[Review] Talking Heads: Remain In Light (1980)

Afrobeat, ambient and avant-garde collide on Remain In Light, creating the quintessential college rock album.

Kronomyth 4.0: My high life in the bush of ghosts.

Unbeknownst to most of us, David Byrne and Brian Eno were cooking up an entirely new kind of music in a different kitchen, the results of which would finally appear as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Remain in Light brings the experiment into the home of Talking Heads and became their most adventurous album to date. Mixing elements of Afrobeat, ambient music (courtesy of master sound sculptor Eno), American funk and the avant-garde, Remain in Light was unlike anything before it, except maybe for “I Zimbra.” For my money, it was the best album in a very good year for music, and remains a high-water mark of rock & roll in the twentieth century.

Now, that first pedantic paragraph will hardly prepare you for the shock of hearing Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On). Postmodern primitivism, paranoia and an irresistible undercurrent of funk flood the senses, and don’t relent for forty minutes. The next track, Crosseyed and Painless, is even better. Imagine Fela Kuti after a fistful of speed, handcuffed to a mental patient and fleeing through a digital jungle—that’s what it sounds like. The Great Curve plays up Eno’s playful side with layered vocals (including the inimitable Nona Hendryx), lots of percussion and Adrian Belew’s elephant-sized guitar solo. The first side ends with the perfect manifestation of Eno’s shimmering electronics, Byrne’s paranoid persona and the Heads’ funky rhythm section, Once in a Lifetime. One of my favorite songs, ever.

The second side begins with my second-favorite song on the album, Houses in Motion. The fusion of the stuttering main verses and irresistibly catchy chorus is like peanut butter and jelly to me. Jon Hassell’s smoky trumpet is like a slice of dark chocolate in between. Seen and Not Seen and Listening Wind are electronic African dreams. The last song, The Overload, drifts into a deep, dark sleep.

It’s worth noting that the elements of Remain in Light aren’t completely new or alien. In fact, the album feels like Byrne and Eno took Taking Tiger Mountain, Fear of Music, Music for Films and Fela Kuti’s music and put it in a blender. What came out of the blender was new, and felt both primal and intellectual, pancultural and purely mechanical. With Eno as the fifth wheel, the Heads had created the quintessential college rock album.

Original elpee version

A1. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (5:46)
A2. Crosseyed and Painless (4:45)
A3. The Great Curve (6:26)
A4. Once in a Lifetime (4:19)
B1. Houses in Motion (David Byrne/Brian Eno/Jerry Harrison) (4:30)
B2. Seen and Not Seen (3:20)
B3. Listening Wind (4:42)
B4. The Overload (David Byrne/Brian Eno/Jerry Harrison) (6:00)

All songs written by David Byrne and Brian Eno unless noted*. All arrangements by The Musicians except vocal arrangements by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

*Later versions credited the material to the whole band.

Bonus CD reissue tracks
9. Fela’s Riff
10. Unison
11. Double Groove
12. Right Start

The Players

David Byrne (voices, guitars, basses, keyboards, percussion), Brian Eno (keyboards, voices, percussion, basses), Chris Frantz (drum kit, percussion, keyboards), Jerry Harrison (guitars, keyboards, basses, percussion), Tina Weymouth (basses, keyboards, percussion) with Adrian Belew (guitars), Jon Hassell (trumpets and horn arrangements on B1), Nona Hendryx (voices), Robert Palmer (percussion), Jose Rossy (percussion). Produced by Brian Eno; engineered by Dave Jerden with additional engineering by Rhett davies, Jack Number, John Potoker and Stephen Stanley; mixed by Dave Jerden, David Byrne, Brian Eno and John Potoker.

The Pictures

Graphic design by M & Co.

The Product

Released on elpee on October 8, 198o in the US and Israel (Sire, SRK 6095), the UK and Germany (Sire, SIRK 56867/456 867), Belgium (Sire, WBN 56867), Canada (Sire, XSR 6095), France (Sire, 2C 070 64145), Japan (Sire, RJ 7691) and Portugal (Sire/Nova, SRK 6095 NP) with picture innersleeve and lyrics insert; reached #19 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record) and #21 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in Japan (Sire, P-6488) with picture innersleeve and lyrics insert.
  2. Re-issued on cassette in Germany (Warner Bros., 26095-4).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in 1984 in the US (Sire, 6095-2).
  4. Re-released on expanded, remastered CD+DVD audio in 2006 in Europe (Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino, 73300-2) with 4 bonus tracks + bonus DVD audio disc.
  5. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2012 in Europe (Rhino/Sire, 8122708021) with picture innersleeve.

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