INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Melody Maker FEBRUARY 14, 1981 - by Ian Pye
BRIAN ENO AND DAVID BYRNE: MY LIFE IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS
LIFE WITH BRIAN AND DAVID
Following through the implications and new horizons suggested by Talking Heads' I Zimbra on Fear Of Music, the intrepid team of Byrne and Eno set out to explore further the possibilities of utilising Islamic and North African musical cultures inside their own, increasingly fruitful, creative partnership.
Inspired by texts like Amos Tutuola's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, just one of the many pieces they have reworked into their own conception, they disregarded the idea of conventional vocals replacing them with David Byrne's home recordings of radio preachers in the Deep South, various broadcasters, folk artists and for good measure, an unidentified exorcist.
In turn, this led to two major problems when it finally became time to release their latest masterwork: firstly those responsible for the estate of one of the recycled evangelists objected to this unauthorised plagiarism (sorry, expressive interpretation of the environment based around the principles of usufruct) and secondly their record company listened to this new voodoo and hastily decided it stank.
Aside from the drawn out wrangles between the indignant upholders of a dead evangelist's rights and the Byrne-Eno lawyers, it was the first time in his career that David Byrne had been refused backing on the grounds of producing an unmarketable product.
With his tail between his legs he pondered his next move and after considering, then eschewing, the big dramatic gesture he channelled his frustrations into another attempt at this new music.
What emerged was the last Talking Heads album, Remain In Light, now widely considered one of the most innovative works of last year and indeed by many the best rock album of 1980. Yet like Ghosts it has little to do with rock music, drawing more on the diversities of funk, gung ho religious rants and a general African sensibility.
So at last we get a slightly remixed version of the original, presumably now acceptable to the relevant executives in the wake of the success of Light. From the expanded Heads there's the immaculate Busta Jones on bass plus Steve Scales on congas and metals. Chris Frantz makes an appearance on drums while Eno and Byrne play guitars, basses, synthesizers, drums, percussion and "found objects".
In fact the list of musicians and vocalists is far longer, but you can buy the album and read it for yourself. And certainly if you enjoyed Light you should find this album just as refreshing.
In comparing the two works the most glaring difference lies in the separate vocal approach though what surprises is the remarkably successful way in which the once unrelated passages have been spliced into the linear rhythms that run behind.
If anything, the vocals on Help Me Somebody (the Reverend Paul Morton delivering a New Orleans radio sermon) surpass the best of Light, recalling that frantic, soul urgency Byrne displayed himself on Life During Wartime.
Likewise, The Jezebel Spirit features a riveting harangue by a New York exorcist that, by virtue of its natural pace and rhythm combined with a suitable musical counterpoint, walks all over some of the more awkward choruses featured on Light.
America Is Waiting exploits the frustrations of an outraged San Francisco radio host - "No will whatsoever, absolutely no integrity" - to great effect and allows Byrne to take another sideswipe at American complacency, while Moonlight In Glory is a thunderous charge of a song carried effortlessly by "The Moving Star Hall Singers".
Throughout the drums and bass are relentlessly one dimensional yet at the same time exhilarating; creating, with distant synths and fractured piano motifs, a thick, muscular rush that can be both hypnotic and invigorating.
It seems likely, however, that the Islamic sections of the record could prove the most unpalatable grist for Western ears.
Yet what could have been a patronising exercise in cultural dalliance comes over as a clever synthesis of ethnic Algerian, Lebanese and Egyptian singers with the pair's open but sympathetic interpretations of the mode.
If you've travelled to any Islamic country the vocals will at least be floridly evocative - similar to those crackly records beamed from mosques at dawn on cheap equipment - and if you haven't, their unfamiliar twists, phrasing and textures are a welcome relief for jaded Western ears.
Lying in the mostly unexplored territory between the Jon Hassell-Eno Possible Music Vol.1 and Remain In Light, Ghosts cleverly views primal, religious New Orleans funk-rock and traditional Islam through a New York prism and somehow draws together the disparate strains into a coherent, vibrant whole which adds neither insult nor injury to its pristine catalysts.
America has waited and it was worth it.