Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Reflecting on the lyrics to the Talking Heads iconic track “Once in a Lifetime,” David Byrne told NPR, “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else. We haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?”. The introspection of Byrne’s famous lyrics serve as an invitation to understanding the sonic roots of the Talking Heads’ fourth album Remain in Light. Fusing punk, rock, funk, Afrobeat and nascent hip-hop into their own language of New Wave music, the album exploded popular music’s sonic consciousness with a complex array of sounds and rhythms, and became one of the most influential albums of the decade.
The Talking Heads formed In 1975 when Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, three art students from the Rhode Island School of Design, were living together in a communal loft in New York. The trio began playing at the famed CBGB club in 1977, opening for the Ramones for their first gig. Soon after, they brought in Jerry Harrison on keyboards. Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, contained the now legendary hit “Psycho Killer” which established the band as a leading voice in the emerging New Wave scene in New York.
Their next two albums were created in partnership with producer Brian Eno, a collaboration which suited the artistic and intellectual sensibilities of all involved. “You know what he reminded us of?” Weymouth told Search and Destroy in 1978, “A young Jesuit monk.” Similarly enthralled, Eno described the band’s music as “the product of some very active brains…constructing music in a kind of conceptual way.” However, by the end of the decade, and despite two artistically fruitful collaborations with Eno, the band still found itself at a bit of a crossroads. Eno and Byrne were busy working on a new experimental project together, and Harrison was producing an album for soul singer Nona Hendryx. In response, Frantz and Weymouth, who had married in 1977, decided to take a trip to the Bahamas to consider their place with the group. By this point, Byrne had become the group’s de facto leader – a dynamic which did not appeal to his old art-school classmates.
While in the Bahamas, Frantz and Weymouth spent time playing music with reggae rhythm musicians Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and exploring the cultural life of the region. Soon after, the pair purchased an apartment above Compass Point Studios in Nassau, where the Talking Heads would reconvene to create Remain in Light.
If the band had previously shifted in the direction of soloist with accompaniment, Remain in Light was an attempt to reject such a dynamic and work in a spirit of community and collaboration. Byrne described it as “sacrificing our egos for mutual cooperation”. To Creem magazine, he explained: “The way this music’s structured, it’s completely based on the cooperation of all the different musicians. And since on some of the songs, ‘Houses in Motion’, for instance, there’s no one instrument that has the lead line, or does anything to be called the melody or the main riff — what you hear is a combination of about five different parts that fall together. The sound that you hear, the melody, the rhythm, is all composed of different parts interlocking, so none of the parts can really stand on their own, which is very different from most rock music. And what happens is, by doing music structured that way, I get a much more ecstatic feeling out of it, when it works, than I get out of rock music. It’s part of this transcendental ecstasy that comes as the result of people working together.”
The album was built around instrumental jam sessions in the studio The creative spirit of the band thrived in this new context. As Harrison recalled: ‘We had gone down to the Bahamas and were setting out to do an album that we hadn’t attempted in the past. We did this because we noticed in our rehearsals that sometimes the first time you play a song, you do it with this instant sense of expiration, and that’s different than you’ll ever play a song again. We wanted to see if we could capture something like that. So we laid down the parts, one person at the studio at a time, with the general mindset of Oh, I want to try it. There were lots and lots of tracks. We used the mixing board as the composition to move from part A to part B. We were really on a roll. We worked three weeks in the Bahamas. AC/DC was in the next room doing Back in Black, and we cut all of our basic tracks in the same amount of time they required for one guitar solo. We were really on a groove”
The sessions also revitalized the group’s relationship with Eno. The instrumental jams were an amalgamation of many different influences, including those which were first brought to the band’s attention through the omnivorous taste of their producer. Eno recalled: “The first time I ever met Talking Heads, I played them a record by Fela Kuti, the African-Nigerian musician who’d invented that thing called Afro-beat…I thought that was just the most exciting music going on at the time.” The emerging sounds of hip-hop also resided in the band’s sonic consciousness. “Just the year before, there had been the beginnings of hip-hop,” Weymouth explained.“It influenced us in different ways to realize that things were shifting”.
It is unsurprising that Talking Heads would be so heavily influenced by Black popular music entering into the 1980s. As Simon Reynolds illuminates in his history of the post-punk era, “Unlike most of their [New Wave] peers…Talking Heads always had a subtle funk pulse […]Talking Heads’ rhythm section – Weymouth and Frantz – steeped themselves in funk and disco.” Similarly, Byrne had begun to look to the production techniques of black dance music as a “bigger musical revolution than punk”. He explained: “When you started getting people doing the early remixed – stretching the song out, chopping it up – it was great…and it was all happening in the dance world; it wasn’t happening in the rock world at all.” For a group of former art-school students, who had been surrounded by the conceptualization and performance art of the early seventies, the developments in production and composition of Black dance music – the sampling and remixing – appealed to the energizing spirit of creativity and innovation of the band’s earliest days.
The instrumental core at the heart of Remain in Light inspired Byrne to take a new approach to writing the lyrics. He stepped away from the band, taking the recorded tracks with him to spend more time crafting his vocal part. Frantz explained: “After we recorded all the basic tracks…David’s feeling was that these were very special tracks, very different and unusual, and therefore would require more time on his part to put together a cohesive lyric and vocal.” Byrne used a collage technique, pulling phrases and phrasing from a variety of sources: news headlines, academic research on African music and culture (i.e. John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythm and African Sensibility and Robert Farris Thompson’s African Art in Motion), and even John Dean’s Watergate testimony. In the album’s most famous track, “Once in a Lifetime”, Byrne’s phrasing imitates the vocal delivery of a preacher.
Working closely with Eno, the members of Talking Heads experimented at every level of production on the album. Harrison reflected: “Eno had taught us to think of the studio as an extension of the instrument you had. If you look back at photos of the Beatles’ engineers, they’re wearing white lab coats. They were totally behind the glass. You didn’t go in there. The musicians were in the other room and being captured by technicians. Maybe if you were lucky they would play the music back through speakers. Eno broke that barrier down. Everything was an instrument. It was all taking place. When I describe my keyboard wash in “Once in a Lifetime,” it was a performance by me and Eno in the control room being captured. Because we had a trusting relationship with him, we were all cool with that, and it also meant that we began to become familiar with all of the equipment in the control room. This cut-and-dry role between the musicians, technicians, and producers started to become more fluid”
As a result of all of this experimentation and creativity, Remain in Light proved to be one of the most influential albums of the decade. It was released in October of 1980, hitting number nineteen on the US charts and twenty-one in the UK. In its review of the album, Billboard wrote “Just about every LP Talking Heads has released in the last four years has wound up on virtually every critics’ best of list. Remain in Light should be no exception.”
In 1989, Rolling Stone declared Remain in Light to be the fourth best album of the decade and its place in history only grew from there. In 2002, Pitchfork named it the second best album of the 1980s. The Library of Congress declared it “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” in 2018, ensuring the album’s preservation in the National Recording Registry. With its innovative experimentation and fusion of sounds and influences, Remain in Light, remains the Talking Heads most important and influential contribution to the popular music soundscape.