Given how much I’m making of my immersion into the noisy world of heavy metal, you’d be forgiven for wondering what this is doing here. As, indeed, was I when I realised that it had been released during my first week at university. It is, therefore, another of those albums which has bled through from the future, but not – it turns out – from as far into the future as I originally thought.
It’s an example of what I meant when I said I was much exercised by chart music during those first couple of years in Edinburgh. I may not have been buying it, but the radio was on from early morning to the end of the day, and I was listening to all manner of things in those hours. I do vividly remember being astounded by Once in a Lifetime, which came out as a single early in 1981, and working hard to figure out the words. It sat in my brain for months with its nagging rhythms and the clear sense that while I wasn’t sure what David Byrne was singing about, it was perfectly possible that neither was he.
Remain in Light appeared in the Airyhall library collection that following summer, when I was back in Aberdeen and driving a van for the summer. There’s another album on this list which captures that time more clearly for me, but this was one of the first times I’d lifted my head from the relentless riffing of my usual record collection for about eighteen months, and it reminded me that there was a whole other world of music out there which I’d read about, even heard, but never properly listened to.
But there’s a lot packed in to the expression ‘properly listened to’ there. My faithful red plastic record payer was still my primary method of hearing new music, and I don’t remember ever changing the needle on it, or figuring out how to listen to it through headphones, or anything which might have improved the listening experience, and exposed me to the music the way the artist had intended.
While at home over the summer, though, I did have access to the family record player – I think we called them ‘music centres’ still, but there might have been some other technical term which I’ve lost track of now. The one in my parents’ living room by the summer of 1981 had proper stereo speakers and, crucially, a built in cassette tape deck, which meant that my library finds could be carefully copied over to cassettes in a way which not only preserved a lot more of the sound, but entirely eliminated the background noises off I was used to hearing on the cobbled-together tapes I’d made up to now.
It was almost as good as having an original copy, and a large number of library borrowings found their way on to blank tapes over the next couple of summers. When I eventually came to dispose of my tape collection, prior to moving to Canada (they genuinely were too heavy and bulky to move, and many of them were in terrible condition), I found all manner of things I’d completely forgotten about, including my original copy of this album, which I had long since replaced with a CD copy.
I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to remember what was on the other side of the cassette – my standard process was to buy bulk C90 tapes (which were surely manufactured for the sole purpose of allowing people to record entire albums on one side) from Boots, and borrow two albums from the library with the intention of making a perfect pair, since once played, the downside of the humble compact cassette was that you pretty much had to play the other side, or spend several minutes fast forwarding through it.
And you try to tell kids today that; they won’t believe you….
So, given that I played Remain in Light often enough to etch it permanently into my brain, what was the other album I thought would set it off perfectly? After much head-scratching, I’m left still unsure. There are a number of candidates – albums I only ever owned on copied cassette, but the dates don’t work for pretty much any of them – I know that Remain in Light entered my life in the summer of 1981, because I can pinpoint a couple of specific memories around that time, and I remember clearly how much it stood out form the other stuff I was buying. A couple of years later, and it would have been much less remarkable.
Maybe I put an Iron Maiden album on the other side, or something. I genuinely don’t remember, which distresses me a little.
I do, however, remember being enthralled and startled by the sounds on this album. I don’t know if I was particularly aware of what the influences and background to all of this was; I do remember being hypnotised by it; humming and singing along in a semi-trance to songs I barely understood.
We’ll eventually get to the band which dominated my musical tastes in these years – it does feel strange to me to have got this far without mentioning Rush – but I have room for one story, which perhaps underlines why I loved this album as much as I did at a time when I wasn’t listening to anything else remotely like it.
I first saw Rush perform at the deeply unlovely and unsuitable Ingliston (The Royal Highland Exhibition Hall, to give it it’s full title) in the November of 1981, and while there is much which is memorable about that night, one of the things which stuck out for me was that, right in the middle of the carefully curated pre-show mixtape which was doing its best to distract us from the fact that this place was cold, draughty, uncomfortable and all on the level, meaning we’d be barely able to see the band; alongside songs by Jethro Tull and Supertramp was Once in a Lifetime; it even got a reference in the programme (“same as it ever was”).
If my heroes approved of this album, then I must have known what I was doing when I picked it up in the library – it was definitely the beginning of my journey back into the mainstream of music.
But not too mainstream, to be fair.
The music on Remain in Light is complex and shifting, not obviously destined for the pop charts, and that must have appealed to me then, as it does now. I was – or had been – studying and reading all kinds of more or less experimental literature, and I was exposed to disconcerting and thought-provoking art (because I felt that being a student in a big city obligated me to go and see whatever exhibitions were in town; I saw a lot of fascinating stuff over those four years) – this album fitted right into all of that. The cover and inner sleeve are works of art, and so, I think now, is the music.
Born Under Punches doesn’t ease us in gently; there’s a relentless rhythmic device, with all kinds of strange, unidentifiable sounds floating and darting across the canvas. It’s not about anything you can easily put your finger on, and sounds like nothing I’d ever heard before. I’m sure I didn’t succumb easily to the charms of this album, and I’m pretty certain I would have had to work at it despite the clear and fluid melodies. I think it says something about me, even in the grip of power chords and tortured guitar solos that there was room in my life for this, and all that followed from it.
