I don’t know when it was that I first heard the music of the Talking Heads, but one of my earliest memories was seeing the video for the song “Once In a Lifetime”. Its distinctive video featuring frontman David Byrne’s quirky sesiure-like dances became one of the decade’s most popular moves, especially for a budding generation of dysfunctional computer nerds. The album that song came from was an important breakthrough for the Talking Heads. It even spawned terminology like “same as it ever was” and dare I say made the nerd boy look popular in the high schools of America.
Having come from the early New York post punk scene, the Talking Heads were one of America’s premier new wave bands. The quirky funk of their music would eventually take a decidedly avant-afro direction when Brian Eno began producing a string of late ’70s and early ’80s releases.
One of the more interesting of those albums was the bands 4th Remain In Light. In addition to Eno’s engineering and technical experimentation, the project featured King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew who could be heard on “Listening Wind.” Most importantly, that which made the Talking Heads so funky in the first place, the fusion of African rhythms with punk and new wave would go a step further than the previous release Fear of Music. The concept started with the Eno-Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from a few years earlier. While that album was a full exploration into African styled polyrhythms, Remain in Light would use it as a jumping off point.
Some of the pioneering concepts used on that album would be used on Remain in Light like the use of instrumental loops, over dubbing and samples. The album was recorded using communal methods inspired by African culture. Instrumental jam sessions would be cut up and looped to create song structures created by the band as a joint venture, once again in a process similar to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
Synthesizers were used, but Remain in Light has an organic nature to its sound, thanks to the use of traditional African (and Western) instruments. The band chose to wear it’s technology on it’s sleeve-literally. The cover art featuring Andy Warhol-like portraits of band members was done by state of the art computers at MIT’s Media Lab. The LP actually featured two cover art features, one front and back.
Recorded New York and the Bahamas in the summer of 1980, Remain In Light taxed the band through a prolonged and difficult recording process, often prompting Byrne to change his vocal style out of frustration (from multiple takes?). All members contributed as opposed to Byrne writing music for the band to interpret later. The collaboration yielded some of the band’s funkiest and accessible songs. “Seen and Not Seen”, with its Tom Tom Club-like funk foreshadowed the funk spin-off that would come later.
The groove oriented album featured more of Byrne’s voice than any other Talking Heads release up to that point. It also got them into the American Top 40 for the first time.
Remain in Light is the point where the Talking Heads would fuse the worlds of punk, new wave and funk while inspiring any number of bands in the genres it crossed over into. Off shoots of the Talking Heads like The Tom Tom Club and Jerry Harrison and The Casual Gods would explore the initial ideals that got their start with Remain in Light.
Today “Once In a Lifetime” remains the band’s most popular song, thanks to the concert film and album Stop Making Sense that put the song back on the charts in 1984. The Talking Heads would have a productive decade during through the ’80s until their breakup in 1991.