THE GREAT CURVE 001
curated by Todd Berryman
Welcome to this, the beginning of a new writing project for me. Lucky, lucky you. 🙂
To set the stage, I need to give a little backstory first. The early inspiration to tackle this was born at the completion of something I did on Facebook, 45s for 45, which is exactly what it sounds like. On January 11, 2015, I turned 45, and decided to commemorate it in something of a sideways salute to a Dave Marsh book called The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, a book I bought on impulse in college, probably the day it was released. It was due entirely to knowing the author’s reputation and prior work, and a quick flip through it in the bookstore clinched it instantly.
Marsh’s premise was to – basically – pick 1001 songs that had the greatest impact on pop, or were exemplars of particular forms. The conditions were that the songs had to be released as singles, regardless of country of origin, which is how he was able to squeeze in some songs that had not been released as singles in the United States. I gritted my teeth a little harder, and took the premise a little more directly; where Marsh had picked songs, I had picked singles instead, the difference being that I wanted to pick A and B-side couplings that had significance to me, things that I found personally affecting, although I followed his model of using internationally released pairings as well for sheer practicality. I also loosened up and included extended plays that had been issued as 7-inch 45rpm records. (Marsh did have an instance or two where both sides of a single appealed to him, but he generally stuck to A-sides, or whichever side might be the “hit” or plug side in any given territory.) As it ends up, trying to find that many truly GREAT 45s, ones that you could stack six-deep on a record changer, flip over all of them, restack , and enjoy every song…that’s a lot trickier.
In his book, Marsh remarked that, after he’d put it together, he’d realized that a thousand songs is really a small number. And he’s right: when I found myself with an iPhone and limited space, I realized QUITE quickly that 1000 possibilities is not nearly enough. (It’s interesting to consider that the modern radio programming paradigm in pop is that 400 songs in rotation is too many. Go figure.)
A later inspiration was a book by journalist William Bunch, something of a travelogue called Jukebox America. Combining the influence of those two books, the limit I imposed was slightly more than a year’s worth of entries, what amounted to 380 individual 45 rpm singles. I did not stop at 365, or 366, because I pictured my version of the story as a collection of jukeboxes. Four would be required, and I wanted them filled to capacity. The maximum number of singles in a vinyl jukebox could only be 100 at most, by the time you came to the year I was born, 1970. Jukeboxes did come in other sizes, as well, holding 80, for example – and 380 (three 100s, one 80) was as close as I could get to a year’s worth of songs. But, you know, if I was going to have a house full of jukeboxes, WHY would I leave 14 spots EMPTY?
The image that you should have, regarding how the vast majority of those entries in 45s for 45 were composed, is me walking from my apartment with a remarkably crappy model in the iPhone 4 series (the battery, at the best and newest of times, would lose charge quite quickly, a notorious problem) and heading to the public library at some point during the day, rain or shine, snow or wind, to take advantage of the free wi-fi. Having gotten disentangled from a marriage in the late spring of 2014, and with a laptop computer gifted during that marriage – a computer that, in some comedio-tragic simulacrum, also utterly failed to work 🙂 – I pretty much had to confine all my activities to that phone, so it didn’t make sense to have wi-fi for a nonexistent computer. Result: to the library we go.
To paint the picture a little more distinctly, you can picture me doing this, because it’s true: any given Sunday morning, probably between 8am and 10am, walking to the library, and standing at the wi-fi accessible side of the building (because it wouldn’t open until noon) and voicetexting the contents of my daily essay into the phone, occasionally cursing a blue streak when the autocorrect fixes things that don’t actually need it. Like, say, constantly changing the word “vinyl” to “final,” or “perusal” to “Peru’s all.” Then, copying and pasting a link to a YouTube video featuring the relevant songs, watching the phone’s charge drop 10% every time I complete a task. Weekdays, if it’s after work and the library is closed, I’ll do the same thing at dusk. (By the time I hit the last singles, I often will completely drain the phone.)
