Classic Album Sundays will be playing Remain In Light in London and Boston this Sunday. Founder Colleen Murphy explains why it’s such an important record to her.
As a teen, I remember hearing Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ on the radio for the first time with its fabulous rhythms, fantastic lyrics and serious funk.
The first album I bought was ‘Speaking in Tongues’ which I played over and over as it sounded so different to anything else at the time (so cool, so now!). This spurred me to dig through their back catalogue and ‘Remain in Light’ was the natural musical antecedent to my now beloved ‘SiT’. At the time I was becoming obsessed with New York City and the idea of a post-high-school-graduation escape and ‘RiL’ brought me closer as it was (and still is) the perfect musical time capsule of downtown New York City circa 1980.
Remain in Light’ is an organic fusion of a few different musical disciplines that had emerged in the desolate and decaying downtown Manhattan where artists lived dangerously but more importantly, inexpensively. Talking Heads cross pollinated and united these musical genres fusing the punk and post punk movement centered around CBGB’s and its artists like Patti Smith, Television and The Ramones with the experimental music scene fostered at The Kitchen with minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass with the underground dance scene focused around the Paradise Garage’s Larry Levan and The Loft’s David Mancuso.
I moved to New York City in 1986 not to become an artist, but with the rather more pedestrian intention of attending University. However, the campus was located in Greenwich Village and I managed to experience the slowly waning spirit of the heady creative zeitgeist and in hindsight, I now recognise the musical scenes into which I became entrenched are all represented on ‘Remain in Light’.
One of the first places I spun records was at CBGB’s Record Canteen next door to the club where I caught some of my favourite bands and supported friends on Monday audition nights. I attended The Knitting Factory on Houston Street, met experimental guitarist Gary Lucas (formerly of Captain Beefheart) with whom I now create music under the moniker Wild Rumpus. A few years later I started attending the weekly Loft parties where the sound system blew my mind and I heard deep dance records, some of which I already knew but somehow sounded different through the audiophile equipment (sound familiar?). Mancuso became a mentor and I later filled in as musical host playing twelve-hour sets on Koetsu cartridges. I also became immersed in the world music scene spinning and dancing to Afro-beat artists like Fela Kuti. I ticked and ticked away at the boxes on my ‘Remain in Light’ musical checklist.
One of my favourite songs on the album that organically blends these musical strains is ‘The Great Curve’. Aside from the manic pace more akin to hardcore punk (over 150 beats-per-minute), ‘The Great Curve’ with its somewhat reverent lyrics referencing African female fertility notions may be in stark contrast to the angst-ridden vocals de rigueur to post punk and evident on Talking Heads’ previous LPs. However, musically the song has the post punk angularity and edginess of acts like Gang of Four.
They also parted from one of punk’s main tenets famously adhered to by The Ramones whom they supported on their first gig. As Byrne reveals in his book ‘How Music Works’, “While punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” ‘The Great Curve’ is based on one key with a repetitive bass-line and the instrumental shifts within the music are mainly signaled through textural variations, much like minimalist composition. Like a James Brown record, the repetition puts more emphasis on the groove and one can hear the subtle shifts in rhythmic patterns.
Producer Brian Eno recorded the basic rhythm parts, picked out a few sections which he looped and then rearranged into a backing track. He used varispeed so when it came time to record the vocals and instrumental overdubs, the sped up playback lent a sense of urgency (with a pitch-able turntable you can pitch down and have a listen to what it sounded like when originally played). The polyrhythmic backing track underpins the powerful vocal polyphony from Byrne, Eno and former Labelle Nona Hendryx. Sung mainly in unison with few harmonies, the vocals perform the African tradition of call and response, further supporting and amplifying the rhythms and subject matter. Jon Hassell’s horn stabs and the frenzied guitar soloing from Adrian Belew provide the final accents.
It may not have had the same popularity on the dance floor as ‘Once in a Lifetime’ due to its more energetic tempo, but ‘The Great Curve’ is most definitely a dance song. I must point out that I find it truly annoying when people label Talking Heads’ music as ‘a thinking person’s dance music’ as it implies that most dancers by definition are not intelligent and can only subject themselves to hedonistic abandon rather than engaging in sophisticated thought. Of course this is nonsense as evidenced by African culture and tradition in which spiritual, physical and intellectual pursuits are not divided but work in symbiotic unison. Talking Heads paid heed to this concept and on ‘Remain in Light’ we can enjoy the results.
- London: Sunday 7th April 5 – 8pm, Hanbury Arms, 33 Linton Street, N1 7DU
Tickets: £8 on the door and £8 + service charge here
- Boston: Sunday 7th April 5 – 8pm, Meadhall, 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge MA 02142
Tickets: $10 on the door and $10 + service charge here
If you can’t make any of these events, grab a decent copy, turn down the lights and listen in full at home.