Remain in Light

talking heads

Remain in Light is the fourth studio album by American New Wave band Talking Heads, released in 1980. It was recorded at locations in the Bahamas and the United States and was produced by the quartet’s long-time collaborator Brian Eno. Two singles were released from the album: ‘Once in a Lifetime’ and ‘Houses in Motion’ as well as promotional single ‘Crosseyed and Painless.’

The members of Talking Heads wanted to make an album that dispelled notions of frontman and chief lyricist David Byrne leading a back-up band. They decided to experiment with African polyrhythms and, with Eno, recorded the instrumental tracks as a series of samples and loops, a novel idea at the time.

Additional musicians were frequently used throughout the studio sessions. The lyric writing process slowed the album’s progress, but was concluded after Byrne drew inspiration from academic literature on Africa. The artwork was crafted with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computers and designing company M&Co. Following the album’s completion, Talking Heads expanded to nine members for promotional concerts. ‘Remain in Light’ was widely acclaimed by critics. Praise centered on its cohesive merging of disparate genres and sonic experimentation. It is often considered Talking Heads’ magnum opus

In early 1980, the members of ‘Talking Heads’ returned to New York City after the tours in support of their 1979 critically acclaimed third album, ‘Fear of Music,’ and decided to take time off to pursue personal interests. Byrne worked with Eno, the record’s producer, on an experimental collaboration named ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.’ Jerry Harrison produced an album for soul singer Nona Hendryx at the Sigma Sound Studios branch in New York City; the singer and the location were later used during the recording of ‘Remain in Light’ on Harrison’s advice. Husband and wife Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth discussed the possibility of leaving the band after the latter suggested that Byrne’s level of control was excessive. Frantz was not open to the idea of ending ‘Talking Heads,’ and the two decided to take a long vacation in the Caribbean to ponder the state of the band and their marriage. During the trip, the couple became involved in Haitian Vodou religious ceremonies and practiced with several types of native percussion instruments. In Jamaica, they socialized with the famous reggae rhythm section of Sly and Robbie.

Frantz and Weymouth ended their holiday by purchasing an apartment above Compass Point Studios in Nassau, the Bahamas, where the band had recorded their second album ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food.’ Byrne joined the duo and Harrison there in the spring of 1980. The band members realized that it had been solely up to Byrne to bear the creative burden of crafting songs even though the tracks were performed as a quartet. The conception of ‘Remain in Light’ occurred partly because they tired of the notion of a singer leading a back-up band; the ideal they aimed for, according to Byrne, was ‘sacrificing our egos for mutual cooperation.’ The frontman additionally wanted to escape ‘the psychological paranoia and personal torment’ of what he had been writing and feeling in 1970s New York City. Instead of the band writing music to Byrne’s lyrics, Talking Heads performed instrumental jam sessions without words using the ‘Fear of Music’ song ‘I Zimbra’ as a starting point. (the song is inspired by African cultural music and the lyrics are an adaptation of Dadaist Hugo Ball’s sound poem ‘Gadji beri bimba’).

Eno arrived in the Bahamas three weeks after Byrne and was at first reluctant to work with the band again after collaborating on the previous two full-length releases. He changed his mind after hearing the instrumental demo tapes and noted, ‘I absolutely love the direction you’re going in.’ Both parties decided to experiment with the communal African way of making music, in which individual parts mesh as polyrhythms to create a cohesive whole. ‘Afrodisiac,’ the 1973 Afrobeat record from Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, became the template for the album. Weymouth has commented that the advent of the 1980s marked the beginnings of hip-hop music, which made Talking Heads realize that the musical landscape was changing. Before the studio sessions, long-time friend, music journalist David Gans instructed the band members that ‘the things one doesn’t intend are the seeds for a more interesting future.’ He encouraged them to experiment and improvise when recording and to utilize ‘mistakes.’

The album’s creation required the use of additional musicians, particularly extra percussionists. Talking Heads used the working title ‘Melody Attack’ throughout the studio process after watching a Japanese game show of the same name. Harrison has commented that the ambition was to blend rock and African genres, rather than simply imitate African music. Eno’s production techniques and personal approach were key to the record’s conception. The process was geared to promote the expression of instinct and spontaneity without overtly focusing on the sound of the final product. Sections and instrumentals were recorded one at a time in a discontinuous process. Samples and loops played a key part at a time when computer programs could not yet adequately perform such functions. The band’s performances and jam sessions acted as sampling and looping mechanisms. Eno has compared the creative process to ‘looking out to the world and saying, ‘What a fantastic place we live in. Let’s celebrate it.”