After I’d completed 45s for 45 at the end of January 2016, I was at loose ends, and it took a while to wind down from the equivalent of writing 380 essays, regardless of how short they were. Having gotten into a habit, I was pulled between two poles: being used to making that walk and wanting to continue rolling through that process, and being glad to be done. And every time I would come across a single that I’d missed the first time around, I’d feel a little stupid for having not caught it before. (I did start a limited run of essays to cover a few of those substitutions; any good jukebox has reserves that can be swapped in and out.)
Which leads to the germ of this, The Great Curve. I had briefly mentioned during 45s for 45 that I had wished that Facebook had existed when I turned 33, so I could have done an album series called 33s for 33. At the time, I thought I was kidding, in part because I liked the immediacy of having two songs, a “short sharp shock” to catch the ear. You know: ya got a few minutes to get my attention, I don’t want to screw around with forty minutes right now.
The more time went on, however, the more I really started to kick the idea around about tackling the longer form of vinyl. This is partially because the albums that have jumped out at me, and eventually stick around, have tended not to be the typical ones. Parades of critics will tell you about the awesomeness that is The Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band or some other warhorse, but the problem for me comes from working in radio: I’ve heard these songs, again and again and again and again in infinite repetitions, to the point that my senses have been dulled, to the point that I’m positive I’ve heard them more than the performers themselves have. Where’s the love for Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, or Jerry Jeff Walker’s self-titled album from 1972, or other albums that are surprising and engaging submersions?
To elaborate further, I wanted to give props to the albums that moved me, in whatever spinning circular form they happened to reside, preferably 33rpm vinyl, but sometimes they only existed on cassette or compact disc. Or maybe my first exposure or lingering sequence was the one on the humble 8-track, or some open reel heard at a party that my parents were hosting. Hence, The Great Curve, the common connection of physical media winding around, from the continuing line of groove etched in vinyl, to the unspooling of magnetic tape, to the silver disc that contains a trail of digital pits.
This, then, the parade of albums that move me, again and again, even now. Let the other critics celebrate their individual “desert island discs” – this is the crate of stuff that would have to find room on my boat to exile. (There is, incidentally, no hierarchy to the recordings – sometimes the interest in a given album will wax and wane.)
Thank you for your patience, your indulgence, and your constant support and feedback. You make this worth doing.
– Todd Berryman
the end of November, 2016
And so, we start with the album that gives The Great Curve its title, as the first entry…
Remain in Light (1980)
As I get lost in the vocal rounds and overlapping in “The Great Curve” by Talking Heads – and I want to clarify something right out of the box, here: it’s not The Talking Heads, there is no definite article, just like it’s not The Counting Crows – I find myself wondering how I spent years missing this particular ground zero moment in music history, the entire Remain in Light album. It’s quite simple, in something of a Zen way: when the student is ready, the teacher appears. 🙂
My first exposure to this album was not on release. The radio market where I grew up had no room for such foolishness – I honestly can’t remember hearing one song by Talking Heads in that area during my formative years, and the public radio stations in that metro area were devoted to jazz and classical, eventually with maybe two hours a week granted to the so-called college rock, or alternative, scene. I knew about the band, read the reviews of the albums religiously in Stereo Review, and wondered. (When you’re on a limited budget, good reviews or not, it’s kinda tricky to buy something just on hope.)
In fact, the first time I heard anything by Talking Heads was on my arrival to college. My classmates were from all over, and it was a couple of pals from around the Chicago metro who first laid the music on me. The first album I heard was Stop Making Sense, the soundtrack to a concert movie, and I admit that it was tricky going at first. I liked “Psycho Killer” and “Burning Down the House” in their live renditions well enough to throw onto a mixtape, but it took a while for the rest to register. Although I played drum kit, something I’d always had an affinity for, my understanding and joy in music, Sam and Dave notwithstanding, was wrapped around melody and harmony and the catchiness of those things, rather than rhythm. Having not quite discovered the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich by that point, the layering of rhythmic textures atop one another was a foreign land to me.
