Jerry Harrison on the Virtuosic Legacy of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, 40 Years Later

The band circa 1979, one year before Remain in Light was released. Photo: Ian Dickson/Shutterstock

While the Rolling Stones were preaching about emotional rescues and Pink Floyd were chanting about their wall, Talking Heads came together in 1980 to create their magnum opus: Remain in Light, an eight-song masterpiece that anointed them New Wave royalty with reign over the punks. David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison — under the sonic tutelage of producer extraordinaire Brian Eno — hopped between the Bahamas and New York City to complete the album with their bevy of international influences, which culminated in the band’s best-known single, “Once in a Lifetime.” It’s the type of music that was destined for 40 years of scholarly attention to its stanzas (“the world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves and it bounces and hops”) yet was still accessible enough for Kermit the Frog to boogie down to in an oversize suit.

While 2020 has proved to be formative for other Talking Heads members (Byrne’s Broadway-to-cable show, Frantz’s memoir), the pandemic has sidelined Harrison’s big project of the year: a series of performances to celebrate Remain in Light’s four decades of life, which was set for a robust summer-festival schedule alongside album guitarist Adrian Belew. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to do the tour,” Harrison says now. “We knew that it was something that didn’t rely on lighting or staging. It was all about the joy of performing those songs again. It would work at night and it would work in the middle of the afternoon.” While the wait continues, Harrison recently talked to Vulture about the legacy of an album that Rolling Stone recently declared as the 39th greatest of all time. He also shared some great (and true, heh) stories about the recording process, Eno’s ingenuity, and what his ideal Talking Heads reunion would look like.

Best song

It’s hard to get away from “Once in a Lifetime,” partially because it’s been featured in all of these films through the years. But on a deeper level, it really captures the ambiguity of the recording process. There’s an unusualness to the beat. We had laid down all of these parts individually. It sounds like it can be a million different things before you realize what the mix is doing. And the lyrics, of course, have the same sense of wonderment and randomness of life all these years later. Tina’s bass, Chris’s drums, and my keyboard wash adds to it. The song is just sort of there. It’s a state of being as opposed to a march through life.

Song that was closest to being cut

Four songs became bonus tracks, so that’s the convenient answer. I do think “Seen and Not Seen” would be the one that I would be forced to take off. The second side of the album is more atmospheric. What was revolutionary about the record was more encapsulated on the first side, with all of those danceable and upbeat songs. But the other songs are just as essential.

Most contentious moment of the recording process

The process created a dynamic that was easy to create issues. We had gone down to the Bahamas and were setting out to do an album that we hadn’t attempted in the past. We did this because we noticed in our rehearsals that sometimes the first time you play a song, you do it with this instant sense of expiration, and that’s different than you’ll ever play a song again. We wanted to see if we could capture something like that. So we laid down the parts, one person at the studio at a time, with the general mindset of Oh, I want to try it. There were lots and lots of tracks. We used the mixing board as the composition to move from part A to part B. We were really on a roll. We worked three weeks in the Bahamas. AC/DC was in the next room doing Back in Black, and we cut all of our basic tracks in the same amount of time they required for one guitar solo. We were really on a groove.

Eno wasn’t going to be involved in our record initially. But he got wind of what we were doing and was so intrigued that he showed up. Our engineer wasn’t thrilled by that, and he didn’t want to be underneath Eno again, so he ended up leaving. We went through a period of not having an engineer because of that. The fact that David and Eno had worked together on their album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, meant that they had a shorthand when they talked. To me, that created a potential for friction because David, at that moment, had a close relationship with him and we didn’t. We ended up taking a three-week break and going back to New York, and we lost our momentum. It took quite a while to get back into the swing of things. David had really bad writer’s block. The way he got over it was by picking up instruments and playing instrumental parts, and sometimes that changed the feeling of a song. Chris and Tina would listen to the rough mixes from the Bahamas, and were so delighted by them, but when they returned to the studio they would hear a totally different song. That was quite challenging. It wasn’t upsetting to me, but it was to them.

Geekiest song for keyboardists

I think I’ll have to go with “Once in a Lifetime,” just because of the mystery of the keyboard wash. Nobody seems to be able to duplicate it. When we were playing it live, I would use a Roland Space Echo to create echos and put some reverb on it. In the studio, I had a great revelation: I played it on a real piano. A real piano isn’t as sharp with its notes. I wonder if that’s why I was playing it really delicately. There’s a lot of keyboard parts that sound like sequence parts when you play things live. Your hand gets pretty tired playing four minutes of the exact same sequences. But it’s one of those things that gives it an organic nature. There’s nothing artificial, everything was done live in one take in the studio. There were no pro tools, you just did it. We had begun a period that really influenced pop music, about learning from what African, especially West African bands, had been doing. We played it all ourselves, but it was through the lens of what we could do with our own ability rather than going out and hiring the real players who did it there. It was influenced, but still played with our lens of our four personalities.