After a few sessions in the Bahamas, engineer Rhett Davies left following an argument with the producer over the fast speed of recording. Steven Stanley, who since the age of 17 had engineered for musicians such as Bob Marley, stepped in to cover the workload. He is credited by Frantz for helping create the future single ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ A Lexicon 224 digital reverb effects unit was used on the album. It was obtained by engineer and mixer Dave Jerden; the machine was one of the first of its kind. Like Davies, Jerden was unhappy at the quick pace Eno wanted to record sonically complicated compositions, but did not complain. The basic tracks focused wholly on rhythms and were all performed in a minimalist method using only one chord. Each section was recorded as a long loop to enable the creation of compositions through the positioning or merging loops in different ways.

The tracks made Byrne rethink his vocal style and he tried singing to the instrumental songs, but sounded ‘stilted.’ Few vocal sections were recorded in the Bahamas. The writing process for the lyrics occurred when the band returned to the US and was split between New York City and California. Harrison booked Talking Heads into Sigma Sound, which focused primarily on R&B music, after convincing the owners that the band’s work could bring them a new type of clientele. In New York City, Byrne struggled with writer’s block. Harrison and Eno spent their time tweaking the compositions recorded in the Bahamas, while Frantz and Weymouth often did not show up at the studio. Doubts began to surface about whether the album would be completed. The recording sessions only built up pace after the recruitment of guitarist Adrian Belew at the request of Byrne, Harrison, and Eno. He was advised to add guitar solos to the Compass Point tracks, making use of a Roland guitar synthesizer.

Byrne recorded all the tracks, as they were after Belew had performed, in a cassette and looked to Africa to break his writer’s block. He realized that, when African musicians forget words, they often improvise and make new ones up. The lyricist used a portable tape recorder and tried to create onomatopoeic rhymes in the style of Eno, who believed that lyrics were never the center of a song’s meaning. Byrne continuously listened to his recorded scatting until convinced that he was no longer ‘hearing nonsense.’ After the frontman was satisfied, Harrison invited Nona Hendryx to Sigma Sound to record backing vocals for the album. She was advised extensively on her vocal delivery by Byrne, Frantz, and Weymouth, and often sang in a trio with Byrne and Eno. The voice sessions were followed by the overdubbing process (a technique used by recording studios to add extra recorded sounds to a previously recorded performance). Brass player Jon Hassell, who had been working on parts of ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,’ was hired to perform trumpet and horn sections. Half of the album was mixed by Eno and engineer John Potoker in New York City with the assistance of Harrison, while the other half was mixed by Byrne and Jerden at Eldorado Studios in Los Angeles.

The cover art was conceived by Weymouth and Frantz with the help of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Walter Bender and his MIT Media Lab team. Using ‘Melody Attack’ as inspiration, the couple created a collage of red warplanes flying in formation over the Himalayas. The planes are an artistic depiction of Grumman Avenger planes in honor of Weymouth’s father who was a US Navy Admiral. The idea for the back cover included simple portraits of the band members. Weymouth attended MIT regularly during the summer of 1980 and worked with Bender’s colleague, Scott Fisher, on the computer renditions of the ideas. The process was tortuous because computer power was limited in the early 1980s and the mainframe alone took up several rooms. Weymouth and Fisher shared a passion for masks and used the concept to experiment with the portraits. The faces were blotted out with blocks of red color  Weymouth considered superimposing Eno’s face on top of all four portraits to insinuate his egotism—the producer wanted to be on the cover art together with Talking Heads—but decided against it in the end.

The rest of the artwork and the liner notes were crafted by the graphic designer Tibor Kalman and his company M&Co. Kalman was a fervent critic of formalism and professional design in art and advertisements. He offered his services for free to create publicity, and discussed using unconventional materials such as sandpaper and velour for the LP sleeve. Weymouth, who was skeptical of hiring a designing firm, vetoed Kalman’s ideas and held firm on the MIT computerized images. The designing process made the band members realize that the title ‘Melody Attack’ was ‘too flippant’ for the music recorded, and they adopted ‘Remain in Light’ instead. Byrne has noted, ‘Besides not being all that melodic, the music had something to say that at the time seemed new, transcendent, and maybe even revolutionary, at least for funk rock songs.’ The image of the warplanes was relegated to the back of the sleeve and the doctored portraits became the front cover. Kalman later suggested that the planes were not removed altogether because they seemed appropriate during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Weymouth advised Kalman that she wanted simple typography in a bold sans serif font. M&Co. followed the instructions and came up with the idea of inverting the ‘A’s in ‘TALKING HEADS.’ Weymouth and Frantz decided to use the joint credit acronym ‘C/T’ for the artwork, while Bender and Fisher used initials and code names because the project was not an official MIT venture. The final mass-produced version of ‘Remain in Light’ boasted one of the first computer-designed record jackets in the history of music. Psychoanalyst Michael A. Brog has called its front cover a ‘disarming image, which suggests both splitting and obliteration of identity’ and which introduces the listener to the album’s recurring theme of ‘identity disturbance’; he states, ‘The image is in bleak contrast to the title with the obscured images of the band members unable to ‘remain in light.”