Later on that same freshman year, a future roommate put on Side 2 of Remain in Light, and “Once in a Lifetime” was pretty much instantly bewitching, although I couldn’t put a finger on why at the time. The rest of the album was for me, again, tricky going. I’d hear stuff, but it wouldn’t quite register. Surprisingly – probably – to an outside observer, it was my first hearing of their final album Naked that clinched the deal, and that was maybe a month later, in November 1988…it was ALL ABOUT those HORNS! and the guest musicians giving it a texture beyond the angularity I’d heard in their other material. David Byrne’s first solo album, the Latin-flavored Rei Momo about a year later, had some impact as well, and seemed like it was stylistically a progression in a similar flavor after that final Talking Heads album…but that earlier stuff was still not quite connecting.
Four years later, I started work at a pop-oriented radio station in a different market, one more accepting of Talking Heads on the radio, and I got to hear more of their Little Creatures and True Stories-era material. That came from the more (to my ear) melodic side, and so I attached to it a little more.
No, Remain in Light remained a mystery to me until Phish tackled the album in one of their live Halloween cover sets about four years later, in 1996. It was like something clicked, a door opened, and I began to understand it from its rhythmic and funk perspective, as that band found the groove from each of those songs and mined the hell out of it. I began to understand it in terms of the tides of rhythm, not hurt at all by my by-then acquaintance with Philip Glass’ soundtracks to Powaqqatsi and Koyaanisquatsi, and various Steve Reich works. I got the minimalistic aspects a little better.
Let’s take this blog series’ namesake song “The Great Curve” and explain it a little more explicitly as one example. Similar to Fela Kuti’s explorations in rhythm, the whole album utilizes African polyrhythmic structure, Kuti being a point of reference that Talking Heads have directly acknowledged, and the rhythms of the continent are something that Steve Reich and Philip Glass have both used as a jumping-off point. In the case of this particular song, the on-the-one bassline references Miles Davis’ space music period, especially his albums Get Up on It, Big Fun and the 1975 live trilogy of Dark Magus/Pangaea/Agharta. It’s a (forgive me) more honest fusion of the feeling than what Paul Simon attempted in his Graceland work half a decade later. (A fine album, for what it is, but Talking Heads never utilized musicians from that native soil and minimally credited them for their musical contributions in jamming environments, at most, which was Simon’s process in a nutshell: jam, edit, write lyrics, take – usually – solo credit for the resulting product. I’m sure that the members of Los Lobos would be glad to give you a better sense of this, since they got pen-whipped out of musical songwriting credits for the initial pressings of Graceland for their contribution to the album.)
“The Great Curve” opens with a verse, then what I will call a “first chorus” with a lead vocal (Byrne) and two different backing vocal lines (“night must fall now/darker/darker” and “she/has got to move the world/to move the world/to move the world”). Then we move to another verse, and a “second chorus” with a lead vocal (Byrne again) and a totally different backing line (“divine to define/she is moving to define/so say so/so say so”). When the chorus goes through a third iteration later on, it will combine all three of those backing vocal lines in one pass, with no lead vocal, and it is one of the single most breathtaking moments in musical history. (Little wonder that David Byrne contributed to a mid-1980s Philip Glass album, Songs of Liquid Days, considering: it’s Glass’ whole modus operandi, in a six-minute “pop song” format, and rendered in vocals rather than instrumentally.) The African rhythmic and melodic sensibility is very evident here with lyrics that can make literal sense, but also just sing well. You can’t get to Michael Jackson’s “mama se/mama sa/ma ma coo sa” from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” without stopping by here first; conceptually, they’re both coming from the same place, the Heads just took it in a more multi-layered form.
“The world moves on a woman’s hips,” indeed. It’s deep philosophy, hiding in New York art-rock.
(And, as a sidebar, you can take the way Mr. Byrne sings the word “she…” in those choruses as a jumping-off point for guitarist Adrian Belew, a guest on the album, in terms of his vocal style. Break out that copy of Three of a Perfect Pair by King Crimson from 1984, and listen to Belew’s vocal on the title track, and tell me what you hear when he sings the opening lyric: “she is susceptible/he is impossible…” It’s got the vocal “fingerprints” of this album ALL OVER IT.)
