And The Heat Goes On: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light At 40

Their fourth album may have been born under punches, and may still raise questions over its authorship for the band’s exceptional rhythm section – but, writes David Bennun, it hangs together perfectly, and it never seems to age

It’s a parlour game we all love to play, however much we may disclaim it: listing our favourite records ever. The “ever” bit is the tricky part. Easy enough to pick your favourites this moment, this week, this year. But ever? Forever, ever – forever, ever?

Give it long enough, though, and the answer just comes to you.

F’rinstance, I know what my very favourite album of all time is, not because I had to decide upon it, but because I one day realised I had returned to it throughout my life more often and with greater consistency than any other, and I still wasn’t tired of it, never once had been, not even close. I have never stopped hearing new things in Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. Never outgrown it, never felt blasé about it, never been indifferent to it or wondered just why I became so fascinated by it. Age cannot wither it nor custom stale its infinite variety.

As you may gather, I really, really like it.

And if you’re going to like a Talking Heads record, you have to like David Byrne. No band of creative peers has ever been more defined by the persona of its frontman or frontwoman – not even The Doors, or Blondie, or Joy Division. Which is liable to make the creative peers feel hard done by, and understandably so.

Major bands with a substantial body of work whose classic line-up is, in all significant respects, their only line-up are rare (curiously, they almost always seem to be quartets; The Beatles, ABBA, U2, Talking Heads.) Talking Heads were a band without makeweights. Remove any element, replace any member, and you would get a very different band. Even with all the members in place, balance is key.

Witness the difference between Talking Heads operating as collective – the period which peaked, studio-wise, with Remain In Light – and Talking Heads post-Stop Making Sense, when Byrne’s particular interests and whims decisively capsized the organic unity of the band, and they turned into retailers of superior pastiche.

The more you learn about David Byrne – and, especially, the more you learn about what bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz think about David Byrne – the harder it becomes to like him. Yeah, yeah, I know; separate the artist from the art, and all that. Except that, as principles go, that one is no principle at all. There’s no should or shouldn’t about it; it isn’t even a choice. It’s simply a matter of whether you do or don’t, can or can’t; whether the art still moves you in light of the knowledge.

It’s not that Byrne is charmless; far from it. As a public figure, in recent years, he writes and talks with unarguable magnetism – and as a creative force he remains formidable. His band reinvented the possibilities of live performance in the mid-Eighties; in 2018, his American Utopia tour went and did the same thing all over again. And in any divorce – even one involving a band; especially one involving a band – one should always be cautious about accepting one side’s account as gospel.

For all that, Weymouth’s stories of being taken for granted as both workhorse and glue in the band’s earliest days will ring true to anyone who takes an unblinkered look at gender relations in that day or this. It evidently, and justifiably, continues to needle her that at key points in the band’s upward trajectory, for which she was perhaps more responsible than anybody – she quite literally kept the show on the road – she was obliged by Byrne to, in effect, audition for her own job.

Plenty of bands have engaged in callous, even ruthless behaviour of this kind: The Beatles dropping Pete Best, who had been crucial to keeping the band a going concern, for Ringo Starr (both a much better drummer and a much better fit) upon signing to Parlophone comes to mind. Rock & roll and ethics are uneasy bedfellows at the best of time, and the ends, if successful, retroactively justify the means. Kevin Rowland belatedly and famously apologised to Dexys Midnight Runners co-founder Kevin Archer for lifting Archer’s “Celtic soul” blueprint, devised after the latter left the band; but Rowland simply used the purloined idea more ingeniously than its originator ever did – Archer suffered, music was the beneficiary.

Yet Weymouth’s “auditions” weren’t only a personal injustice, a callous affront to someone who had given so much; they were also artistically indefensible. It’s unimaginable that there could have been a better bassist for Talking Heads than Weymouth. Even when the redoubtable Busta Jones joined the touring ensemble, there still wasn’t.