Brian Eno advised Talking Heads that the music on ‘Remain in Light’ was too dense for a quartet to perform. The band expanded to nine musicians for the tours in support of the album. The augmenting members recruited by Harrison were Belew, Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Busta ‘Cherry’ Jones, Ashford & Simpson percussionist Steven Scales, and backing vocalist Dolette MacDonald. The larger group performed sound checks in Frantz and Weymouth’s loft by following the rhythms established by Worrell, who had studied at the New England Conservatory and Juilliard School. In August, the expanded Talking Heads performed a showcase of tracks to an audience of 125,000 at the Wollman Rink in New York City’s Central Park.

‘Remain in Light’ contains eight songs that possess a ‘striking free-associative feel’ according to psychoanalyst Michael A. Brog, in that there is no long-lasting coherent thought process that can be followed in the stream-of-consciousness lyrics. David Gans instructed Byrne to be freer with his lyrical content by advising him that ‘rational thinking has its limits.’ The frontman included a bibliography with the album press kit along with a statement that explained how the album was inspired by African mythologies and rhythms. The release stressed that the major inspiration to the lyrics was Professor John Miller Chernoff’s ‘African Rhythm and African Sensibility,’ which examined the musical enhancement of life in the continent’s rural communities. The academic traveled to Ghana in 1970 to study native percussion and wrote about how Africans have complicated conversations through drum patterns. One of the songs, ‘The Great Curve,’ exemplifies the African theme by including the line ‘The world moves on a woman’s hips,’ which Byrne used after reading Professor Robert Farris Thompson’s book ‘African Art in Motion.’ He additionally studied straight speech, from John Dean’s Watergate testimony to the stories of African American former slaves.

Like all the other tracks, album opener ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ borrows from ‘preaching, shouting and ranting.’ Byrne rewrote the song title ‘Don’t Worry About the Government’ from Talking Heads’ debut album, ‘Talking Heads: 77,’ into the lyric ‘Look at the hands of a government man.’ The expression ‘And the Heat Goes On,’ used in the title and repeated in the chorus, is based on a ‘New York Post’ headline Eno read in the summer of 1980. ‘Once in a Lifetime’ borrows heavily from preachers’ diatribes. Some critics have suggested that the song is ‘a kind of prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s.’ Byrne disagreed with the categorization and commented that its lyrics are meant to be taken literally; he stated, ‘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, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?”

Byrne has described the album’s final mix as a ‘spiritual’ piece of work, ‘joyous and ecstatic and yet it’s serious’; he has pointed out that, in the end, there was ‘less Africanism in ‘Remain in Light’ that we implied … but the African ideas were far more important to get across than specific rhythms.’ According to Eno, the record uniquely blends funk and punk rock or New Wave music. None of the compositions include chord changes and instead rely on the use of different harmonics and notes. ‘Spidery riffs’ and layered tracks of bass and percussion are used extensively throughout the album. The first side contains the more rhythmic songs recorded—’Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),’ ‘Crosseyed and Painless,’ and ‘The Great Curve’—which include long instrumental interludes. The last-named track contains extended guitar solos from Adrian Belew.

The second side of ‘Remain in Light’ features more introspective songs. ‘Once in a Lifetime’ pays homage to early rap techniques and the music of art rock band The Velvet Underground. The track was originally called ‘Weird Guitar Riff Song’ because of its composition. It was conceived as a single riff before the band added a second, boosted riff over the top of the first. Eno alternated eight bars of each riff with corresponding bars of its counterpart. ‘Houses in Motion’ incorporates lengthy brass performances from Jon Hassell, while ‘Listening Wind’ features Arabic music elements. The final track on the album, ‘The Overload,’ was Talking Heads’ attempt to emulate the sound of British post-punk band Joy Division. The song was made despite no band member having heard the music of Joy Division; rather, it was based on an idea of what the British quartet might sound like based on descriptions in the music press. The track features ‘tribal-cum-industrial’ beats created primarily by Harrison and Byrne.


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