Rock music can often be a protest or examination of complacency in popular culture. Often times its direct and overt as in the protest music of the 1960s, but modern sarcasm demands a more subtle approach. Brian Eno and Talking Heads front man David Byrne, had worked together on Talking Heads projects and both shared an interest in African rhythm. Together they created one of the most multi-textured and innovative album of the 1980s.
Named after a 1954 book by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola about a child wondering into the spirit world, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reads like a African Lord of the Rings, told from the primitive point of view of a child. The book dealt with white perceptions of Africans and played on fears using an abstract prose, elements of fantasy and horror in a compelling fairy tale format. It could be interpreted as a protest book in its most subtlest form.
Byrne and Eno took the sub narrative of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and turned it into a expose on Western culture’s fears and anxiety about all things black. That sounds like a lofty premise for a record that essentially amounts to a dance album, but manages to be thought-provoking if the listener can manage to stop laughing or dancing.
In the process of developing the conceptual narrative, the album uses many innovations that have become commonplace in many of todays forms of hip hop and electronic dance music.
While Public Enemy would evoked ‘The Fear of a Black Planet’ years later, Byrne and Eno flipped the basic concept, by using clever sound bites to convey the sense of wonder and anxiety that many Americans have with the African diaspora. In fact, neither Eno or Byrne sing on any of the tracks – instead the voices from found vocals clips are used.
This style of ‘cut and paste’ recording is a persistent element throughout the album. The basic rhythm and melodies on the album are held together by real percussion and guitars, while other elements are all edited sounds. It may have been the first time such compositing was heard on a major release.
The result was songs that made statements, but it was not always clear about what as many songs focused on phrases that sounded down right spooky or funny when taken out of context. The tension in many of the voices suggested deep emotion around subjects like faith, politics and social issues.
Not unlike the funky Afro-world-pop occasionally made by the Talking Heads, Byrne’s contribution to the album also included bringing the bassist and drummer from his band into the project. In many ways My Life In the Bush of Ghosts covers the whole spectrum of brown culture with exotic themes and sounds as on ‘Regiment’, a song featuring singer Dunay Yusin reciting a prayer to Allah atop a funky bass line that could have come from George Clinton. The Arabic sounding keyboards add a touch of exoteric world music to the albums vast collection of styles.
Being the church mouse that I was, I found the songs that dealt with religious themes the most interesting. The reverend Paul Morton, a fiery Baptist minister based in New Orleans is figured prominently in the ‘Help Me Somebody’ with parts of a sermon taken out of context and reduced to funny if not disturbing sound bites. While more disturbing than Joni Mitchell’s use of a minister’s voice on her Dog Eat Dog a few years later, it did not generate the same uproar.
In many fundamentalist churches preaching is often followed by demons being cast out. The song order of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts follows suit with ‘The Jezebel Sprit’ right after ‘Help Me Somebody’. Basically a deconstructed song about an exorcism taking place with the backing of moderately upbeat music.
Despite its wild experimentation, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts actually cracked the top 50 US album charts, although it had no singles to speak of. All of which is amazing considering how forward sounding all of it must have been.
My Life in the Bush of Ghost is the musical equivalent to deconstructivism in architecture. Today we take the rapid pace editing of sounds and images for granted, but in 1981, this was cutting edge stuff and it still is today. It was re-issued with expanded material in 2006. This was the first of two projects Brian Eno and David Byrne would do together and remains a classic underground album whose influence is still heard today.