A couple of years back I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Frantz, chiefly about his memories of New York in the Seventies. When I touched on the later animus between Byrne and his ex-bandmates, the genial Frantz was quick to downplay it, striking a conciliatory, water-under-the-bridge tone. So, even as a long-time supporter of Team Tina, I found myself taken aback by his recent memoir, Everybody I’ve Ever Met Is Terrific And David Byrne Is A C*\. (I may have misremembered the title.)

Evidently Frantz had been keeping his powder dry for the book. Remain In Love – its actual title acknowledges their fourth album’s primacy in Talking Heads’ catalogue – is reminiscent in style of the chatty round-robin Christmas newsletters sent out by the kind of WASP-y families into which both Frantz and Weymouth were born, catching up friends and relatives on the year’s events: “Son Chris has joined a band! In New York, of all places. It’s a little rough and ready there, and it certainly came as a surprise to us, but he’s taking a pretty good shot at it! Go Chris!”

It strays from this affable tone only when it stabs at Byrne from hell’s dark heart. One comes away with the impression Byrne is the only person Frantz has ever actively, unceasingly hated. Not without reason, in fairness. There have been two loves in Frantz’s life: his wife, and playing drums in one of the greatest bands there ever was. Byrne repeatedly undermined the first, and unilaterally deprived him of the second. Yet there are moments when the grievance seems misplaced, or at least when one can appreciate Byrne’s choices. One of the most notable occurs with Frantz’s account of the recording and release of Remain In Light:

We all agreed that writers’ credits on the album cover should be “All Songs by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth.” The names were in alphabetical order … Well, evidently David couldn’t help himself and probably [producer] Brian [Eno] was in on it, but when we received our advance copies of Remain in Light, the writing credits on the cover had been changed to “All Songs By David Byrne, Brian Eno, Talking Heads.” … This was especially hurtful because, without our persistence, love, and musicianship, Remain in Light would never have been made.

Frantz also alleges that Eno had wanted equal billing as an artist – Remain In Light By Talking Heads And Brian Eno – which would indeed have been a demand of brass neck. Not that Eno wasn’t integral to the album – but that was his job. Writing credits are one thing, artist credits another. It’s hard to picture him having the front to make a similar demand of, say, David Bowie.

Yet Frantz’s own account of the process by which the album was made inadvertently substantiates the final writing credits, as they appeared on the sleeve. (The LP label credited most songs only to Byrne and Eno, which was a shabby do.) On Byrne’s suggestion (which pleasantly surprised Frantz), the group approached the initial sessions as musical equals, with no foregrounding of the singer, and with Eno, at his own request, treated as a band member. They also took up the latter’s suggestion “that we should use the recording studio as a tool for writing … The music would be created by the band members out of improvisation.”

A few days in, Rhett Davis, who had engineered and mixed Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, quit the sessions, complaining that Eno would veto anything that sounded like hit material. “Well, we were in accord with Brian,” writes Frantz. “We loved pop music, we really did, but now we were interested in creating sounds that would take us deeper and far beyond what people had come to expect from us.”

Frantz and Weymouth pushed themselves to create extraordinary rhythm parts, “loops performed live”, to which Byrne and Harrison (the missing man in these narratives, whose own impact, perhaps due to his relative reticence, is sorely overlooked) would then add their own embellishments. With these tracks laid down by the core quartet, the sessions moved from Compass Point studios in the Bahamas to a second phase in New York, at Sigma Sound. There, Frantz and Weymouth were hurt and horrified to find that Eno, with Byrne’s collusion, excluded them from the process.

And who wouldn’t be? To be dismissed from your own band’s album must be galling. But the proof of the pudding lies in the eating; and the record that Byrne and Eno created from those, if not raw, then part-cooked ingredients – whose superlative quality owed everything to the foundational brilliance of Weymouth and Frantz – feels unimprovable. Of course, there’s no way to know if finishing the album the way the band started it – collaboratively, as creative equals – wouldn’t have resulted in something even better. It’s just hard to envision how. At a push, one supposes, it might have been differently perfect.

