Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Written by guest editor, John Edge.

Sire Records ■ SRK 6093


Released in February, 1981


Produced by Brian Eno and David Byrne
Engineered by Neal Teeman, Eddie Kervin, Dave Jerden, Stacy Baird, and John Potoker
Mastered by Greg Calbi
Side One: Side Two:

  1. American is Waiting
  2. Mea Culpa
  3. Regiment
  4. Help Me Somebody
  5. The Jezebel Spirit

  1. Qu’ran
  2. Moonlight in Glory
  3. The Carrier
  4. A Secret Life
  5. Come With Us
  6. Mountain of Needles
Voices:

Side One:

    1. Unidentified indignant radio host, San Francisco, April 1980.
    2. Inflamed caller and smooth politician replying, both unidentified. Radio call-in show, New York City, 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 City, September, 1980.
Side Two:
    1. Algerian Muslims chanting the Qu’ran. (Same source as 3).
    2. The Moving Star Hall Singers, Sea Islands, Georgia (from ‘The Moving Star Hall Singers’ Folkways FS 3841).
    3. Dunya Yusin (See 3).
    4. Samira Tewfik, Egyptian popular singer (from ‘Les Plus Grandes Artistes du Monde Arabe’ EMI Records.)
    5. Unidentified radio evangelist, San Francisco, April 1980.

Hey, everybody!  I made it back.  Didn’t drink too much scotch (mixed it up with a little gin, a Fitzgerald cocktail, to be exact).

Anyway, you may have noticed a bit more information up there than is the usual.  That’s because this album is a bit different from most (rock, at least) records.  All of the vocal sounds (I dare not say vocals) are sampled from various sources.  At the time of its release, this was a radical move and, in retrospect, was a pioneering one.  This makes for an interesting contrast to my Flipper review, where the lyrics were on the spot.  My Life has no real lyrics to speak of.  In fact, nearly half of the songs (Regiment, Qu’ran, The Carrier, and A Secret Life) are in Arabic1.  Some that are in English (Mea Culpa in particular) are so heavily edited and modified, that they may as well be in a foreign language.  But, this is a record where the voices are part of the music, rather than cutting through it or floating above it.  The spoken parts add to the mix of instruments (and quite a mix it was, Help Me Somebody featured 14 different instruments allotted their own tracks in the mix) and sustain or even lead the rhythm of the tracks.


A little background on this particular grouping/project might be in order (for those of you philistines who don’t know this stuff).  Talking Heads (of which David Byrne was the singer/guitarist/songwriter) had by 1980 developed a strong working relationship with Ambient musician and producer (ambient or active, I’m unaware) Brian Eno.  Under Eno’s watchful gaze Talking Heads would craft some of their strongest (by many estimates, mine included) albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light.  In collaborating on this album at this particular time in either of their careers, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts successfully melds the African beats and unusual instrumental selection of Talking Heads with Brian Eno’s trancy and textural, rather than strictly melodic, work.  The songs are not necessarily divided into strict sections of verse, chorus, middle eight and so forth.  The structures are droning and repetitive, eliciting a sense of tribal chanting and drumming, more than Western pop music.

Perhaps the most representative of this chanting quality (to my ears, and I’m the reviewer, so I get to make those calls) is the track Qu’ran2.  The track samples Muslims chanting the (you guessed it) Qu’ran set to a rollicking rhythmic backing with synths carrying a buzzing melody almost in the background.  The droning rhythms and jagged synth backing combined with the almost mechanical vocal sounds leave the listener alternately feeling lulled and having the urge to move to the persistent beats.  As Eno stated was the nature of Ambient music, the listener can tune in and groove, or leave the music as a pleasant background noise, completely ignoring it.  I imagine listeners around a fire, coming and going as they please, tending to their business, while Byrne and Eno beat out these strange sounds from electronic djembes, talking drums, and keberoes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few ‘normal’ (whatever that means) songs on the album.  The most notable being Help Me Somebody, which David Byrne actually plays live.  Interestingly, I saw him in 2009, where he made mention of the fact that literally singing the words was somewhat strange, due to the fact that they were originally sampled.  Unlike many of the other tracks, the words in this one are in English and readily understood, functioning almost like lyrics.  In addition to that, the song follows slightly more closely to a traditional pop song format, featuring lyrical and instrumental sections that could conceivably be thought of as verses, choruses, and even a middle eight (or bridge, for you uncultured folks out there).

Even still, the song presents a strange format and even stranger (and extensive) instrumentation.  A few years back, digital copies of the master tapes were released on the Web, providing an interesting view into the creative process.  One of the first things that lept out at me was the fact that all of the instrumentation was recorded more or less as a sound loop.  Therefore, all of the structure of the song was decided on in the editing process.  Instruments could be raised or lowered (or cut, for that matter) in the mix to control where a guitar began playing, the bass dropped out, or a drum beat cut through the mix.  This sort of recording method is novel to rock music (at least, I think we would still call this ‘rock’) and is more in line with electronic music or musique concrète, where form, structure, and melody are all manipulated in the editing room, rather than during a live performance, as is typical with most music (of any form, really.)

Unlike my last review, I won’t go in depth on all of the tracks of the album.  In many ways it doesn’t readily lend itself to that in the same way that other, song focused albums do.  Instead, the best way to take this album in is as a whole, rather than eleven parts.  The ambient melodies, droning rhythms, chanted and manipulated vocal sounds, and insistent, tribal beats all mesh together to create something that is much more than the sum of its parts.  In hindsight, writing about the album is also an exercise in futility.  The music itself is frequently without (discernible) words itself, so how could words convey the feeling in the music?  Rather than reading and writing about the music, it should be set in the background, played around a bonfire, embers and ashes wafting through the air, as a storyteller regales the audience (maybe they are intently listening to the music, maybe to the storyteller; perhaps they are staring into the fire in a world of their own), and the gathered group comes, goes, and shifts about as the rhythms play in droning loop, lulling everyone into a sense of calm or urging them to dance.

So, what are you waiting for?  Go listen to the damned album, already!

1. Perhaps someone who is a native Arabic speaker may find these tracks to have lyrics of sorts.  Though, the comments I’ve seen indicate that various Arabic speaking friends who’ve been asked about the album refer to it as “Devil music”.  So maybe they just sound like Judas Priest to them.
2. For better or worse, Qu’ran was deleted from later pressings of the album and substituted with the track Very Very Hungry by request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain because of the previous selection’s use of Qu’ranic chanting samples.  Don’t get too worked up though, Eno and Byrne complied willingly.  In their own words, they were trying to make good music, not piss people off.   

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