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.   

Day Whatever – Flipper, Album Generic Flipper

Written by guest editor, John Edge.
Subterranean Records ■ SUB 25

Released in April, 1982


Produced by Gary Krimon

Side One: Side Two:

  1. “Ever” (Loose) – 2:56
  2. “Life Is Cheap” (Loose) – 3:55
  3. “Shed No Tears” (Shatter) – 4:26
  4. “(I Saw You) Shine” (Shatter) – 8:31

  1. “The Way of the World” (Shatter) – 4:23
  2.  “Life” (Shatter) – 4:44
  3. “Nothing” (Loose) – 2:18
  4. “Living for the Depression” (Ant/Loose) – 1:23
  5. “Sex Bomb” (Shatter) – 7:48



Or perhaps the album title is Album and the band name is Generic Flipper.  Who cares?

Anyway, RC roped me into writing these dopey record reviews which I really don’t have time for.  I’ve got a full time job, a kid, and all kinds of other shit begging for my time.  But whatever, I’ve had a particularly hard day at work and have about five brain cells to work on, so now’s the perfect time to write a review. 

This is one of those great punk albums I really cut my teeth on as a teenager.  The sludginess, the depressing/uplifting lyrics, the general us vs them attitude all made me think I wasn’t the only one who thought and felt that way.  Seem cliche?  Give me a break, we were all teenagers once and I was a damn good one.  Anyway, this album still stands lyrically as the closest to my personal worldview as any other I’ve ever heard in the intervening years.  

A little background on Flipper (the band, not the insufferable show): In the early eighties, punk rock bands and especially the offshoot hardcore groups were ratcheting up tempos and honing their sound to razor sharp clarity and tonality, Flipper hazily veered off in the complete opposite direction.  Their sound is mired in a drug fueled stupor. Flipper’s songs take the breakneck hardcore of Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and Minor Threat and slow it to a slug’s pace.  Maybe they loved Sabbath?  Maybe they were just not good enough to play fast?  Or maybe they were just the perfect foil to Minor Threat: slow, sludgy, long songs, gleefully drunk and fucked up on all sorts of chemical entertainments.  They have two bassists.  That’s all you really need to know.  

Album represents the first LP offering scattered among various single releases, a sophmore studio album and two live albums before the untimely death of co-songwriter, co-bassist, and cocopuffs-singer Will Shatter of a drug overdose in 1987.  Unlike my usual M.O., one of my favorite things about this album is the lyrics.  Not that they are particularly nice or poetic, but their general tone veers from the pessimistic and depressive (Ever, Shed No Tears) to the (almost) bright and life affirming (Life) and the outright defiant (Living for the Depression) but also with a great dry sense of humor (do I really need another example in parentheses?)  The lyrics represent a wonderfully nuanced view of the world that was realistic and grey while still acknowledging that, as we’re all alive and in this world, we may as well make the most of it, right?  

The album starts with screeching feedback that quickly plunges into a rumbling, jaunty drum and bass led groove.  Perhaps ‘groove’ sounds too funky.  Think of it as a punk groove, down and dirty, rhythmic and repetitive, sloppy and uncoordinated.  Yet it all hangs together.  “Ever” asks the listener if they’ve “ever lived a life that’s real/full of zest and no appeal”.  Bruce Loose/Lose or Will Shatter or whoever paint life as a depressing set of contradictions (“ever wished the human race didn’t exist/then realize, you’re one too) and then nullify everything in the end (“have you ever? I have. So what?”)  It’s exactly this combination of barely controlled musical calamity and raw, yet flippant, lyrics that make Album (and Flipper) so appealing.  

Life is Cheap brings the lyrical tone down even further (“life is pretty cheap/it’s sold a decade at a time) while paradoxically cleaning up the sound somewhat (very somewhat).  Then, Shed No Tears kicks in with a similar feedback blast to Ever, leading one to believe more of the same is coming about.  However, the lyrics of Shed no Tears highlight one of the more interesting (and somewhat unusual for punk) positive facets of Flipper’s outlook.  Sure, singing things like, “shed no tears for the martyr dying/only in pain, suffering, and death/can the martyr become what he’s chosen to be” doesn’t necessarily come off as being too happy (well, maybe it depends on your personality), but in some ways it makes perfect sense.  Not every sad thing is necessarily so terrible when you think about it.  A martyr fulfills their role by suffering, despots being murdered frees their subjects (ok, it’s cops and prisoners in the song, gimme a break), a suicide frees a depressive from a cruel world.  Sometimes awful things fulfill a great purpose in life.  Or some shit like that.

