and groove are hard-driving and thoroughly danceable, and this song's potential for moving people is evident in the concert film Stop Making Sense, which it closes. This song is one, solid continuous groove riff from beginning to end, with what passes for a guitar solo being diagonal, sliding washes of sound. Doubt, uncertainty, mutability ("Lost my shape", "I'm changing my shape") the mistrust of supposedly "objective" information are the themes here. "Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late. Facts all come with points of view, facts don't do what I want them to."
3. The Great Curve 6:26 - Not a song to be comfortable to. There is a musical doctrine known as tension and release, in which you keep an audience in suspense by never resolving a chord; this track flirts around a central tonality and only briefly touches upon it. The groove races along at a tempo just a touch too fast for comfort's sake. Guitars whipsaw around with grinding divebombs. But the release does come, when the central character of the song is exalted with the glorious line "world of light, she's gonna open our eyes up!". "She" being, possibly, that person who pulls you from your obsessive, dark thoughts of a confusing and dangerous world to show you the beauty. That beauty here, though, is just a peak jutting from the prevailing sea of dread.
1. Once In A Lifetime 4:19 - You all know this one. The "poppiest" track on the album, and the surprisingly unsuccessful (at the time) single. A nifty music video and a spot on the Down and Out in Beverly Hills soundtrack eventually brought the public around, and it experienced a second popularity resurgence as a live track from Stop Making Sense. Once In A Lifetime almost feels out of place on this record, as it's the only track with anything resembling a bright, major key feel (Crosseyed and Painless being a close second, but not quite making it). There's also a more traditional verse/chorus structure. A song about life passing you by, life racing ahead of your attention ("and you may find yourself...") and finding solace from implacable, racing change in the seemingly constant ("there is water at the bottom of the ocean"). "Same as it ever was." Regret, again. "My God, what have I done?" Finally, acceptance. "Time isn't holding us, time isn't after us. Here comes the twister."
2. Houses in Motion 4:30 - "Dark funk", if you will. Downbeat is on the one, which makes your butt wanna move, but the hypnotic, bleak alternation between two notes one half step apart just won't let you. And then, about half way through comes what sounds like an extra-dimensional muezzin solo. The lyrics suggest alienation and only being half-present for life.
3. Seen and Not Seen 3:20 - A spoken word piece about the nature of identity in an image-obsessed culture. Is your identity and your behavior tied to your appearance? Can you change your nature by altering how you look? Does obsession with an "ideal" image mutate you, physically and psychologically, on a fundamental level? The character described in the song begins the quest of ideal appearance with zeal, but, by then end, worries that it may have all been a mistake. The music features constant handclapping, and rides a drifting line between hope and despair; extreme emotions expressed with subtlety, and an interesting counterpoint to Byrne's deadpan delivery of the lyrics.
4. Listening Wind 4:42 - The most overtly "African" song on the record, and the story of an indigenous person's struggle against Western imperialism. This is the only time politics makes an overt appearance on Remain In Light. "The wind in my heart, the dust in my hair, will drive them away." Ancient traditions versus the modern technologies of dominance. Instrumentation is reminiscent of bird calls and the eerie cries of imagined jungle animals.
5. The Overload 6:00 - Dreadful, literally. An unorthodox way to end an album; a crawling, ambient drone punctuated with rimshots and what might be distant helicopters. "The center is missing". A song about decay and dissolution, transmissions lost, futility and entropy. A song for a dark room and a dying candle.
A Change In The Weather
Remain In Light is an album about change; about (as the cliché goes) "where we are and where we're going", culturally and musically. In 1980 the musical collision between the electronic and the human was still only half a decade old, but Talking Heads saw in that not only an opportunity to dance, but a metaphor for the future of the species. And as the music suggests, the future will be both dangerous and wonderful. But isn't it always?
Same as it ever was.
Guitars: Adrian Belew, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne.
Basses: Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Brian Eno.
Keyboards: Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison.
Drum Kit: Chris Frantz.
Percussion: Jose Rossy, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, Robert Palmer (appears courtesy of Island Records).
Voices: David Byrne, Brian Eno, Nona Hendryx.
Trumpets and Horn Arrangements (Houses in Motion): Jon Hassell.
All songs written by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Talking Heads.
Words: David Byrne, except David Byrne and Brian Eno on Crosseyed and Painless, Born under Punches (The Heat Goes On).
All arrangements by the musicians except vocal arrangements by David Byrne and Brian Eno.
Engineered by Dave Jerden.
Additional Engineering: Rhett Davis, Jack Nuber, John Potoker, Stephen Stanley.
Assisted by Kendall Stubbs.
Basic tracks recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, The Bahamas.
Vocals and additional tracks recorded at Sigma Sound, New York City.
Mixed by Brian Eno, David Byrne, David Jerden, John Potoker at Sigma Sound, New York City and El Dorado Studios, Los Angeles.
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound.
Produced by Brian Eno.
Management: Gary Kurfirst 1775 Broadway, New York 10019.
Live Sound: Frank Gallagher.
Computer Images: HCL, JPT, DDD, Walter GP, Paul, C/T.
Graphic Design: M&Co. New York
SRK 6095 ©1980 Sire Records Company. Printed in USA
* 1980 was also the year Kurtis Blow released The Breaks.
Sources: Remain In Light, the album (primarily on vinyl), http://www.jahsonic.com/TalkingHeads.html, http://www.berkshireweb.com/rogovoy/interviews/feat010427.html (Vernon Reid quote), http://www.talking-heads.net/remain.html, http://www.bobcooksey.com/nh/freelance.htm