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Secrets of the Universe in Remain in Light

By Richard Skinner.

I forgot all my sorrow and started to sing the earthy songs which sorrow prevented me from singing about.
— from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

When people speak passionately, they speak in melodies.
— Brian Eno

The world isn’t logical. It’s a song.
— David Byrne

I want to start this essay on Remain in Light with the impact the singles ‘Cities’ and, especially, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ had on me as an impressionable 15-year-old at comprehensive school in southern England. My school friends and I were a bit too young for punk — I was 11 in 1976 — so it was the New Wave of bands that followed on the heels of punk that we were listening to: The Police, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Clash, The Specials, as well as less cool bands that we wouldn’t admit to listening to, but secretly did: Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Blondie, Roxy Music, Dire Straits, The Pretenders. But we all knew how awful bands like Abba and Baccara were and never listened to them — we left that to our parents. Weirdly, none of my friends or I were really into Joy Division. Maybe their music was more suited to the post-industrial landscapes of northern England than rural Sussex, but it was also a question of availability: you just couldn’t get hold of Joy Division records in Mastersound, Haywards Heath.

In any case, one night on Top of the Pops in February 1981, I ‘witnessed’ the video to ‘Once in a Lifetime’. I had never seen anything like it before. Who was this guy who looked like Norman Bates and what was he doing with his body? What was he singing about? He looked so nerdy and mental. I was suspicious and confused about what I had seen, but privately I also felt a strange sense of elation and connection. Much later, I learned more about the song, that he took all the lyrics from TV evangelist shows, for example, and that those jerky hand and body movements were actually taken from African tribal dances. Suddenly, I saw artistry and imagination. Singles were affordable in those days but albums were expensive, and I couldn’t afford the album, so that was that. But then serendipity came into play when a school friend, who had bought Remain in Light and freaked out at its weirdness, offered to sell it to me half-price. I took the plunge. Listening to the whole album I wasn’t quite sure what I was letting myself in for. I was captivated and confused in equal measure and it took me many years to get fully to grips with these songs. The album is a very intense listening experience. The lyrics are clever and oblique, dealing with materialism, information, obsession, confusion, physiognomy, identity, ecology, terrorism, the apocalypse. The music is incredibly manic, drawing heavily on scratch, funk, Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat and juju rhythms. Each song is driven by a fast, minimal, pulsating rhythm and the whole thing is torn through by Adrian Belew’s screaming banshee guitar.

Of course, all this went right over my head as a 15-year-old, but I was hooked. Looking back now, I can see that Remain in Light (along with David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees, released just four years later) was one of those pieces of art that changed me forever. First it blew, and then expanded, my mind. It showed me the way forward in life: I was not to be afraid to ‘play’, to experiment; I should always look for new forms and move forward; I shouldn’t worry what anyone else thought; there was no need to conform. I didn’t know it then, but Remain in Light forged the way forward for me throughout the rest of my life to find ways of accessing my own creativity.

Although Remain in Light was Talking Heads’ fourth album, it might as well have been their first, so different was it from what came before. It’s often been said (did David Bowie say this first?) that there is always one song on an album that points the way forward for the next, and that song for Remain in Light was Fear of Music’s ‘Life During Wartime’, which was born out of the band jamming together at a Detroit sound check. On previous albums, David Byrne had come to the studio with songs already written but, when the band reconvened in the Bahamas to make their fourth album, they decided to carry that process on and build an entire album that way. ‘We’d record two and a half, three minutes of groove, and then through editing we’d expand it to, say, five minutes,’ Byrne said.

Talking Heads more or less made three kinds of song: those with a hook, those with a mood and/or those with a groove. ‘Psycho Killer’, for example, might have fairly ‘dark’ subject matter, but it doesn’t have a particularly ‘dark’ mood; in fact, it is quite light and ‘poppy’. What it has is a hook: ‘Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa’. ‘Take Me to the River’, by contrast, is not very ‘hooky’, but it has a massive groove and it is this groove that people respond to when they hear the song. How do the songs on Remain in Light fit in with this theory? If we were to draw a Venn diagram of hook, mood and groove, which of the songs would fall right in the middle? Almost all of the songs on Remain in Light fall right in the middle, which is one of the reasons it is such a magnificent work of art. However, although the music on Remain in Light is obviously remarkable and extraordinary, what I find equally remarkable and extraordinary are the lyrics, an aspect of the album that has hitherto not really been discussed in any great detail.

