Counterbalance No. 35: Talking Heads’ 'Remain in Light'
Facts all come with points of view, like the fact that Talking Heads’ 1980 Afro-funk opus is the 35th Greatest Album of All Time. Counterbalance gives Remain in Light a listen—don’t you miss it. (Some of you people just about missed it.)
Klinger: All right, Mendelsohn, as we look at this list, a distinct pattern is beginning to emerge: It’s pretty clear that, while London put on a strong showing, New York City was clearly the critical epicenter for popular music in the late 1970s. From Bruce Springsteen to the Ramones (coming soon!), this area was a critical wonderland, and it seems to me that Remain in Light is the point where all of the disparate elements come together in an album that is 100% impossible to dislike.
Impossible to dislike.
Mendelsohn: Nothing is impossible, Klinger. I'm there are quite a few "music fans" who might find the obtuse lyrical content and incessant, droning poly-rhythmic nature of this album to be baffling. But then, those people are morons. Thankfully, we aren't morons (pretentious idiots, maybe, but certainly not morons).
I have to think, though, that we might have completely different reasons for finding this album impossible to dislike.
Klinger: Stranger things have happened. While I love the combination of funk, New Wave, and Afrobeat (and I remain eternally grateful to Talking Heads for paving my headspace for Fela Kuti all those years ago), I have to say that what makes Remain in Light so much more than just a genre exercise is the way that David Byrne’s lyrics bring a sense of detachment—squarely aimed at the brain—to a form of music that’s generally aimed, er, somewhat lower.
Byrne’s stream of consciousness lyrics also take you out of your standard pop song expectations. There’s no real narrative here, and he doesn’t seem to express much in the way of emotions. But by looking at culture a la The Man Who Fell to Earth, Byrne forces you to confront the illogical through his own somewhat convoluted logic.
Plus it has a good beat and I can dance to it.
Mendelsohn: You said the magic word: dance. I like it because it makes me want to dance. But, being rhythmically challenged, I can't really dance so my dancing consists of me just wiggling in my chair. And if you want to wiggle in your chair, Remain in Light is the perfect album. All of the other stuff like Byrne's narrative-less lyrics and the Fela Kuti headspace-paving comes second for me. What I find interesting is that Talking Heads made it to the intersection of rock and electronic dance nearly twenty years before anyone else could come close to matching it. Most albums that far ahead of their time don't always go over so well. This one, however, doesn't seem to have that problem.
Klinger: The only time I’ve seen you dance was at your wedding, and I’ll tell you you’re freakin’ Baryshnikov compared to me. So to distract me from my own herky-jerky motions, I’m really going to have to stress that the genius of Remain in Light goes way beyond its bottom end. I’ve heard my share of rock-funk amalgams—there was that period in the late ’80s when half the college bar bands I saw wanted desperately to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s not hard to shift everything over to the one and call it funky. The genius lies in what you put on top.
Take the first song, “Born Under Punches”. It percolates along nicely, but what draws you into its world is the carnival barker/ranting street preacher persona that seems to take Byrne over. Nothing he says makes much sense, and yet you can’t help nodding in agreement. Add in the lead guitar work by Adrian Belew, which sounds as if it might have been the inspiration for old-timey dial-up modems, and you have a song that forces you to at least reconsider your own logic processes. So knock off that dancing and get to cogitating, Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn: Are we listening to the same record? When I roll through these tracks, I don't quiet get that rock-funk feeling. I know where you are coming from, but bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers landed squarely on the pop/rock side of things. Their song structures were conventional and their sound, though an affront to my ears at times, was accessible. I don't think Talking Heads' Remain in Light falls into that category. I'd feel more comfortable grouping them with a band like Kraftwerk than I would Funkadelic.
Remain in Light has an undeniable groove but it is very rigid, very regimented. Once it starts, it doesn't stop until the end of the song. There are no break downs, no real choruses. It's a pioneering album in the dance rock genre. Producer Brian Eno's work with tape loops nudges this record from straight, upbeat rock, to the borderlands of electronica. It’s trance-inducing—in a good way.
Klinger: It’s possible I’ve overstated my position. I’d really hate for the fine folks out there in Internetland to think I can’t tell the difference between Remain in Light and Freaky Styley. But I want to stress that the genius of this album lies over and above the beat, and it’s way more than just a genre exercise made by musical tourists.
This album makes a joyous noise all throughout (at least until its own paranoia starts to overwhelm it with “Listening Wind” and “The Overload”). And because it takes its cues from African music, the steady groove that keeps winding along becomes something hypnotic, especially on what was side one. Byrne’s lyrical approach—free associations and musings on the strangeness of everyday life—might seem counterintuitive, but it ends up fitting quite neatly with the song structures that the collaborators build throughout.
Mendelsohn: I can dig it. I don't think Byrne could have taken a conventional lyrical approach. The free associations, or sound clips as they could be viewed, lend themselves more readily to the ebb and flow of this record.
The one thing that strikes me every time I listen to this album is just how weird it is. Compared to everything that comes before it on the list, Remain in Light is nuts like Mr. Planter's family photo. I'm not complaining, but we haven't heard the type of influences that drive Byrne & Co. on the Great List. I keep reaching for a cultural touchstone but I feel like I'm grasping at straws.
Klinger: Oh, it’s crazel nuts, Mendelsohn. Or so it would seem to us Americans. But like I said earlier, once I heard Afrobeat and other African sounds, Remain in Light made a lot more sense. But even so, there are a lot of times that this album can be genuinely disorienting; there are so many layers of sound, insistent percussion (brilliantly engineered so that you can hear each individual clunk and ting), and the juxtaposition between Byrne’s voice and Nona Hendryx’s. Especially on “Born Under Punches”—which as I’m thinking about this record is shaping up to be one of the all-time great side-one, track-ones (what is it with albums generated on the Eastern seaboard?).
Speaking of disorienting, the old side two began with “Once in a Lifetime”, a song that left an indelible impression on me when I was about 12. My parents let me stay up to watch (I’m pretty sure) SCTV, and at one point during the episode they featured the video in (I’m pretty sure) its entirety. With no prior knowledge of Talking Heads or much pop music outside the AM Top 40, sweaty, nervous David Byrne twitching and jerking against that stark white background creeped me out but good.
Even today, watching it gives me the feeling that I maybe should have gone to bed a while ago.
Mendelsohn: In music critique you get the cliché statement about bands being "ahead of their time". It gets applied liberally, like sunscreen. We've talked about 35 different albums from almost as many different bands but this is the only one I feel comfortable—no, confident—in saying that it was ahead of its time. It would be like traveling back in time to the day the telephone was invented just to pull out your iPhone in front of Alexander Graham Bell and nonchalantly play a couple rounds of Angry Birds. It's almost as if the Talking Heads are throwing the convention of music into everyone's face.
Klinger: Well, just as the Beatles were synthesizing everything from Motown to folk-rock to psychedelia into their music, Talking Heads were taking everything that was swirling around them at the time and distilled it down into Remain in Light. I think the main difference is that many of the ingredients they were using were so foreign, both literally and metaphorically. Jerry Harrison was responsible for Nona Hendryx’s appearance on the record. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz brought their Tom Tom Club hip hop aesthetic to the party, and in 1980 Kurtis Blow was quite nearly as obscure among the Criticerati as Fela Kuti.
But yes, ahead of their time. And while it follows a similar thread as their previous album, Fear of Music, it’s still a huge leap forward. The key ingredient? Joy, baby—and even a critic can dig that.