I wonder now about the context of all of this – Crosseyed and Painless features a spoken word segment which draws on early hiphop, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been aware of any of that at the time; so what did I make of it? It didn’t cause the scales to fall from my eyes or anything, but I like to think that it opened me up to a world of music I’d previously paid little or no attention to. It’s certainly true that I moved into other parts of the record shop after this; even into entire shops I’d previously waled by because they didn’t specialise in what I thought I liked.
The Great Curve is, perhaps, the key to all of this. It’s driven by a completely irresistible rhythm, and under all the fluid bass and treated guitar work – the first time I’d been made aware of Adrian Belew – I can hear rock and roll rhythms as well – I think it is the key track in figuring out how this all hangs together. The fact that the rhythms, some of the sounds, and even part of the lyric are inspired by African music passed me by a little at the time. What I heard was “new” music – it was something we took for granted at the time; that music would appear which didn’t sound remotely like anything we’d heard before, and we’d just absorb it and move on to the next thing.
Side two opens with the song I already knew and loved – the start of side two is the right and proper place for the best-known song, I think – and it anchored me a little into the album, because in context, it made perfect sense. Once in a Lifetime was an extraordinary song to hear coming out of your cheap transistor radio in the middle of the day; it was a hit single without compromising what it was about, and how it fitted into the album. I can’t imagine it getting anywhere these days, but 1981 was a strange old place, and almost anything could sell enough copies to get on the radio, even this slice of middle-aged paranoia set to a beat which never settles down.
I’m struck by how both the lyric sheet and the back cover list the tracks out of sequence; I can’t tell you if that was the same on my original copy, because I only had it in my hands for a week or so before it went back to the library. Either way, it takes a minute for me to identify the next track as Houses in Motion with its curious treated wind instruments – it’s only the liner notes which reassure me that these aren’t sound effects, but actual horns and trumpets made to sound like – well, made to sound like the kind of instrument which would turn up on Remain in Light.
I love the spoken word element of Seen and not Seen; it makes me think of some of the ‘weird fiction’ I’d been reading; it’s a deeply unsettling musing on having the ability to change one’s appearance by force of will, over the backing track which enjoys not having to fit itself around the patterns of verse and chorus, and just runs free, wherever it wants to go.
Listening Wind is the most obviously African of all these songs, and I surely can’t have been oblivious to that at the time. I recently read Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which is a mostly true story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and this song is now indelibly linked in my mind to that tale of survival in a world which is barely comprehensible to the protagonist; I feel like the wind which blows through this song is the same one which blows through the long march and the refugee camps. The song is written as much more of a off-kilter slightly futuristic picture, but the events of that story were in the future when this was written, and it resonates strongly with me. I’m always delighted to find new connections in music I know well, and this has changed my perspective on a song I thought I knew well.
The final track is The Overload which I recognised instantly as being much more like the kind of music which came through the walls in my halls of residence from my neighbours than any of the bouncy funk-styled sounds of the rest of the album. It feels now like a deliberate attempt to tap in to that sound, but there’s more than enough of the disjointed and curious instrumentation which features throughout the rest of Remain in Light that it’s more likely just another direction the band wanted to take these same musical ideas. I don’t hear Joy Division in it, as some seem to; I hear Talking Heads slowing everything down to see what else they can make out of this sound.
I fear I haven’t done the album justice; it was, and remains, a particular favourite which reminds me strongly of a time when I was wrestling with my musical tastes – there are a few more albums like this coming up; albums which turned my head and set me on a different path.
I don’t mean that there are other albums exactly like this one coming up; I don’t think there’s another album even slightly like this one anywhere; it stands alone as a piece of experimentation which became staggeringly successful and popular despite its attempts to hold the listener at arm’s length. I loved it because of that, and I have owned several copies over the years, including the vinyl re-release I just listened to as I tried to review it.
It’s as familiar to me as any of the others on this list – more familiar than most – yet it defies description still, constantly slipping through my fingers, just out of reach. It’s magnificent, partly because of that, and partly because it neither apologises for what it is or tries to explain itself; it’s as much a work of art as it is a record album, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to put it on this list.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Many of them; none, in my opinion, as completely realised as this. You couldn’t define or pigeonhole Talking Heads, even when they were having hits and selling millions of records; only by listening to the albums (in order, I think) can you get a sense of what they were all about. I’d try them all – each is distinctly different from the last, and each has much to recommend it.
Compilations to consider?
I had a copy of Sand in the Vaseline at one time, which is a fascinating compilation of rarities and all the hits. Later compilations seem to want to focus on the hits; but hit singles are much less than half of the Talking Heads experience.
Well, of course. The Name of this Band is Talking Heads is terrific, but somewhat overshadowed by the majesty of Stop Making Sense, which crackles and fizzes with life on the album version, but is an almost transcendent experience in the film, which is what you should seek out. One of, if not the greatest concert movies ever made.
I did the movie up there, so let me point you to the written works of David Byrne, including How Music Works, which reads exactly the way you’d expect a book about music by David Byrne to read, and manages to squeeze a lot of autobiography into the musings on the nature of music and whatever else crosses David’s mind when he thinks about music.
And one more, splendid, thing: the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo released her version of Remain in Light in 2018, taking the music back to its African roots, and providing a fresh and surprising insight into what makes this album work. Highly recommended if you’re already a fan of the original; it’s joyful and thoughtful at once.