In the early years of Talking Heads, Byrne drew from all sorts of things for his lyrics — systems theory, cybernetics, conceptual art and, of course, architecture. To the angular, jerky music, Byrne wrote lyrics that were presentations of dysfunctional kooks out of synch in their social environments. Oddballs, misfits, malcontents. The songs were transcriptions of their conversations or inner monologues. He wrote from all sorts of different viewpoints, contradictory or otherwise, none of them to be trusted at all. The most famous ‘character’ point of view Byrne wrote from is, of course, the psychopath in ‘Psycho Killer’ (‘Better run run run run run run run away!’), but there are others. There is the ‘spy’ in ‘Life During Wartime’. Is ‘spy’ the right word though? These days, ‘urban terrorist’ might be a better term. The song is written from the point of view of an urban terrorist, but not from the point of view of their politics, but about the difficulties of their daily life. Then there is the civil servant on ‘Don’t Worry About the Government’, who sings happily about his apartment block. Is it sincere, or ironic? Who knows. The man on ‘Warning Sign’ who sings, ‘Hear my voice, hear my voice/It’s saying something, and it’s not very nice’. The solipsist who casts a disparaging eye over the US and his fellow citizens in ‘The Big Country’. The song ‘No Compassion’ is about exactly that, about a narrator who says, ‘Compassion is a virtue, but I don’t have the time’. The man in ‘New Feeling’, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown (aren’t they all?) — ‘I go visiting, I talk loud / try to make myself clear’. ‘New Feeling’ is a narrative that bears an awful lot of similarities with Travis Bickle’s story in Taxi Driver, which hit the screens just a year before the song was released. Of these early songs, David Byrne himself has said, ‘The early songs are, it now seems to me, the work of a fairly disturbed mind — my own — that was using this writing and performance to find out how to be in the world. They appear to be ravings produced by someone in an altered state.’

The lyrics on the first three Talking Heads albums were a gradual refinement of these characters and sensibilities, but Remain in Light is a totally different beast. For this album, as well as a whole new approach to the making of the music, Byrne had to abandon his previous experiments with songs, stories and roles and adopt a whole new approach to the lyrics, too.

By way of showing how he did this, I’ll refer to Isaiah Berlin’s famous 1953 essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. In his essay, Berlin divided writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs —who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea — and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. As examples of hedgehogs, Berlin cites Dostoyevsky and Marcel Proust; whereas Aristotle and Shakespeare are foxes. Although Berlin never meant for his essay to be taken at all seriously, its central idea is fascinating and you can see what he means. Basically, Dostoyevsky wrote the same book over and over, as did Proust. Pick up and open The Devils or The Gambler anywhere and the themes in them are not that dissimilar. But pick up Aristotle’s book on ethics, The Nicomachean Ethics, and you get something completely different from his book on poetics, Ars Poetica. Same goes for Shakespeare — A Midsummer Night’s Dream is way different to King Lear. Aristotle and Shakespeare wrote about many different things, ideas, emotions, philosophies, but we can accurately summarise Dostoevsky’s entire output as paving the way for the idea of Existentialism, and that Proust’s central concern in his one book was the nature of time and its passage.

On an album like Fear of Music, the songs are very different from each other. The existential panic in ‘Drugs’, for instance, is completely unlike the tongue-in-cheek disco of ‘Cities’. The uptight funk of ‘I Zimbra’ is very different in feel to the wistful, melancholic ‘Heaven’. The songs on Fear of Music are foxes, for sure. The songs on Remain in Light, however, are hedgehogs — they are of a piece, cut from the same cloth. Rather than use conventional lyrics based on a social misfit’s view of the world, the words of the songs of Remain in Light are collages, drawn directly from TV evangelists, Southern preachers, New York Post headlines, the Watergate tapes, the testimonies of former slaves and those African texts Byrne had studied with Brian Eno. The lyrics are still written from a character’s point of view, but the character’s role is now more like an omniscient narrator, an Everyman. You and me.

On ‘Once in a Lifetime’, in particular, David Byrne is in character as a suburban man who becomes, in a moment of insight, a kind of post-modern preacher, asking himself (and us) a series of questions that he doesn’t have answers to, questions for us to consider and ask ourselves about our lives. In this guise of declamatory preacher dismantling the American Dream, Byrne contrasted the transitory nature of desire and acquisition with the permanence of the elements, with choruses soaring out of a tugging undercurrent of percussion. Its final refrain, assuring the listener of life continuing in a state of nature, ‘same as it ever was’, was like a forceful, purgative exhalation of breath following years of holding back. Talking about the narrator of ‘Once in a Lifetime’, Byrne says, ‘He’s not upset or tormented, just bewildered.’