(I Saw You) Shine (with random parentheses) somehow manages to slow things down a bit more before dying out at the end of side 1.  The record reaches funeral dirge like levels of speed.  Yet, despite the (lack of) tempo, the track still manages to find a groove and lock it in.  Perhaps this is one of the great triumphs of Flipper: the music sounds so sloppy you wonder if they even rehearsed beforehand.  Yet, the grooves stay so grounded it’s impossible that Will Shatter flopped out a beer-soaked bed and grabbed a bass before the engineer hit record.  

Ted Falconi… maybe.  

Which brings me to another great thing about Flipper.  Much like Gang of Four (who I imagine to be a powerful influence) but completely unlike other punk groups, Flipper are not led by guitar in the least.  Twin bassists Bruce Loose and WIll Shatter (see, I got around to actually describing who these people are) led the way, with drummer Steve DePace holding down a groove so tightly you’d think Jaki Liebezeit of Can had forsaken Germany for the Bay area.  Meanwhile, Ted Falconi sprayed feedback laden guitar riffs with wild abandon, adding a feral and uncontrolled sort of texture to the songs.  So, again, Ted may have just joined the proceedings straight from a previous night’s hangover.  

Onward to side 2, The Way of the World strips Will Shatter’s sense of humor bare for all the world to see… or something like that.  The song works up a bleak sense of how the world works (thus, the ‘way of the world’).  Such lines such as “there are eyes that cannot see and fingers that cannot touch” are inevitably demolished by the line, “there are hearts no longer beating and there’s entrails spilled on the floor/that’s the way of the world”.  The final verse paints a picture with such absurd colors that one can’t help but view the words beforehand as being just as absurd.  The deadpan singalong chorus probably doesn’t help matters much.  

Life is probably the most standout song on the record from a thematic perspective.  Here, Shatter lets loose an absolutely positive song exhorting listeners that “life is the only thing worth living for.”  Of course, he couldn’t keep his tongue out of his cheek the entire song.  Claiming that he has sung of death, chaos, mayhem, and depression (my words not his) but he’s “not going to sing that song anymore” (his words, not mine).  I’ll give him four minutes and forty-four seconds before he starts singing about that crap again.  

Nothing and Living for the Depression bring the pace up quite a bit with the latter almost becoming a hardcore punk song.  Too bad Flipper still manages to screw it up and make it sludgy and bassy.  Oh well, why defy expectations now?  We’re almost through!  By the way, I have no idea who the Ant guy who co-wrote the song is.  It’s probably Adam Ant.  In fact, it is Adam Ant.  I’m sure of it.  

Finally, we have Sex Bomb.  The Sex Bomb.  The “we’ll play Sex Bomb if you throw one more beer onstage” Sex Bomb.  Take a rolling, churning bassline.  Add a metronomic drum beat.  A pinch of synthesizer (or something) for flavor.  Add a dash of saxophone.  Shake well and yell “sex bomb baby, yeah (or waaaah)” over and over.  Repeat until the whole thing clatters to a stop.  

Ok, are you happy now?  Here’s a song by song overview for those who are still reading this crap.  

Ever is good.
Life is Cheap is depressing.
Shed no Tears is also depressing, but somewhat reassuring.
(I Saw You Shine) is long.
The Way of the World is hilarious.
Life is reaffirming.
Nothing is nothing much, but I want out.
Living for the Depression is almost hardcore.
Sex Bomb, baby, yeah! (Repeat x26)

Oh yeah, it was released by Subterranean Records or some shit like that.
[Editor’s Note: Sorry, John, I added the info above, I’ve got to have some consistency here!]


Now, in the immortal words of Will Shatter: “Is that enough?  Can we go home now?”




Postscript: all jokes aside, I really am quite honored that R.C. selected me to contribute to VoV in his absence.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my awful, contrived writing in the meanwhile.  Anyway, there should be more to come if I don’t drink too much scotch.