This is the second in a series of three columns, collectively titled Byrnanza, about the work of the musical genius David Byrne over the past thirty years.
David Byrne was full to overflowing in 1980. Talking Heads had just released Remain In Light, an album many still consider to be both their masterwork as a band and one of the musical high points of the ’80s. Remain In Light was heavily “world-beat” based, making use of Afrobeat and Arabic rhythms layered against abstract guitar and funk bass lines; the result was an album breathtaking in its innovation. Yet, by the time recording wrapped, Byrne wasn’t finished.
Brian Eno worked very closely with Byrne on Remain In Light; he was just coming off a three-year working relationship with David Bowie and the production of the “Berlin trilogy” (Low, “Heroes” and Lodger). The two first met when Eno came in to produce Talking Heads’ second album More Songs About Buildings And Food; they’ve continued making albums together ever since, the latest being 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
As Byrne and Eno’s first “solo” collaboration, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts not only stands as a superb piece of early ’80s experimental music, but also as a cultural document marking an important step in one of the great songwriting partnerships of the twentieth century. Starting from the idea of a “found culture” that had fictionally developed outside all other human influence, Byrne and Eno mixed together short sonic blips from guitars, synths, drums, percussion, and “found objects,” layered with a collection of some of the most extraordinary vocals ever found on a mainstream album.
The liner notes in My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts contains this list, titled simply VOICES:
“1. Unidentified indignant radio host, San Francisco, April 1980.
2. Inflamed caller and smooth politician replying, both unidentified. Radio call in show, New York, July 1979.
3. Dunya Yusin, Lebanese mountain singer. (From ‘The Human Voice in the World of Islam’ Tangent Records TGS 131).
4. Reverend Paul Morton, broadcast sermon, New Orleans, June 1980.
5. Unidentified exorcist, New York, September 1980.
7. The Moving Star Hall Singers, Sea Islands, Georgia. (From ‘The Moving Star Hall Singers’ Folkways FS 3841).
8. Dunya Yusin. (See 3).
9. Samira Tewfik, Egyptian popular singer. (From ‘Les Plus Grandes Artistes du Monde Arabe’ EMI Records).
10. Unidentified radio evangelists, San Francisco, April 1980.”
My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts wasn’t the first album to include sampling of other artists on its tracks, but it probably was the first to use sampling as lead vocals across an entire collection of songs. Listen to track 4, “Help Me Somebody,” and the weary, sinister feel that the frenzied words of the preacher add to the already fast-paced instrumentation.
Byrne and Eno aren’t heard anywhere on the album; they never use their voices. Their work on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is completely behind the scenes. It’s clear on this album that Byrne’s interest in what he would later derisively call “world music” begins here, especially the inclusion of Tewfik and Yusin as lead vocal tracks rather than “guest vocalists” to add a bit of exotica:
In a way, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is weirdly prescient of life today: the juxtaposition of Middle Eastern and African rhythms with English audio clips of greedy and self-righteous Westerners is a picture many of us are familiar with from the last few years. One story from the early days of the album, however, throws out a high-relief contrast between then and now. You may have noticed that the number 6 is missing from the above “Voices” list. That track was originally one called “Qu’ran”, which featured the voices of praying Muslims. In a 2006 interview with Pitchfork Magazine, Byrne related:
“Way back when the record first came out, in 1981, it might have been ’82, we got a request from an Islamic organization in London, and they said, ‘We consider this blasphemy that you put grooves to the chanting of the Holy Book.’ And we thought, ‘Okay, in deference to somebody’s religion, we’ll take it off.’ You could probably argue for and against monkeying with something like that. But I think we were certainly feeling very cautious about this whole thing. We made a big effort to try and clear all the voices, and make sure everybody was okay with everything. Because we thought, ‘We’re going to get accused of all kinds of things, and so we want to cover our asses as best we can.’ So I think in that sense we reacted maybe with more caution than we had to. But that’s the way it was.” 1
Would this happen today? I feel like lawsuits would come out instead. Byrne has never been afraid to be combative when he feels it necessary (last year he sued a U.S. Senator for unauthorized use of a Talking Heads song), but here he seems to embody one of the core principles of cultural melding: you can’t just take what you like from someone else’s heritage and throw the rest away. Everything comes with a context, and to remove cultural material completely from its context, especially if it originates in a culture alien to your own, is to fundamentally misrepresent that culture. Rolling Stone reviewer Jon Pareles was less than thrilled with Byrne and Eno’s treatment of their sampled subjects, but his contention that “if Algerian Muslims had wanted accompaniment while they chanted the Koran, they’d have invented some” signifies (to me) an unwillingness to engage with other cultures at all. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments.
Byrne has made a career out of respectfully handling music from cultures other than his own, out of collaborating with musicians from other countries and continents, working with them instead of treating their music like references in an encyclopedia. More than anything he’s ever done with Talking Heads, this approach to a global music community – intertwined but not homogenous – will be his legacy.
You can listen to the entire album in its 2006 expanded form, including the reinstated “Qu’ran” track, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rONasb9H24Y.