Eventually, I realized that Remain in Light was a nexus, part of an ongoing conversation in the New York music scene, where things like rap and 20th-century classical could reside next to each other. What rap and funk and new world classical gave Remain in Light and Talking Heads was eventually returned and affected by what inspired it. You could set the music of Chic, the vocal stylings of Kurtis Blow, and reggae rhythms down next to each other, along with something like Reich’s Drumming, and there was a common ground. Eventually, that fusion would lead to Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’ work in the Tom Tom Club, which made the influences, and the conversation, much more explicit.
Where it all crystallized for me, one night not-so-long-ago, was one of those one-beer-more nights when my defenses were down, and I dove into Remain in Light. I started to realize, and confirmed in a little extra reading, was that it was an album built on musical loops. This not only connected it to rap, and trip-hop and electronica, but eventually things like electronic dance music. Taking a technology that the Beatles, Reich and other classical composers had played around with in the 1960s, they went further. In the process, they fathered, directly or indirectly, entire subgenres of music with this little miracle of an album.
Part of it was the involvement of legendary sound alchemist Brian Eno in the process, certainly, but it was the push-pull of various influences, and the musicians themselves, that made it spring into being. You can hear a direct line between this album, and the looping work of DJ Shadow, except that it’s a live band being sampled rather than records. You can also easily draw a connection to a band like Modest Mouse, who are grouped rather clumsily and inadequately into alternative (imagine David Byrne singing “Float On” as an example…see? It makes sense).
Remain in Light is a true octopus of a recording album, with tentacles stretching in all directions at once, and that includes the past. I mean, what drives a song like “Once in a Lifetime” is an interesting cross-section of ingredients. It’s the doo-wop vocal bassline that underpins the song – and no, I’m not kidding, listen CAREFULLY to the mix, and you’ll hear it plain as day. It’s also David Byrne, doing an impersonation of a preacher, at full hue and cry; if the music behind it was absent and ALL you heard was his vocal, and you’d never heard the song before, you’d feel like you were getting intensely harangued in a church. Underneath it, though, is that rhythmic seduction, the loops that carry it forward, loops that don’t present themselves as loops…and that’s, to borrow from Frank Sinatra, “the trick of the record.”
This is an album that deserves, and rewards, full immersion, from the right-channel, telegraphing keyboard line of “Born Under Punches” forward (and, again, that connection to the past, with “The Heat Goes On” as a subtitle; you’re supposed to think of the old Sonny and Cher warhorse “The Beat Goes On”). You can’t really put it on as background noise and “get” it, there’s no way it’s going to accompany you on a country drive. It has to have that element of surprise, a song being heard at the right kind of party as dance music, or a track dropped into a mixtape in a context you didn’t see coming. When you have it in headphones, and you figure out exactly how the layers of vocals of “The Great Curve” work, and how they interact with the instrumental textures, you wonder how you’d missed it all this time.
There is, in hindsight, an inevitability to this album. It HAD to happen. The past, and the future, and multiple genres of music, depended on it.
Talking Heads Remain in Light
Inspired, in some degree, by this…
…and inspiring, in some way, this…
One of the performances that may explain how “Crosseyed and Painless” broke open for me…
And then there’s this song, which really isn’t that far from Remain in Light, and has a couple of the same players, no less…
And its kissing cousin, featuring another Talking Heads member, Jerry Harrison, with Booty Collins…
You can hear the fingerprints of this song, the doo-wop backing vocal specifically, in “Once in a Lifetime”…
And one from a contemporary, with Philip Glass from the Koyaanisquatsi soundtrack (this postdates Remain in Light, but is of a piece)…
This one was a point of influence on “Crosseyed and Painless” – drummer Chris Frantz passed a copy of the single along to David Byrne…
…which, in turn, was inspired by this one…
…and that segues into this one, which shares a common rhythmic feel while jumping across the pond…
…and then segue the above into this…