Listening Wind, by Talking Heads

In 1979 Brian Eno delivered a lecture titled “The Studio as a Compositional Tool”  in which he traced the history of music recording and the shift in the use of the studio from a mere capturing of a live performance to an environment that creates music in ways that the performers cannot anticipate while playing or singing their parts. Eno did not invent this method. The trend started in the 60s with extensive use of studio time for the creation of albums such as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. The studio became not only a recording environment, but a set of tools to manipulate the recorded material and construct it in new ways. Eno has already experimented with various studio techniques to construct pieces of music, but at the time he gave the lecture he did not know what a central part he will play in one of the best examples of using a studio as a compositional tool, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light.

Brian Eno 1980
Brian Eno, 1980

The road to Remain in Light started during the recording of Talking Heads’ previous album, Fear of Music. The studio was restricted to a conventional role for this album, but the last song that was recorded for the album and became its opener showed the way forward. This was I Zimbra, a chant of nonsense words by early 20th century dadaist Hugo Ball sang over repeated and hypnotic African-influenced rhythms. David Byrne and Brian Eno were both heavily into African rhythms, listening to Nigerian artists Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, and decided to collaborate on a new project that will combine the concepts Eno heard on albums such as Holger Czukay’s Movies with African rhythms. That project eventually became the album My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, and although it was released after Remain In Light, it serves as its blueprint in the way the studio was used to assemble small and sometimes unrelated pieces of recordings to compose new songs from them. You can hear a good prototype to Remain in Light in Help Me Somebody from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The frantic evangelical sermon sample no doubt influenced the vocals Byrne will later sing on Once in a Lifetime and the repeated guitar lick and congas pattern are similar to some of the backing tracks on Remain in Light.

My Life In The Bush Og Ghosts

In an interview Eno to Musician magazine in 1981 Eno referenced his influences on using found sounds: “Holger Czukay’s Movies used the same technique a few years ago, and both he and I got the idea from Stockhausen, who was using the technique fifteen years ago. I would also point to “I Am The Walrus,” which nicely uses found vocals, and the most crucial ones for me were by Steve Reich. He did some records in the mid-’60s, first Come Out and then It’s Gonna Rain, which were wholly composed of found voices. No instruments, just voices. This was extremely important for me. I don’t claim originality, but I do hope other people use found materials in the future instead of writing cruddy songs like they do now.”

Brian Eno David Byrne1
David Byrne and Brian Eno in the Studio

As Eno said, the concept of using small bits of music to construct a larger composition was not invented by him or Czukay, they simply perfected it by cleverly using the studio. I believe that another influence has been the minimalist composer Terry Riley who wrote the piece In C in 1964. It was a dramatic shift in compositional technique, as he did not write a series of notes that must be played in a specific predetermined order. Instead he gave an orchestra a group of 53 short musical phrases, all in the Major C scale but in different lengths. The phrases could be picked randomly by various musicians in the orchestra and repeated any number of times. This created an unpredicted performance of the piece each time it was played. In essence Riley gave the orchestra building blocks rather than a finished composition. What anchored the performance was a suggestion by another minimalist, Steve Reich, who proposed that the note C will be played repeatedly to provide a rhythmic pulse. Jump forward 16 years in time, put Brian Eno in a studio with lots of music phrases of African rhythms, slapping bass guitars, weird guitar licks, vocal chants and synth effects and let him go to work combining them in creative ways and you have a modern day In C with Remain in Light.

Remain in Light Cover

Eno has used similar techniques for a number of years before before he got to work with Talking Heads on Remain in Light. It started in 1975 with Discreet Music, Eno’s first true ambient record before the term was widely used and the one that pricked David Bowie’s ear and led to the collaboration between the two on Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. Eno continued recording musical segments that he blended together while shifting them in time and adding studio effects, a technique he used throughout his ambient records series. The music phrases are much more sparse and tranquil compared to his work with Talking Heads and there is very little use of rhythmic elements, but the concept is the same: record many musical phrases and start combining them in the studio until you hear something that is worth preserving. At the end of the process you get something that could be perceived as written that way before the recording started, but in essence you are using the studio as a compositional tool.

