As part of our newly updated survey of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, we’re publishing a series of pieces on the making and impact of key records from the list. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light came in at number 39.
When Talking Heads entered Nassau’s Compass Point Studios in the summer of 1980 to begin work on Remain in Light, they were barely on speaking terms and had just a single song, “I Zimbra,” in any shape to record. Years of inter-band squabbles had caused frontman David Byrne to openly contemplate firing bassist Tina Weymouth and he was midway through his experimental LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with producer Brian Eno. Life after Talking Heads was at the forefront of his mind, a life that would free him of all the compromises and battles that came with being a member of a rock band.
But then the band started jamming and something nobody expected started to happen: Songs started materializing before their eyes. And not just any songs, but songs with wild grooves that fused elements of funk, hip-hop, worldbeat, New Wave, and rock. “We loved pop music, we really did,” drummer Chris Frantz wrote in his 2020 memoir Remain In Love. “But now we were interested in creating sounds that would take us deeper and far beyond what people had come to expect from us.”
As AC/DC plugged away on Back in Black one room over in Studio A, the four members of Talking Heads, under the stewardship of Brian Eno, created tracks like “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” “Crosseyed and Painless,” and “The Great Curve” with remarkable ease, all their problems somehow put aside. The band that created “Psycho Killer” just three years earlier was still audible, but this material was something completely different — and you could dance to it.
“We were listening to African pop music — such that was available — like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé, and some field recordings,” Byrne told the Library of Congress in 2017. “But we didn’t set out to imitate those. We deconstructed everything and then as the music evolved, we began to realize we were in effect reinventing the wheel. Our process led us to something with some affinity to Afro-funk, but we got there the long way round, and of course our version sounded slightly off. We didn’t get it quite right, but in missing, we ended up with something new.”
It hardly seemed like a formula that would create a Top 40 radio hit, but midway through they stumbled into a groove that led to “Once in a Lifetime,” the track that introduced Talking Heads to a generation of MTV viewers a year later and remains one of their signature songs. “Oddly, maybe, I’m not sure the verse lyrics made that much of a difference,” Byrne said in 2017, trying to explain the song’s appeal. “Though, yes, the ‘You may ask yourself’ repetitions and ‘How did I get here?’ sure struck a nerve with people and became very memorable; they did seem to speak to somewhat universal feelings and concerns.”
When the Compass Point sessions ended, the band headed up to New York City where King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and backing vocalist Nona Hendryx came into the studio to record overdubs. The band initially agreed to credit everyone equally since the songs were born out of freeform jams, but when Frantz, Weymouth, and guitarist Jerry Harrison got their hands on advance copies, they read “All Songs by David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Talking Heads” with absolute horror. “We had been told another untruth by David Byrne and so had our listeners,” Frantz wrote. “This was especially hurtful because without our persistence, love and musicianship, Remain in Light would never have been made.”