Talking Heads Part One (1980/1981): Reagan, Ghosts & Listening Winds

For many Americans, 1980 hoped to offer a break from the recent past: the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, a major recession. Disco.

A Presidential Election was also pending in November. At the beginning of the year, Jimmy Carter stood at 62% in the polls, Ronald Reagan at 33.

Reagan promised to return America to a pre-countercultural era, prioritising family values and social order. He courted the Fundamentalist vote; evangelists and motivational speakers suddenly popped up all over the radio.

Something pinged in David Byrne’s head, and he later outlined the febrile atmosphere of early 1980 in Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Totally Wired’: ‘The text was saying “Thou shalt not” but the preacher’s performance was this completely sensual, sexual thing. I thought, “This is great – the whole conflict is embodied right there…”’

Byrne and Brian Eno explored some of these themes on their groundbreaking My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (named after the 1954 book by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola) with a particular emphasis on Islam and its contrasts with Christianity.

The project was originally supposed to be a three-way collaboration between Jon Hassell, Eno and Byrne, a fake ‘field work’ complete with ethnography, liner notes and photos, but Hassell dropped out at the eleventh hour. The album is strikingly original, still relevant and sometimes terrifying.

A month before the Presidential Election, on 8 October 1980, Talking Heads released their masterpiece Remain In Light, also a collaboration with Eno. The album’s key tracks, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and ‘Listening Wind’, went even further than Bush Of Ghosts: the former showed that Byrne had completely assimilated the ‘sensual preacher’ persona, while the latter outlined a young Arab’s act of terror.

Mojique resents the rich ‘foreigners in fancy houses’ turning up in his country, makes a bomb ‘with quivering hands’ and dispatches it to his American enemy. It’s a unique, powerful piece of work, and one wonders whether its inclusion on Remain In Light contributed to the album being their worst-ever seller in the USA.

Reagan was elected on 4 November 1980 with 50.7% of the national vote. His famous Election Eve speech mentioned ‘that shining city on the hill’, invoking both Jesus’s Sermon On The Mount and noted Puritan John Winthrop. But Byrne’s New York had been under the cosh: more murders, robberies, burglaries and subway breakdowns were reported in 1980 than in any other year since records began 49 years earlier.

Reagan was inaugurated on 20 January 1981. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was finally released – after several postponements – almost exactly a month later.

Further reading: ‘Life And Death On The New York Dancefloor’ by Tim Lawrence

Book Review: Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence

No less a pop personage than Brian Eno called the early 1980s ‘the most exciting era of New York music’, and he should know a thing or two about the subject.

Tim Lawrence’s excellent ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ makes a good case for Eno’s claim.

The book traces the many musical and cultural strands of the early ’80s NYC scene, from the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement which briefly blossomed at the beginning of the decade through to the end-of-an-era AIDS panic of late ’83.

Lawrence vividly brings to life a scene where musicians, DJs, dancers, artists and club owners fused new-wave, no-wave, punk, dub, pop-art, Afro-funk, kitsch, S&M, psychedelia, disco, gospel, electro and hip-hop to create an exciting, vibrant, anything-goes aesthetic.

Along the way, the book also looks at the making of some of the key NYC records of the era – ‘The Message’, ‘Rapture’, ‘Moody’, ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Planet Rock’.

Pretty much all the key players of the scene make memorable appearances, a fascinating roll call including Larry Levan, David Byrne, Madonna, Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, Sylvia Robinson, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kool Herc, Arthur Baker, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Francois Kevorkian, Don Was and James Chance.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Lawrence also paints a vivid picture of the diverse dancefloors of The Roxy, Danceteria, Paradise Garage, Mudd Club and Canal Zone, where on any given night you could see people doing martial arts moves, magic tricks or even aerobics (yes, apparently early ’80s NY also foresaw that cultural boom which hit big later in the decade).

Many rare and previously unpublished photos are included, and Lawrence also gets his hands on many interesting artefacts from the era such as Kraftwerk and Bambaataa full DJ setlists from The Ritz in 1981.

But all good things must come to an end, and ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor’ doesn’t scrimp on the full details of how Reaganomics, gentrification, corporate intrusion and the spread of AIDS decimated the scene.

The book is a great achievement by Lawrence, with a level of detail and seriousness befitting a Professor of Cultural Studies but also large doses of fun and gossip befitting a good-time era and its fascinating protagonists.

‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ is published by Duke University Press.