The music industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s was something of a hostile beast. Disco fever was dying but the bitter hatred many felt towards it wasn’t dead yet. Punk had reared its loud, anti-establishment head and the socially conscious folk-rock of the previous decade was all but a memory. In this time before hip-hop, before rap, and definitely before their mutant love-child rap-rock, “black people’s music” and “white people’s music” were set apart at a level hard to imagine today.
The Ramones entertained the suburban white pseudo-punks while soul music and Motown attempted to escape from the banality of Jackson 5 schmaltz to inspire the future rappers of the Eighties. Few bands were as avant-garde as the Talking Heads in their willful cross-genre, mutli-national musical exploration. And few albums represent this experiment as well as 1980’s “Remain in Light.” African rhythms meet synthesized chords and eccentric lyrics meet instrumental wackiness. This emblematic moment in the career of the Talking Heads is an album to be celebrated today.
David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison comprised the Talking Heads for over fifteen years of New Wave pioneering. They led the charge of New York artistes ready to push the limits of a rock quartet arrangement. Formed in a one-room loft on the Lower East Side in 1975, three former art students and a Cantab (Harrison, who joined in 1976) began producing quirky, almost irreverent music like “Love-à Building on Fire” and “Psycho Killer,” two of their early singles. The Lower East Side during the mid-seventies was experiencing a creative boom in music and art that often translated into edgy, earnest poeticism in live shows at such legendary hotspots as CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. The Talking Heads, while opening for such acts at the same venues, were more emotionally distant. Intellectual by definition (their name comes from the term for TV commentators’ BS, essentially), but far from pretentious, their songs were a gentler form of social observation that the Sid Vicious wail.
Towards the end of the decade, Byrne, the frontman and principle song-writer, began collaborating with producer Brian Eno and dabbling with his own interest in world music. What resulted eventually was “Fear of Music” featuring the track “I Zimbra.” The tune utilized African rhythms and a nonsensical faux-tribal chant marking the first Byrne/Eno trek into “world beat” territory. Their next studio project would continue in this vein.
“Remain in Light” is the critical darling of the Talking Heads’ repertoire. It is considered the most important and influential of their albums and the best studio recording of their career. Songs are built on grooves, not beats or rhythms and the album functions as a work in full, not merely a collection of songs. The lyrics are as bizarre as any other Talking Heads project (“He would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books….He thought that some of these faces might be right for him….And through the years, by keying an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind….Or somewhere in the back of his mind….That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal….” from “Seen and Not Seen”). Harmonic devices from wah-wah pedals to trumpet mouthpieces and a host of special guests like Beninese keyboardist Wally Baradou, the record displays the band at its peak in creative energy at a time when they were the only ones “out there” enough to get away with it. Eno, an accomplished solo artist and ambient music composer himself, became in essence, the fifth band member, getting song-writing credits with Byrne and the band for the whole of the album. The scope influence of the Talking Heads on more modern artists may be tough to pin because no one sounds quite like them even now. Try listening to the guitar on “Cities” and then U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” for a taste.
The historical importance of “Remain in Light” aside, it’s just a kick-ass album. Who doesn’t know the weird arm dance to “Once in a Lifetime?” Even if your Dad isn’t a former New Wave rocker of some notable San Francisco Bay Area success and you didn’t get to interview Jerry Harrison for your ninth grade research paper on the “NYC Lower East Side Music Scene of the 70s and 80s,” you still have to appreciate the “punk meets funk” quality of the record. At a time before the touchy-feely cover/duet of Sting (read — preppy white British guy) by Puff Daddy (er, P-Diddy, Diddy, whatever, he’s not Sting), the Talking Heads made “African” music by upper-crust white artsy types OK. And they made it rock.