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Feb 01

It’s Nearly Africa

FT3 comments • 3,251 views

TALKING HEADS – Fear Of Music
TALKING HEADS – Remain In Light
DAVID BYRNE/BRIAN ENO – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road was one of the nineties’ big publishing successes, a novel told through the eyes of a young African boy who can see spirits. The story flickers between the spirit and physical worlds, the incomprehensible dangers of the former mirroring the social and political chaos of the latter. A good read in its own right, Okri’s novel was also a success because it reinforced an image of Africa-as-metaphor. Metaphor for what? For ancient spiritual truth and for 21st century chaos. The ramshackle, violent street politics Okri describes resonate with First World city dwellers: the continual mistrust and fast-changing tribalisms and territories find fashionable shadows in the writings of Western anarchists, urbanists and subcultural theorists.

The use of Africa as a metaphor has a long and fraught history. For 19th Century Europeans the continent represented danger, romance, the unknown: the ‘scramble for Africa’ gave Europe its own frontier myths and colonial heroes. For 20th Century Black Americans Africa represented a homeland, a history, an ancient culture to set against the American experiences of slavery, racism and exploitation – a version of Africa popularised by the epic TV miniseries Roots. As the 20th Century ended, though, the most common images of Africa showed it as the cradle not of civilisation, but of 21st Century nightmares – devastating famines, endemic corruption, mysterious ‘tropical’ diseases, civil wars and societal breakdown. This version of Africa, like all previous versions, simplified and reduced real African experience: the First World has always used the Third to mirror its own concerns. But sometimes Western dreams of Africa produce extraordinary art, too.

The version of Africa I want to write about is as problematic as any other, and as compelling. Between 1979 and 1981, two white men, one American and one European, both pop musicians and intellectuals, made a trilogy of records which took neurotic American city living on a journey into a psychic Africa, an Africa which, like Okri’s, was chaotic and spiritual both. What happens in Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts? African religion meshes with American fundamentalism. Hipster paranoia and urban breakdown mix it up with mysticism and militarism. The music leaps from compacted new wave to robotic afrobeat to cut-up creepiness to bad-dream ambient. And the three-record set is pop’s most ambitious stab at answering the question: “What does Western living do to you?”

If Fear Of Music is anything to go by, it fucks you up. Talking Heads’ third album completely strips down their previous sound (spiky, jerky melodic rock) and songwriting style (quirky character studies and confessionals). What it offers instead is spartan, echoey production from Eno, the odd spatter of FX, and David Byrne playing the World’s Uptight-est Man. Most of the eleven songs find Byrne zeroing in on a single subject – “Air”, “Cities”, “Drugs” – and worrying at it, frothing himself into states of twitching paranoia while the band pick at the simple songs like scabs. It’s tense as hell, so much so it can seem ludicrous: “Electric Guitar” is a worry too far, and some find the freakout ending of “Animals” – “They’re living on nuts and berries! They’re making a fool of us!” – similarly absurd. I think it’s effective, though, showing quite how tightly the Byrne character – a kind of urban everyman, as the universality of the subjects attests – is wound.

Breakdown is never far away – the urgent “Cities” seems upbeat, but devolves into Byrne screaming: “Good points! Bad points! I’ve got it figured out!”. “Life During Wartime” is less bug-eyed, but Byrne’s nerdy survivalist joy at civilisation’s imminent collapse is worrisome, and “Memories Can’t Wait” is a doomstruck exercise in The Fear. The album’s two crucial tracks bookend it: “I Zimbra”, the opener, introduces quasi-African rhythms into Talking Heads’ music for the first time, but the lyrics are Dadaist nonsense. And on “Drugs”, at the album’s end, Byrne dramatises a crack-up while Eno cuts and ruptures the music with keyboard blips and drones. To get the breathless, fucked-up feel of the vocals, Byrne ran himself ragged in circles round the studio before recording each verse, with effective results. The speed and tension of city life has him at the edge of psychosis: something has to give, there has to be a safety valve. Fear Of Music describes the condition the next two records both elaborate and try to alleviate.

For my mates and I, Remain In Light was a touchstone record – complex without being pompous, different from anything else, and making a kind of incoherent sense which you could never quite articulate but you would always feel. It took me two or three listens to even begin to grasp what was going on – Byrne’s shocked, cut-up vocals bouncing over a thick soup of drumming, guitar skritch and electronic interference. Every song seemed full of hooks, but the hooks weren’t organised in any way I was used to: they were fighting with Byrne’s rantings, jamming the song. When a verse-chorus-verse track came along on side two it felt (and still feels) like a letdown. Oh yes, and the first three songs are the most danceable stretch of music post-punk ever produced – not, of course, that this was a concern when I was 19.

The other thing I didn’t know back then, or didn’t care to find out, was that the shimmering, kinetic, exotic sound of Remain In Light drew so heavily on African music. Byrne’s words, and Eno’s production glitches, and Adrian Belew’s guitar playing, stop the record from being simply pastiche and help shift it somewhere pop hadn’t been before, but the core of Remain In Light is still an American rock band forced suddenly into to an Afro-beat framework. Even as it bubbles and flows it sounds disjointed, uneasy, not at home in its skin.

Remain In Light, appropriately, is filled with switches, slips and shifts in identity. On the cover, the band’s faces are fuzzed out by red computer graphics: they look like terrorists. In “Seen And Not Seen”, Byrne muses on altering his face through willpower. In “Crosseyed And Painless” he’s “changing his shape – feels like an accident”. The super-uptight ‘Government Man’ in “Born Under Punches” keeps shrieking at you to look at his hands, daring you not to believe he’s who he says he is. And “Once In A Lifetime” – the band’s biggest hit – is like a catchy, cryptic summary of the whole record, with Byrne gleefully casting Western certainties – job, house, wife – into a state of flux.

Comments

  1. 1
    namasaya on 26 Oct 2006 #

    Five years after you wrote this, with the music playing in the background, it made my day. It might be the best thing I’ve ever seen written about Talking Heads. Thank you.

  2. 2
    namasaya on 26 Oct 2006 #

    Oh — one more thing. I found it with a google search for “crosseyed and painless” and “mysticism”. I wonder how often that particular combination has been entered.

  3. 3
    Fastnbulbous on 24 Jun 2008 #

    Nice article. You likely know this by now, but My Life… was actually recorded before Remain In Light. It makes more sense as a sort of warm up to their masterpiece rather than a follow-up. The band supposedly wrote “The Overload” as their concept of what Joy Division might sound like, having not yet actually heard them. “Listening Wind” is by no distance the worst track. It’s freaking eerie and haunting, and just another strong track in a nearly flawless masterpiece.

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