Talking Heads1

After My Life In The Bush of Ghosts Eno and Byrne were ready to take their experiment to the next logical step and repeat it with Talking Heads. Eno was quiet familiar with the band by now, having produced their previous two albums. This time he made it clear that he was not interested in a traditional producing gig, and described the working methods. The band was game since they were heavily into that African jam vibe, although they probably did not fully realize their role in this new record producing system. The album was created in two phases, the first in a traditional way of recording the rhythm tracks. The tracks were recorded in July 1980 at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, the studio Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records, built to focus on Reggae and dub recordings. Some of the 80s most iconic albums were recorded there, including Grace Jones’ Nighclubbing, The B52’s debut, Robert Palmer’s Riptide and no less than the multi million seller AC/DC’s Back in Black. Talking Heads played long jams, many times limited to single chords, and Eno kept recording. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz played some of their best tracks in that studio and gave Eno enough material to find parts he could use as rhythm beds for the next phase of the project. No lyrics were written yet, no vocals recorded, and most of the synths, guitars and percussion bits were still to come.

Brian Eno David Byrne NYC
Brian Eno and David Byrne

The team reconvened at Sigma Sound Studios in New York where the focus changed to recording of short rhythm, melody and harmony phrases and vocals. Percussionist Jose Rossy came into the studio to record a multitude of short percussion snippets that could be looped and used on some of the more energetic tracks. Rossy’s talent was shortly after noticed by Weather Report who added him to the band starting with the album Procession. Adrian Belew was also invited to the studio to contribute guitar parts. The best way I can describe his playing on the album is ‘Robert Fripp going berserk’, if that is even physically possible. The guitar is all over the place, moving rapidly from low to high notes and than screeching to a sudden halt. Belew is playing something that is seemingly unrelated to the rest of the song, but that contrast is what makes it so unique. Belew later said of his playing on that recording: “I was instructed to play what I want, go wild, do all the solos and stuff; for me that was a holiday. Talking Heads music was the most comfortable music I ever got to play, because it is pretty simple music and my ideas and guitar playing just seemed to fit right in.”

Tina Weymouth Adrian Belew 1980
Adrian Belew with Tina Weymouth

The sound engineer on Remain in Light was Dave Jerden, then a young engineer who worked with Eno and Byrne on My Life In The Bush of Ghosts. He is an unknown hero of Remain in Light, because in my opinion he has a lot to do with the amazing sonic quality of the album. Studio technology was evolving fast at the end of the 70s and new sound enforcing devices were coming up quickly. Jerden brought with him to the studio two devices that contributed greatly to the way the album sounds: The Lexicon 224 reverb unit and Eventide H910 harmonizer (whimsically named as the one after 909). The Lexicon reverb was used on many 1980s great sounding records including Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s The Message, Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, U2’s Unforgettable Fire and Peter Gabriel’s So. The Eventide H910 was famously described by Toni Visconti “It fucks with the fabric of time!” and then used on David Bowie’s Low album to manipulate the snare drum on Sound and Vision. Jerden tells a nice story on using the equipment for the first time with Eno: “I learned it literally an hour before Eno got there. He walked in and I acted like I knew all about it. How he listened to it was by using some cassettes of beats that he was working on. We scrolled through the different sounds and I said, “these tracks are really cool”. Brian said “You like this stuff?” And we started talking about music”. That landed him the sound engineer seat with Eno.

