Remain in Light is the fourth studio album by American new wave band Talking Heads, released on October 8, 1980, on Sire Records. It was recorded at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia between July and August 1980 and was produced by the quartet's long-time collaborator Brian Eno.
Following the release of Fear of Music in 1979, Talking Heads and Eno sought to make an album that would dispel notions of the group as a mere vehicle for frontman and chief lyricist David Byrne. Drawing on the influence of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the group experimented with African polyrhythms, funk, and electronics, recording instrumental tracks as a series of sampled and looped grooves, an innovative technique at the time. Recording sessions also incorporated a variety of side musicians, including guitarist Adrian Belew, singer Nona Hendryx, and trumpet player Jon Hassell.
Byrne initially struggled with writer's block, but soon adopted a scattered stream-of-consciousness lyrical style inspired by early rap and academic literature on Africa. The artwork for Remain in Light was conceived by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, and was crafted with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computers and design company M&Co. Talking Heads expanded to nine members for a promotional tour, and following its completion the band went on hiatus for several years, leaving the individual members to pursue a variety of side-projects. The album was the last of the band's collaborations with Eno.
Remain in Light was widely acclaimed by critics, who praised its sonic experimentation, rhythmic innovations, and cohesive merging of disparate genres. The album peaked at number 19 on the Billboard 200 in the US and at number 21 on the UK Albums Chart. Two singles were released from Remain in Light: "Once in a Lifetime" and "Houses in Motion". The record was certified Gold in the US and in Canada during the 1980s. It has been featured in several publications' lists of the best albums of the 1980s and the best albums of all time, and it is often considered Talking Heads' magnum opus. In 2006, it was remastered and reissued with the addition of four unfinished outtakes.
In January 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 practised with several types of native percussion instruments. While in Jamaica they socialised 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 realised 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.
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 realise that the musical landscape was changing. Before the studio sessions, long-time friend 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 make use of "mistakes".
Recording sessions started at Compass Point Studios in July 1980. 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 with helping create the track "Once in a Lifetime", which was later released as a single. A Lexicon 224 digital reverb effects unit, obtained by engineer and mixer Dave Jerden, was used on the album. The machine was one of the first of its kind and able to simulate environments such as echo chambers and rooms through interchangeable programs. Like Davies, Jerden was unhappy with the fast pace at which 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 of 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 synthesiser.
Byrne recorded all the tracks, as they were after Belew had performed on them, in a cassette and looked to Africa to break his writer's block. He realised 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. 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. In August 1980, 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.
Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Remain in Light as a "dense amalgam of African percussion, funk bass and keyboards, pop songs, and electronics." It 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 travelled 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". 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 whilst 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 "rhythmical rant" in "Crosseyed and Painless"—"Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late."—is influenced by old school rap, specifically Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" given to Byrne by Frantz. "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 categorisation 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 synthesiser-treated 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.
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 honour of Weymouth's father, Ralph Weymouth, 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 (except for eyes, noses and mouths) were blotted out with blocks of red colour. 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 sceptical of hiring a designing firm, vetoed Kalman's ideas and held firm on the MIT computerised images. The designing process made the band members realise 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 of 1979–81.
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 design credits read "HCL, JPT, DDD, WALTER GP, PAUL, C/T". The final mass-produced version of Remain in Light boasted one of the first computer-designed record jackets. 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'."
Talking Heads and Eno originally agreed to credit all songs in alphabetical order to "David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison and Tina Weymouth" after failing to devise an accurate mathematical formula for the split, but the album was released with the label credit: "all songs written by David Byrne & Brian Eno (except "Houses In Motion" and 'The Overload", written by David Byrne, Brian Eno & Jerry Harrison)". Frantz, Harrison, and Weymouth disputed Byrne and Eno's attempt to claim sole credits, especially for a process they had partly funded. According to Weymouth, Byrne told Kalman to doctor the credits on Eno's advice. Later editions rectified the error.
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 soundchecks in Frantz and Weymouth's loft by following the rhythms established by Worrell, who had studied at the New England Conservatory and Juilliard School.