Song that was the most painstaking to compose

“Once in a Lifetime” because of the ambiguity of the form it took. “Crosseyed and Painless” was a pretty long and complicated piece of music, so that took some time. But I keep thinking of “The Great Curve.” I got Adrian Belew to come up and play those guitar solos. They’re so magnificent and help define where that song went. I had produced tracks for Nona Hendryx in the past and brought her in to help with vocals. We were in a hurry to finish the song because we already had shows booked, so Eno wanted to sing all of the backup parts himself, and I fought to have Nona in. I knew it would be so much better with her, as an African American woman, singing in the band. That changed the course of the song. Suddenly the call-and-response was really a call-and-response. Unlocking all of those melodies at the end of “The Great Curve” wouldn’t have had the same power without Nona’s voice.

Most unexpected song influences

We were all being influenced by African music. The template for what we wanted to do came from our previous song “I Zimbra,” which nearly didn’t make [1979’s] Fear of Music. We finished the record and were in the midst of an international tour in Australia, and I remember being in Atlantic Records and saying, “Can we listen to that track again?” I told everyone that we just had to finish the song because it was so wonderful. David and I flew back from Perth to finish it in America, and then immediately flew to Europe to continue the tour. The fact that we finished it and it got on that record, it set the course for Remain in Light. We knew we wanted to have a polyrhythmic and joyful feeling of African bands.

The biggest Brian Eno footprint

Eno had taught us to think of the studio as an extension of the instrument you had. If you look back at photos of the Beatles’s engineers, they’re wearing white lab coats. They were totally behind the glass. You didn’t go in there. The musicians were in the other room and being captured by technicians. Maybe if you were lucky they would play the music back through speakers. Eno broke that barrier down. Everything was an instrument. It was all taking place. When I describe my keyboard wash in “Once in a Lifetime,” it was a performance by me and Eno in the control room being captured. Because we had a trusting relationship with him, we were all cool with that, and it also meant that we began to become familiar with all of the equipment in the control room. This cut-and-dry role between the musicians, technicians, and producers started to become more fluid.

At one point he made the suggestion to call the album “By Talking Heads and Brian Eno” because he was so involved and proud of it. That was a short-lived suggestion when our manager asked him, “Are you prepared to tour for eight months?” He wasn’t prepared at all. He responded, “Nope.” That was a very delicate way to get out of that.

Song whose meaning has changed the most for you

I’m a fan of Peter Gabriel’s version of “Listening Wind,” because when you listen to the lyrics it sort of becomes a song about a potential terrorist. It’s all about alienation caused by colonialism. You think, in the post-9/11 world and the change of the political climate, how different those lyrics can be interpreted. It’s an entirely new point of view.

Most memorable stop during the 1980 tour

The one that’s forever ingrained in my mind is playing Rome, which has circulated on YouTube in recent years. It was far enough in the tour where the band was cooking on all cylinders. It took a while to have that confidence. The setup of the band, being all in a line, meant it was sometimes hard to hear what was going on on the opposite end of the stage. Sometimes it was like two jams were going on in two different directions that were only vaguely connected. It was abstract. I wish there was a good recording of it.

Song you wish became as popular as “Once in a Lifetime”

All of them, but I wish that “Houses in Motion” and “Crosseyed and Painless” got a little more love in particular. Those two songs really captured what the whole record was about. They’re great to dance to, they’re experimental, and the polyrhythms are gorgeous and present.

Biggest revelation from revisiting the album

It’s been great exploring and listening carefully to what each “part” was. At a certain point in your life, you begin listening to albums as a whole rather than trying to figure out the specific parts. What was Tina playing here? What did Chris play there? What was David trying to vocalize? I’m trying to be more scientific and precise about it. I still have the multitracks for every song on the album. I sometimes go back and think, Oh, there’s a cool part we didn’t use, or, Oh, maybe if we used a tiny bit of that. You can hear great distinctions, and there’s always something new to discover or relearn.

The legacy of being No. 39 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list

That’s really great, of course. One of the things that I’m more proud of, though, was one of the first charts that Rolling Stone ever did. It was called the 100 Best Albums Ever Made. I had four albums on there. I had as many as the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. Three of Talking Heads’ first four albums were on there, and the first Modern Lovers album was on there, too. That’s the list that I still find to be the most exciting. Now that they have to include all of the hip-hop songs and all of this other stuff … it’s an interesting thing when you try to compare the importance of music from the past from different periods in time. Some things are just obvious, like Sgt. Pepper’s really changed how people thought about things. I think Remain in Light fits into that category. There are certainly genre-defying junctures where without a particular record, music would not have gone in various directions. Remain in Light qualifies as one of those records.

Ideal Talking Heads reunion

I have a grandiose view. I think it would be a great challenge, which I think David would enjoy, to be able to do a reunion tour where we play stadiums. Where we would take the unique vision of a Talking Heads performance and mix it with what could be done now in such a modern setting. We would try to do our interpretation of what a show at that scale could be.

Jerry Harrison on 40 Years of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light