This, in rough outline (it is an intricate record with an intricate backstory), is how the album was made. The band played their two stages of jam sessions. Then Eno (chiefly) constructed edits from various passages adorned with transformative overdubs by guitarist Adrian Belew and percussionist Jose Rossy (whose contributions were cut up and deployed in short bursts). Byrne (after fighting off writer’s block with recourse to methods borrowed from African musicians and from hip hop; the second at Frantz’s suggestion) created vocals, lyrics and melodies on top of these. It mirrors, and largely anticipates, the way hip hop producers and rappers work from beats and samples – the equivalents of those “loops performed live”. Nobody – apart, perhaps, from those with a vested interest – would dispute that the originators of the beats and samples should be credited; nor does anyone deny that the final form and character of the thing comes from the MC and the producer.

By this point, Byrne and Eno had already completed, although been unable to release, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which Eno called their “vision of a psychedelic Africa”, influenced by earlier experiments in found sound by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Holger Czukay (Remain In Light also owes a great deal to Can in its broader sound and feel), and The Beatles. It would be duly lauded as a leap forward in the use of cut-up and sampling techniques, and in treating the studio as an instrument. That the pair then applied much of what they had learned and accomplished on that record to the new Talking Heads album may have infuriated the rhythm section, but it generated a matchless masterwork. The present crediting of all songs to "David Byrne, Brian Eno, Talking Heads", rather than a straight split between all five protagonists, as Frantz said was originally agreed, or the Byrne and Eno land-grab of the original LP label, seems a fair reflection of the process.

Questions of authorship are frequently tricky in pop music, and especially so on music that is generated in a band session. Why shouldn’t a musician who comes up with a vital riff, line, beat or phrase feel cheated if they go uncredited? At the same time, why shouldn’t the person who orders and coheres the results, gives them the form of a song, not think of the song as theirs? When Weymouth presented the Bass episode of the BBC documentary series Guitar, Drum And Bass, she prompted Bootsy Collins to recall how James Brown would automatically claim credit for everything his players came up with, adding, “I’ve been in that situation. We sit around, everybody comes up with a part, and we’re just cooking along, and then the lead cat says… ‘I wrote a song.’” That may well have been the case with Remain In Light’s predecessor, the superb Fear Of Music, on which Byrne alone was originally – and outrageously – accorded all the songwriting credits. But on Remain In Light itself, the credits as they stand seem about right.

And if they weren’t, how would you unpick it? Could there possibly be an album more unfeasible to unravel, to reverse-engineer, then this most hectic and dense of magnum opi, whose surging, darting, haunted, whitewashed Afrofunk is so magnificent and thrilling a tangle? I recall it was the writer David Quantick who observed that it slows down track by track, and while the BPM count tells a slightly different story, it certainly feels that way. It opens like a top spinning after the crack of a whip – a clatter, a simultaneous cry and explosion: “Aah!”/pow! – flurries and squalls of atonal treble, quivering and scrambling, as if only its momentum stops it ricocheting off the walls and tumbling to the floor, another falling body. It closes, with slow, enervated finality, at last dropping sideways and rolling on its rim as the last of its astonishing energy gives way to entropy.

Did Talking Heads really create ‘The Overload’, that (in the old-fashioned sense) dismal coda, as a tribute to Joy Division, working purely from descriptions they’d read? It’s a splendid legend, but it seems unlikely that no member of a band so plugged-in, one that had toured Britain extensively, had ever heard anything by the English group. No matter; no track has ever served a great album so effectively as a burial ritual – not ‘A Day In The Life’ on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, its concluding piano chord so memorably likened by Philip Norman to the slamming shut of a coffin lid; not even ‘Decades’ from Joy Division’s own Closer, an album that unwittingly announced itself as a scene from the tomb. And it is so effective because it serves as the funeral procession for an album with a life like no other.

The first side of Remain In Light is the part that defines it; the side with the whirlwind dynamism, the side where everything comes at you all at once. Its three tracks – ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ (if that “Aah!”/pow! doesn’t hook you from the first instant, you are stone, my friend, stone), ‘Crosseyed And Painless’, with its tongue-twister near-rap about how “facts don’t do what I want them to” (remember when that mattered to anyone? Heady days), ‘The Great Curve’ (those twining contra-vocals! Belew’s elephantine guitar! The rapturous, quasi-mystical fertility-goddess imagery!) – make up an exhilarating, inexorable blizzard that somehow transcends all its sources.