Dave Jerden
Dave Jerden
Lexicon Model 224 1978
Lexicon 224 Reverb

Lots has been written about the animosity between the rhythm section team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz and Brian Eno, with David Byrne gyrating towards the Eno camp. Emotions aside, a natural casualty of this composition technique is the actual performer of the music, who at the time of being recorded has no awareness of the end result. As great as the rhythm tracks Weymouth and Frantz laid down in the Bahamas, they could not have known at the time how they will come out in the final tracks, and even worse – they had very little input. You do not need more than one or two minds near the mixing desk when you compose that way and make quick decisions about what parts to bring where and what effects to apply to them. At the end of the day Remain in light is an amazing collaborative effort, only not in the traditional way where everyone is working together all the time but in a rather fragmented way.

Talking Heads 1980
Talking Heads 1980

Most of the kudos for the album focus on the energetic African-influenced tracks that start the album – Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), Crosseyed and Painless and of course the spasmodic hit Once in a Lifetime. The mastery in these tracks is in the way that all these small snippets of recordings have been brought in together to form songs. There are so many layers in these songs that you keep discovering new things about them after many repeated listenings. Eno said in that lecture from 1979: “The effect of this technique on the composer is that he can think in terms of supplying material that would actually be too subtle for a first listening.” I cannot think of a better example to illustrate this statement than Remain in Light.

Brian Eno David Byrne
David Byrne and Brian Eno in the studio

But as great as these rhythmic songs are, my favorite on the album is the lesser known and more subtle Listening Wind. Ironically in an album so influenced by African rhythms, the least African sounding song is the one that deals with Africa in its lyrics. David Byrne repeated the theme of terrorism that he started on Life During Wartime from Fear of Music, where it was influenced by the acts of terror groups the Synmbyonese Liberation Army and Badder Meinhof. Here he sings in a restrained voice about an isolated African terrorist who is acting against an imperialist western world that is taking over his country. I love Adrian Belew’s guitar work here and the way it highlights the lyrics. The chant of the chorus “The wind in my heart…” adds a mantra-like quality to the song, and Eno adds his typical atmospheric touches to round up a great song.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these:

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember…now.
Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more.
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
The dust in my head
The dust in my head
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
(Come to)
Drive them away
Drive them away.
Mojique buys equipment in the market place
Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone
He feels the wind is lifting up his people
He calls the wind to guide him on his mission
He knows his friend the wind is always standing…by.
Mojique smells the wind that comes from far away
Mojique waits for news in a quiet place
He feels the presence of the wind around him
He feels the power of the past behind him
He has the knowledge of the wind to guide him…on.
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
The dust in my head
The dust in my head
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
(Come to)
Drive them away
Drive them away.

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15 replies »

  1. Still love this song, it is so poignant. I saw Talking Heads in a 3 day outdoor festival in NZ back in 1984 and keep going back to their music.. David Byrne is an incredible artist

  2. Nice article. I spoke briefly with Adrian Belew after a show in Chicago in 2019 and asked him about the solo on the song Born Under Punches. He told me it is regular Stratocaster processed after the fact by the Lexicon machine mentioned in the article. He also repeated this same statement when later asked the same question on his facebook page. Given that Born Under Punches is the most ‘electronic’ sounding contribution from Belew on the album, I suspect that he does not in fact use the Roland guitar synth on this album at all (although I did not directly ask him if it appears at all on Remain In Light).

    • Hi Michael. You are correct about the Roland guitar synth. Adrian Belew owned one only after the recording of Remain in Light, while on tour with Talking Heads in Japan. I will change the article to reflect that. Detailed article about Adrian Belew coming soon on this blog.

  3. Fantastic post, fantastic song, fantastic album. That bass bit that Tina plays, that high ‘bahoom’ is really similar to Josie by Steeley Dan. Which came first?

    • Interesting. I hear the similarities, although the musical context is very different and I am not sure if one influenced the other. Josie is first, from the album Aja, released in 1977. Bass part played by Chuck Rainey. Remain in Light came 3 years later.

  4. Love this blog post! I found your blog after Googling “Listening WInd.” I had been listening to Peter Gabriel’s cover of this heart-breaking song and wanted to learn more about it. THANK YOU!!!

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