Watch the Talking Heads Play Material From Their Groundbreaking Album Remain in Light in an Incredible Concert from 1980

Does every cre­ative use of anoth­er cul­ture count as cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion? I mean, how can you tell, right? When does theft become art? At min­i­mum, there are a few cri­te­ria: a deep respect for the mate­r­i­al in ques­tion and the chops to pull it off con­vinc­ing­ly, with a style and atti­tude all one’s own. That sets the bar high, and if you’re won­der­ing who meets it, look no fur­ther than Talk­ing Heads.

The band donned the rhyth­mic per­sona of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat for most of their 1980 album Remain in Light. The result was a record almost uni­ver­sal­ly beloved by crit­ics then and now, praised and cov­ered live by Beni­nese singer Angelique Kid­jo, Phish, and many oth­ers, and plun­dered for decades by indie dance rock bands look­ing to dupli­cate the record’s pro­found­ly funky jan­g­ly New Wave.

It’s usu­al­ly said that David Byrne first heard Fela Kuti in 1977, when Remain in Light pro­duc­er Bri­an Eno played him the leg­endary Niger­ian bandleader’s mes­mer­iz­ing syn­the­sis of jazz, funk, rock, high-life, and tra­di­tion­al polyrhyth­mic syn­co­pa­tion. Byrne doesn’t men­tion Eno’s role in his dis­cov­ery of Fela’s music in a 1999 inter­view with Arthur’s Jay Bab­cock. He’s also a lit­tle cagey about the extent to which the album takes from the Afrobeat tem­plate. “There are some sec­tions,” he says, in “The Great Curve,” that are “straight Afrobeat riffs and stuff.” The same could be said for almost every track on the album, such as open­er “Born Under Punch­es” and big hit “Once in a Life­time.”

Did the band have the chops to pull this off? Much of the praise sur­rounds the album’s stu­dio con­struc­tion, the metic­u­lous, adven­tur­ous pro­duc­tion by Eno, Byrne’s lyri­cal stream-of-con­scious­ness, the band’s increas­ing lev­el of con­tri­bu­tion. They expand­ed to a nine-piece and cre­at­ed a gen­er­ous space for impro­vi­sa­tion. And when they went on stage in the result­ing tour, they more than demon­strat­ed they were up to the task of rein­ter­pret­ing West African funk for a suite of Amer­i­can songs built on cut-up tel­e­van­ge­lism, the Water­gate tes­ti­mo­ny of John Dean, slave nar­ra­tives, and enough research to war­rant a bib­li­og­ra­phy in the press release. Art school nerds, the band remained.

See them at the top play much of the mate­r­i­al from Remain in Light, as well as from pre­vi­ous album Fear of Music (released 40 years ago today), where the exper­i­ments with African rhythms began, at the Capi­tol The­atre in New Jer­sey in 1980, with an expand­ed line­up includ­ing King Crimson’s Adri­an Belew. The exper­i­men­tal gui­tarist is in incred­i­ble form through­out the show, as is the entire band. Byrne was clear­ly enam­ored with Kuti’s orig­i­nal musi­cal vocab­u­lary. “The whole con­cept was dif­fer­ent,” he tells Bab­cock, “the grooves were so great. The grooves are intense, trance-induc­ing,” and them­selves the prod­uct of gen­er­ous bor­row­ing. Fela drew from the music of James Brown, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, from the Black Pow­er move­ment, fusion, and psy­che­del­ic rock.

Talk­ing Heads brought those trans­formed bor­row­ings back to the U.S. and trans­formed them again into the kind of music only these musi­cians could make, born of deep appre­ci­a­tion and study, skill, and the will­ing­ness to freely expand their own idiom while still retain­ing their dis­tinc­tive voic­es.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Rad­i­cal Niger­ian Band­leader, Polit­i­cal Hero, and Cre­ator of Afrobeat

Watch Phish Play the Entire­ty of the Talk­ing Heads’ Remain in Light (1996)

How Talk­ing Heads and Bri­an Eno Wrote “Once in a Life­time”: Cut­ting Edge, Strange & Utter­ly Bril­liant

Talk­ing Heads Live in Rome, 1980: The Con­cert Film You Haven’t Seen

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Rob T says:

    Mal­colm Glad­well and his team just released a episode of the Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry pod­cast on the top­ic of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion. It cer­tain­ly made me con­sid­er the top­ic in a new way; which, of course, is the almost-always-deliv­ered-com­mit­ment of the amaz­ing pod­cast.

  • Robert Mooney says:

    The expand­ed Talk­ing Heads per­form­ing the “Remain In Light” album pre­miered at the Heat­wave “fes­ti­val” on August 23, 1980, at Mosport Park in Bow­manville , Ontario, Cana­da. I was there. It was mind-blow­ing.

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