Talking Head’s album ‘Remain In Light’ at 40, the alternative to everything
When Talking Heads burst onto the music scene with their debut record Talking Heads 77 it landed with a deep sense of duality and an undefeatable desire to experiment. As the band struggled to align their weirdo punk beginnings with their eccentric pop future, the group still delivered a landmark record which suggested they were soon to be the avant-garde maestros of the new decade. On 1980’s Remain in Light, they proved it—and with an extra dollop of brilliance to boot.
There was one big difference between the band’s debut and this 40-year-old smasher though. Talking Heads 77 was an album coated in the intellectualism of the art students who made it. Conversely, Remain in Light instead prayed on the visceral and emotional connection we all have with music, it asked you to leave your brains at the door and just bring with you; your heart, soul and every single flailing limb you could find.
The musical landscape in 1980 was a confused one. As punk was continually being commercialised despite its protestations it felt like, eventually, the mass market would swallow up everything that was a teensy bit experimental, sanitise and then sell it—even Talking Heads had found themselves with a comparative hit or two. Meanwhile, discos were continuing to pump out manufactured hits for the dancefloor while the rock world was positively salivating over Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The landscape, as I said, was a confused one.
It felt like the new wave couldn’t crash down hard enough. While acts like Blondie and The Jam had kept a degree of personality in music, the real draw was Talking Heads. Although they had been born in the punk scene, they didn’t really fit there. In fact, they didn’t really fit anywhere. That was exactly as David Byrne and the band preferred it and so they pushed forward in making themselves that most desirable of things—unique. It meant Byrne’s lyrics got stranger, his performances more entangled within themselves and his costuming grew to unimaginable levels. Byrne, to all intents and purposes, made himself irregular on purpose.
“Say something once, why say it again?” Byrne once firmly proclaimed. It’s a hard a fast rule of true artistry and one which Byrne has always kept close to him when creating music. While it’s safe to say that he has always pushed ahead musically, he has often relied on the same man to do so, Brian Eno. The mercurial musician at the centre of Roxy Music’s avant-garde progression, Eno has since become an icon of production and is rightly considered one of the best. While his solo work is impressive and Roxy Music are fantastic, perhaps his best moments came from behind the mixing desk with David Bowie and David Byrne.
Remain In Light was the third album Eno had worked with Byrne and the group on and it was clear by this time they had found their rhythm. Eno’s inclusion was another moment of evolution from the band who first supported the Ramones in 1975. They had added Jerry Harrison and his keyboard and now hey had Eno on board too, with a growing ensemble, the band were rejecting their punk roots of stripping down to the bare bones and were now layering skin after synthetic skin on their skeleton. By doing so they created a body of work like no other.
In truth, Remain In Light doesn’t sound like Talking Heads previous songs, or, indeed, like anything that had come out in 1980. It was an album built upon poly-rhythmic jams devoid of many traditional pop hooks or structure. It saw Eno and Byrne work tirelessly to make tracks via looping rhythmic sections and a penchant for layering instruments as they went. They also overdubbed Byrne’s vocals, allowing him to add his Preacher-yelp with aplomb nd also welcome Andrew Belew, the iconic guitar hero who played with Frank Zappa and King Crimson to lay down some synth-treated solos.
It’s the kind of ensemble which often ends with an album of strong conception but lacking any real songs. Not so for Talking Heads. While the album wasn’t exactly brimming with singles, it contains three of the band’s greatest ever songs and is lifted with every new track to a new plain, allowing us to both enjoy the conceptual tone of the album while also providing moments of escapist bliss, the first of which arrives on the opening track.
‘Born Under Punches’ may well be one of Talking Heads most beloved tracks and it lands here with a heavy one-two. With it, the band established the slightly wonky sound that would enthral us for the next 40 minutes or so. Another smash follows in ‘Crosseyed and Painless’. Another extra-terrestrial groove is given Byrne’s confounding lyrical treatment while Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth deliver some tangible funk.
‘The Great Curve’ follows and brings with it some African-inspired heat as this rhythmic free-for-all allows the mind to wander across six glorious minutes. Then, of course, comes the album’s big-hitter ‘Once In A Lifetime’. Without doubt, Talking Heads most famous song, Brian Eno and Jerry Harrison take this track to a whole new plain as they amply back Byrne’s unflinching view on modernity and hollow materialism. Naturally, to follow it, comes ‘Houses in Motion’ which lands as the darker cousin of the previous track, this time using distorted horns to create the unwanted dystopia.
The slow wobble continues with ‘Seen and Not Seen’ which sees Byrne ditch his preacher-man impression and instead return to normality. There’s a simple rhythm to the track and it is captivating. Another minimalist moment comes from ‘Listening Wind’ which is probably the album’s worst song before it makes way for the big closer, ‘The Overload’. It’s quite brilliant because, naturally, Talking Heads aren’t there for your fairytale ending, they want you to feel moved and intoxicated. It means they close the album with their goth-inspired chiller.
While there are certainly three huge songs on the eight-track album, one could easily argue that ‘The Overload’ is the distillation of the LP. Not because musically it aligns with the rest of the record but precisely because it doesn’t. Remain In Light was Byrne and Talking Heads next step in the art for art’s sake. They had already achieved what they wanted in the rock space and they wanted to take themselves to new heights. All they asked was that you arrived with an open mind.
There’s a certain intoxication that one feels when listening to any Talking Heads album. There’s a freedom that begs to be achieved and a listlessness that promises clarity of thought. With their debut, the group had set themselves out as the intelligent alternative to punk with Remain In Light they proved across eight superfluous songs that they weren’t the just the alternative to punk but to everything else too.
40 years on and Remain In Light still sounds as fresh as ever.