This time round, Byrne was drawing more on other people’s life experiences, news stories, testimonies and less on cybernetics or systems theory. The lyrics are clever and oblique and, although they still deal with ‘difficult’ themes, the results seem warmer than before, more inclusive, universal. Of this process, Byrne says, ‘I have definite ideas about which phrase is right for a line and which is not, but I couldn’t tell why. Some of my choices don’t make sense in any logical way. I just have an intuitive sense about them.’

But — and here’s the key — in addition to this new approach to the main vocal, using collage rather than character study, Remain in Light contains a secret weapon — its backing vocals. It is the use of backing vocals on the album that gives it the weight of truth, the veracity of human experience. They are the album’s Greek chorus, offering an alternative commentary to the main narrator. My contention is that, taken together, the vocals and backing vocals on Remain in Light contain nothing other than the secrets of the universe and, making such a huge claim, I’d like to look in some detail at how the backing vocals work.

Each song begins with Byrne singing (or intoning) the single main vocal — the ‘point’ — in either first-person point of view (‘Born under Punches’/‘Crosseyed and Painless’/‘Once in a Lifetime’/‘Houses in Motion’/‘The Overload’), close third (‘Seen and Not Seen’/‘Listening Wind’) or as an omniscient narrator (‘The Great Curve’), but, whatever point of view is used, it is always a single voice up, close and personal, not distant or impersonal. The singer/speaker is always relaying to the listener something of great personal importance and significance. The tone is urgent.

In conventional rock, pop, soul (or whatever) music, backing vocals are nearly always used to repeat a phrase or line of the main vocal in order to to emphasise its thematic importance, or its hook, or perhaps the backing vocals come in to join the main vocalist in the chorus, to bulk it up and make it more catchy. In whichever way they are used, it is nearly always in support of the lead singer. The backing vocals on Remain in Light are not used like that at all. When the multi-tracked backing vocals come into a song on Remain in Light, they are independent of the main vocals. They offer no support; indeed they are there to contradict, or offer an alternative to, the ‘point’ of the main vocal. In this way, they are the ‘counterpoint’ to the main vocal. They carry equal weight and importance as the main vocal, giving it balance and a broader perspective.

This balance is also carried in its tone. Whereas the main vocal line is urgent, pressing, the backing vocals take a much smoother, softer line. They explain, reassure, calm. They seem to be more knowledgeable than the main singer/speaker; they seem to possess a much greater understanding of the existential uncertainty or skepticism conveyed in the main vocal. Indeed, it is left to the ‘voice of reason’ of the backing vocals to express clearly the most complicated ideas — the secrets of the universe — in each of the tracks on Remain in Light.

The main vocal line and the backing vocals in every song on Remain in Light (with the exception of ‘The Overload’) work in this way, operating and interlocking together to offer a psychic wholeness that neither could achieve on its own. The two vocal lines move alone, together, coming in and out, like ballet dancers, allowing each to move independently, yet, by their very proximity, their symbiosis, offering a joint perspective, so that there is always a ‘compare and contrast’ going on in the listener’s mind. Without one of these lines, you would not be able to fully appreciate the other.

This process is taken to its apogee on Remain in Light on ‘The Great Curve’, where, in contrast to the main vocal, there are three backing vocal lines, each with a distinct melody, layering and weaving their words into endless circular patterns, so that, taken together, they offer a communal, spiritual, ‘total’ vision of humanity’s at-one-ness with Gaia, or Mother Earth. The ideas contained within these backing vocal lines are sublime in the true sense of the word, i.e. that they present ideas and images that are too great to be fully understood by a single human being’s consciousness. Byrne says, ‘Almost all the vocals we put on it have to do with one kind of religious experience or another.’ The way these backing vocals are used on the album give it a profundity never before (or since) encountered on a ‘rock’ record and they remain unique to Remain in Light.


Richard Skinner is a novelist, poet and essayist. He has written a novel about Erik Satie, entitled The Velvet Gentleman, which was shortlisted for a prize in France. In his essay collection, Vade Mecum, he wrote pieces about the Beach Boys,Dub, Iannis Xenakis, Steely DanElliott Smith & Plug. For Electronic Sound magazine, he has written pieces about Mouse On Mars + Wolfgang Flur (YAMO) & Robert Palmer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 1st, 2021.