Talking Heads - Remain in Light (1980)

Strap on your legwarmers, pop on your shoulder pads and set your hair dryer to stun as we take a retrospective look at our favourite 80s pop records and their influence on current styles.

Brian Eno had established himself as a musical genius and certified weirdo well before he met David Byrne. Throughout the early 1970s Eno’s work with Roxy Music and his marvellous solo output was more than enough to concrete his name into the minds of anyone who considered themselves musically aware. Eno’s influence on glam rock, new wave, electronica and ambient music during the 1970s alone was simply unprecedented and by the end of the decade he was already certified music royalty.

David Byrne had had a far quieter decade. His band Talking Heads didn’t release their outstanding debut effort 77 until 1977 but it was no less influential than any of the music Eno had been working on around this time. 77 seemingly marked the beginning of the New Wave, a genre of music combining the punk aesthetic of foreword-thinking bands like The Clash, Modern Lovers and Television with the prominent glam rock and electronica of the era. Talking Heads would be forerunners of this genre for the next couple of years and remain one of the genre’s most important artists.

When Eno and Byrne joined forces in 1978 for Talking Heads’ second album, there was no doubting the pairing was to produce mammoth results. Both artists had already established themselves as game-changers and the three albums they released between 1978 and 1980 would prove to be the highpoints of both artists’ careers.

1978’s More Songs about Building and Food and 1979’s Fear of Music would mark gradual improvements on the Talking Heads sound. Their core aesthetic, led by David Byrne’s unique vocals, remained unchanged, but Eno managed to get more from the band with each subsequent recording. Eno challenged Byrne and Byrne challenged Eno, the egos of these individuals pushing each other to dizzying heights of creativity by the end of the decade.

By 1980’s Remain in Light — the third and final album Talking Heads recorded with Brian Eno — the band had almost completely reinvented themselves. Gone were the minimal, edgy-punk aesthetics of 77; the band instead toying with the extended funk jams more akin to African music than anything expected from a bunch of nerdy white Americans.

The influence of African music wasn’t coincidental. Byrne had taken a keen interest in African literature and guitarist Jerry Harrison had produced an album for the soul artist Nona Hendryx. Meanwhile, the band’s husband and wife rhythm section of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth spent time in the Caribbean learning about native instruments and socialising with Sly and the Family Stone’s reggae rhythm section.

When the group finally came together to begin work on Remain in Light in July 1980 they must have been bulging with ideas. Convinced they needed to try something new, the group decided to base songs around extended jams and complex loops. Many of the songs on Remain in Light would stem from one idea instead of the usual song structure involving different ideas for verses and choruses. The group would record the instruments one at a time and loop riffs and ideas endlessly, enabling labyrinthine polyrhythms and syncopated beats. The best examples of the rhythmic complexities on Remain in Light can be heard on the track “The Great Curve”. The different instruments and vocal lines snake in and out of each other to remarkable effect and the entire six-and-a-half minute freak out is based around one simple loop. At a time when computers were still unable to perform such tasks, Eno’s incomparable abilities as producer would have been absolutely paramount to this process.

Amidst all of the arty and weird creativity, Talking Heads were able to intricately weave the pop elements of their previous releases into Remain in Light to enable an album of equal success both critically and commercially. Somehow, the public latched on to “Once in a Lifetime” as a lead single (it is impossible to imagine a song as strange as this cracking the Australian top 50 singles chart nowadays); Byrne’s preaching chorus combined with that groove-laden beat managed to get under the skin of many listeners in the early 1980s. “Once in a Lifetime” remains Talking Heads’ crowning achievement and one of the only songs which can accurately reflect the band’s ability to be both strikingly weird and unforgettably infectious.

The turn of the decade must have brought something out in both Brian Eno and Talking Heads, as neither artist had achieved such creativity alone. Unfortunately, it would seem that neither artist would manage to recreate the highs set by Remain in Light either. David Byrne and Brian Eno stopped working together following this release and would remain musically separated for over 25 years. In the years following Remain in Light, both artists involved themselves in safer, more commercial projects. Brian Eno went on to work with U2 throughout most of the 1980s and the final four Talking Heads albums were more interested in pure pop songwriting than wild Afrofunk strangeness.

Regardless of what followed, Remain in Light is simply one of the greatest albums of all time. It is an important album which marked the sweeping shifts music would make in the 1980s. It paved the way for disco, alternative rock, digital recording, dance and even hip-hop. Following its release, white artists were more comfortable experimenting with African music and vice versa. With Remain in Light David Byrne and Brian Eno had concreted themselves as among the most important artists in music history and pop music has never been the same since.

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