Byrne and Eno were, obviously, fascinated by West African music, but they did not simply cop a few polyrhythms and bolt nervy new wave ideas onto them. For a record whose creation was so piecemeal and at times so laboured, Remain In Light feels strikingly spontaneous and natural, especially on that first side, which might have come spiralling out of the sky at you like some freak weather event. A muso magazine in the Eighties reported that, on a subsequent trip to West Africa, Eno found the musicians he so admired all listening, fascinated, to Talking Heads. Granted, if Eno were an ice cream he would never knowingly go self-unlicked, but even presuming him to be the source of the story, it’s a credible one.

If Talking Heads have a signature song, then even more than ‘Psycho Killer’, even more than ‘Burning Down The House’, ‘Once In A Lifetime’, which opens side two, is surely the one. It’s so familiar, so beloved, so immediately and everlastingly catchy, that it’s easy to no longer notice just how weird it is. As is often the way, while seeking to do their most self-consciously experimental work, the band fashioned their finest moment of pure pop. Has any magnificent pop song been quite so eccentric; has anything quite so eccentric become so magnificent a pop song? A gorgeous liquid ripple; one of those aforementioned loops, ascending, descending, punctuated by Byrne doing the TV preacher shtick that, like all inspired ideas, seems altogether obvious once lightning has struck its originator; then the dissolve into the chorus, the currents of time running simultaneously backwards and forwards, flow and undertow, wave and wash, river and sea. It is extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily profound, more meaningful and moving than, we may guess, anybody involved, even Byrne, had any notion it would be – and it is thus an extraordinary vindication of the way he and Eno chose to work. It wasn’t fair, no. The greatest art seldom is.

That ‘Once In A Lifetime’ does not render what follows – or what precedes it – redundant is a further illustration of just what a marvellous album this is. ‘Houses In Motion’ is perhaps the strangest dreamscape on here; no sooner does the tempo slow down enough for us to get our bearings, than the landmarks themselves start dancing around us, a heavy, swaying undulation, and we’re lost again. (The longer live version on the under-regarded live double LP The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, by the dazzling nine-piece touring outfit that took Remain In Light on the road, is even more deliciously and deliriously unsettling. Every time one sees or hears live archive of the band, one sympathises more and more with Frantz’s frustration, then fury, that they never toured after 1984. It was Byrne’s prerogative, yes; but at what grievous cost to both band and public.)

‘Seen And Not Seen’, and ‘Listening Wind’, are spooky as all get-out, in very different ways. The first, setting Byrne’s deadpan spoken vocal against a gently pulsating backdrop, feels in hindsight like a near-blueprint, certainly in mood and in theme (an existential meditation on appearance and identity), for what Laurie Anderson would soon commit to record. The second features one of Byrne’s most remarkable feats of lyric writing, putting himself inside not only the mind but the soul of a terrorist/ insurgent/ partisan – choose according to your inclination – planning and executing a bomb attack on an American target in his country. The languid, eerie, pattering loveliness of the music – and Remain In Light, it should be noted, sounds amazing throughout, something for which engineer and mixer Dave Jerden, later to produce the best work of Jane’s Addiction and Alice In Chains, should take substantial credit – imparts far more tension to the story than any overtly dramatic setting could have done. A year after America’s invasion of Iraq, Byrne would ruefully acknowledge the song’s prescience: “I don’t know if I could get away with performing that live anymore.”

If anybody has ever made an album that is more complex than Remain In Light yet runs more seamlessly, or feels closer to perfection, then I cannot think who or what. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth have plenty of good reasons to resent David Byrne and Brian Eno, but it’s a shame if this record is one of them. It is Talking Heads’ primary shot at immortality, and every single person involved did exactly what they needed to do, better than any other person could conceivably have done it. In the end it is the band’s name on the cover, the band’s music in its grooves, the band who collectively – and by a necessarily convoluted route – made not only their own masterpiece, but one of the supreme masterpieces of the age, and for the ages.

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