The expanded band's first appearance was on 23 August 1980 at the Heatwave festival in Canada in front of 70,000 people; Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times called the band's new music a "rock-funk sound with dramatic, near show-stopping force". On August 27, 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. The Canada and New York gigs were the only ones initially planned, but Sire Records decided to support the nine-member band on an extended tour. Following the promotional tour, the band went on hiatus for several years, leaving the individual members to pursue a variety of side-projects.
Remain in Light was released worldwide on October 8, 1980. Remain in Light received its world premiere airing in its entirety on 10 October 1980 on WDFM. According to writer David Sheppard, "it was received as a great cultural event as much as a vivid art-pop record." It was certified Gold by the Canadian Recording Industry Association in February 1981 after shipping 50,000 copies, and by Recording Industry Association of America in September 1985 after shipping 500,000 copies. Over one million copies have been sold worldwide.
The album has attained widespread acclaim from media outlets since its release. Ken Tucker of Rolling Stone explained that it was a brave and absorbing attempt to locate a common ground in the early 1980s divergent and often hostile musical genres; he concluded, "Remain in Light yields scary, funny music to which you can dance and think, think and dance, dance and think, ad infinitum." Robert Christgau, writing in The Village Voice, described the record as one "in which David Byrne conquers his fear of music in a visionary Afrofunk synthesis—clear-eyed, detached, almost mystically optimistic". Michael Kulp of The Daily Collegian commented that the album deserves the tag "classic" like each of the band's three previous full-length releases, while John Rockwell, writing in The New York Times, suggested that it confirmed Talking Heads' position as "America's most venturesome rock band". Sandy Robertson of Sounds praised the record's innovative nature, while Billboard wrote, "Just about every LP Talking Heads has released in the last four years has wound up on virtually every critics' best of list. Remain in Light should be no exception."
AllMusic's William Ruhlmann noted that Talking Heads' musical transition, first witnessed in Fear of Music, comes to full fruition in Remain in Light; he stated, "Talking Heads were connecting with an audience ready to follow their musical evolution, and the album was so inventive and influential." In the 1995 Spin Alternative Record Guide, Eric Weisbard praised Eno's production effort which helped rein in any excessive appropriations of African music by Talking Heads. In 2004, Slant Magazine's Barry Walsh labelled its results as "simply magical" after the band turned rock music into a more global entity in terms of its musical and lyrical scope. In a 2008 review, Sean Fennessey of Vibe concluded, "Talking Heads took African polyrhythms to NYC and made a return trip with elegant, alien post-punk in tow."
Remain in Light was named the best album of 1980 by Sounds, ahead of The Skids' The Absolute Game, and by Melody Maker, while The New York Times included it in its unnumbered shortlist of the 10 best records issued that year. It figured highly in other end-of-year best album lists, notably at number two, behind The Clash's London Calling, by Robert Christgau, and at number six by NME. It featured at number three—behind London Calling and Bruce Springsteen's The River—in The Village Voice's 1980 Pazz & Jop critics' poll, which aggregates the votes of hundreds of prominent reviewers.
In 1989, Rolling Stone named Remain in Light as the fourth best album of the decade. In 1993, it was included at number 11 in NME's list of The 50 Greatest Albums Of The '80s, and at number 68 in the publication's Greatest Albums Of All Time list. In 1997, The Guardian collated worldwide data from renowned critics, artists, and radio DJs, which placed the record at number 43 in the list of the 100 Best Albums Ever. In 1999, it was included by Vibe as one of its 100 Essential Albums Of The 20th Century. In 2002, Pitchfork Media featured Remain in Light at number two behind Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation in its Top 100 Albums Of The 1980s list. In 2003, VH1 named the record at number 88 during its 100 Greatest Albums countdown, while Slant magazine included it in its unnumbered shortlist of 50 Essential Pop Albums. Rolling Stone placed it at number 129 in its December 2015 issue of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time", higher than three other Talking Heads releases. In 2006, Q ranked Remain in Light at number 27 in its list of the 40 Best Albums of the 80s. In 2012, Slant listed the album at number six on its list of the "Best Albums of the 1980s".
All tracks written by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth.Notes
The remastered reissue was produced by Andy Zax with the help of Talking Heads.
The DVD portion of the European reissue contains videos of the band performing "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Once in a Lifetime" on German music show Rockpop in 1980.
Those involved in the making of Remain in Light were: