Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit an art-rock masterpiece, a thrilling synthesis of artifice and Afrobeat.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht is credited with the aphorism “a theater without beer is just a museum.” No one can point to where he actually said it, but let us indulge a system of attribution where publication and page are less important than what we feel like Brecht would say. The idea is appealing: that art without a visceral element—without something that hits your gut and intoxicates you—is dead. As much as we like to think about art, art is not for our brains. At nearly every turn, Remain in Light thwarts cognitive sense to appeal to the gut. Or maybe the limbic system? I’m not a doctor—whatever part of human physiology is responsible for getting funky.
By 1980, the conflict in music between what was thought and what was felt was in full cry. As disco continued to monopolize music you could dance to, rock reached a point of maximum theoretical sincerity. Pink Floyd’s The Wall, possibly the least ironic recording of all time, was the No. 1 album in America for 15 weeks. It was finally unseated by Bob Seger’s Against the Wind, which was knocked out of the top spot by Billy Joel’s Glass Houses. Ostensibly, these were works of deep sentiment. To a generation of punks, though, they were rock at its most bloodless and calculating.
Although they were a new wave band, Talking Heads operated within New York’s larger punk scene, which was predicated on rejecting the artifice of late-’70s rock. Punk sought a music that was felt and not just performed. And yet, Talking Heads were conspicuously artificial. David Byrne made his approach to both songwriting and performance as unnatural as possible. He wrote Dada lyrics about parking lots and fire. His vocals were marred by cracks and unnatural modulations that thwarted melody. Onstage, his movements gave the impression of nervousness but, like, a performed nervousness: When he danced, he seemed to be making fun of dancing.
In short, he acted fake. But his fakery was so consistent, its logic so continuously evident, that it became a convincing public identity. In performance and on record, there was no part of Byrne that was not himself. As a result, his artifice seemed more honest than Seger’s verge-of-tears yarling or Pink Floyd’s proggy self-pity. The central insight of Talking Heads—what made them not just weird but exciting and relevant—was that their art-house affectation felt more sincere than a lot of American culture.
The band’s progression can be understood as a continual overlaying of artifices. While other punk acts pursued authenticity by stripping down, Talking Heads built up. They first performed as Talking Heads in 1975, opening for the Ramones at CBGB as a trio, with Byrne on vocals and guitar, Tina Weymouth on bass, and Chris Frantz on drums. Shortly before releasing their first studio album, Talking Heads: 77, they added keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison. They began collaborating with producer Brian Eno for More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978, followed by Fear of Music in 1979. Eno kept pushing the band toward new sounds and instruments until the Remain in Light tour was traveling with 10 musicians in the band.
This mass created the impression that Talking Heads was a collective—one that might embark on a familiar song only to arrive somewhere wild and strange. “There is something essential about losing control over what you do,” Weymouth told the Canadian zine Pig Paper in 1977. This would also turn out to be a central insight, as the band increasingly coupled its conceptual experiments with rhythm arrangements designed to make its core members—and its audience—lose control.
Talking Heads’ belief that artifice could feel more real than fake sincerity paved the way for future art rock acts, but Remain in Light differs from successors like Laurie Anderson or Life Without Buildings in that you can dance to it. The rhythm arrangements on this album are irresistible. They are the visceral complement to Byrne’s conceptual lyrics about air conditioning and his face. This combination of gutsy rhythms and heady words elevates songs like “Crosseyed and Painless” from nonsense to dream logic. What begins as an idea becomes, in its fullest expression, a feeling.
The synthesis succeeds due to Byrne and Eno’s incorporation of a third, unfamiliar element: Afrobeat, a style of music that became popular in Ghana and Nigeria during the 1960s. The pioneering artist of Afrobeat was Fela Kuti, whose 1973 album Afrodisiac Eno played for Byrne the night they met in 1977. According to Eno, Afrodisiac would become the template for Remain in Light.
Afrobeat combined American funk and jazz influences with West-African polyrhythms, a term drummers use to stop people from talking to them at parties. Essentially, a polyrhythm superimposes beats in different time signatures over one another. You can hear this technique in isolation during the opening bars of Kuti’s “Why Black Man Dey Suffer,” which puts three sets of triplets over cut time before building to a complete rhythm. Whole dissertations are written about this branch of music theory. Even the simple explanations are impenetrable to people without percussion backgrounds, but the head will bob independently of the twitching feet, and there you have in dancing what the brain refuses to grasp.
Talking Heads experimented with polyrhythms on 1979’s Fear of Music with “I, Zimbra,” speeding them up and maintaining an overarching 4/4 beat. The opening track of Remain in Light, “Born Under Punches,” preserves the frenetic speed but dispenses with beat in favor of rhythm. It bursts into a multilayered guitar, bass, and drum pattern that resists counting but demands dancing, yanking the listener into a cloud of short, sharp noises with only involuntary movements to guide us through.
Over this background, Byrne bellows: “Take a look at these hands/The hand speaks/The hand of a government man.” Later he adds, “I’m so thin.” These words do not make sense. They mimic the condition of the listener amid the swirl of polyrhythms, though, caught in a moment of reflection that yields no insight but only feelings. It is the sound of stage-two cocaine addiction, when you are always doing something but never know what to do. The hand speaks: We lose control of ourselves, and what we have done becomes our new identity. The elliptical lyrics at the beginning of Remain in Light can be read as an artist’s statement: Taking their music in an unpredictable new direction, Talking Heads have found their essence by losing control over what they do.
And then there’s “Once in a Lifetime,” which remains enjoyable precisely because it resists interpretation. Its “You may find yourself/You may ask yourself” motif makes it clear that it is about experiencing a moment of alienation from your own life and taking stock—but to conclude what? The chorus is about where water is located. Byrne sings it in a call-and-response style with the rest of the band (also a signature feature of Afrobeat) and the ecstatic, congregational atmosphere makes it feel like an answer to the existential questions of the verses. But you cannot say what any of it means. This ineffable quality is what makes “Once in a Lifetime” feel like a moving song about the scope of your whole life no matter how many times you hear it.
Although Remain in Light has become an acknowledged classic, it retains a feeling of unfamiliarity. It is tempting to attribute this quality to Byrne’s obtuse lyrics, but the album’s instrumental arrangements also constitute a break with rock’s conventional forms. Weymouth’s bassline on “Crosseyed and Painless” crowds staccato bursts of notes into the first half of each measure, leaving the second half empty in a way that defines the percussion pattern. This technique, essential to funk, diverges from rock’s standard practice of using the bass to keep time. Perhaps the album’s greatest heresy, though, is its total absence of guitar riffs. Like Weymouth, Harrison prefers to use his instrument as a noisemaker. His howling fills on “Listening Wind” lend a foreboding, unpredictable atmosphere to lyrics that are as close as Byrne gets to conventional narrative. These tracks do not hew as strictly to Afrobeat forms as “Once in a Lifetime” or “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” but they still manage to introduce a coherent sound that is alien to mainstream rock.
Without Afrobeat, though, there is no Remain in Light. The central role of West-African polyrhythms in the album’s sound draws attention to a curious aspect of its longevity. Could a group of white musicians playing Afrobeat be taken sincerely in 2018? Virtually every genre of American music, including punk and especially rock, is taken from black forms. Afrobeat is not African-American, though; it’s straight-up African. The 21st-century sensibility finds something problematic in a band of white art-school types playing West African music. Earlier this year, the Beninese musician Angelique Kidjo released her own version of Remain in Light, which NPR described as “an authentic Afrobeat record” compared to the original. Given how closely Kidjo followed the Talking Heads’ arrangements, this description raises questions about what we mean when we say “authentic.”
The success of Remain in Light—undeniable regardless of our ideas about the degree to which artists should respect historically ethnic divisions between musical forms—forces us to reckon with the album’s contradictions. Rock is a more welcoming genre today than it was in 1980, and punk has never seemed closer to the perennial danger that it will become a parody of itself. Still, it is hard to imagine a current underground rock band like Joyce Manor taking a turn toward the music of the Nigerian Afropop star Davido without getting laughed into oblivion. The fact that Talking Heads pulled it off so spectacularly, even 38 years ago, is a tribute to their aptitude as students of music.
There is something motivational about Remain in Light, not just as dance music but as expression. On “Seen and Not Seen,” Byrne speculates that a man might change his appearance “by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in the back of his mind.” It’s an absurd commentary on the nature of vanity, but it also declares a touching faith in artistic willpower—a faith Remain in Light rewards. The album presents such a strange artistic vision, foreign to what came before but operating as though it were the culmination of a long tradition, that it seems to declare the power of weirdness itself. To be not just strange but singular, to reinvent a form in a way that you can dance to, to smuggle beer into the museum: This is the visceral thrill of art. We want to deny it on theoretical grounds, but we can’t. So we must revise our theories.
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