Thirty years on and this album still sounds as fresh as the day it was minted.
For me that first listening was a real Shock of the New moment. I was introduced to it by my (from where else?) Stewart Street flat-mate, Peter Harris who raved about it with a zealots passion. ‘A groundbreaking album’ and you know what? I think it was; a real paradigm shifter. The copy that’s headed up to Armidale is the remastered and extended version (everything after Mountain of Needles is new and Qu’ran is missing). I only purchased it a few weeks ago, so it’s been roughly twenty years since my vinyl version disappeared in one of those innumerable house moves you make in your 20’s (everything into the biggest plastic bag you can find and catch the bus over to the next suburb – House move complete!) But two decades on and it sounds as contemporary as anything being released today and that’s probably down to two things. Firstly it was so far ahead of the curve that popular music has only just caught up and the seeming opposite; It was timeless to start with.
“Ground-breaker” is a pretty big accolade though, and while I think it fills the brief it’s not completely accurate. In interviews Brian Eno has gone on record as saying that “sampling”, which is what flags this album was already being pioneered by artists such as Holger Czukay. The early Avaunt-Garde experimentalists of the 20th century, Cage and Stockhausen to name the only two I know, had played around with incorporating “found” sounds and “found” music into their performances and recordings. But it’s safe to say that Eno & Byrne were the first to completely replace all the vocals with sampling and then to popularize it on the scale they did. The Talking heads had a huge profile in the early 80’s and this collaboration was sandwiched in between Remain In Light and Fear Of Music. So coming off that platform it was always going to be heard.
Somewhere in my wanderings I came across the term prescient as a descriptor for My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Now one of the intriguing things about the future is that it’s usually already here. Intimations of it buzzing away in the background like the bee in your ear or examples buried away in the static of everyday life if you care to look. And that I think is probably the most apt description of this Album. It was prescient in that it was for-shadowing things to come.
Getting back to sampling. It’s such an accepted part of music today that we pay it no heed but it really was startlingly new back then. When i say sampling, I’m talking reels of magnetic tape that are manually spliced together, or recordings synced & dubbed over the studio takes. This was all pre-digital and pre-midi; real scissors and glue stuff.
I find a parallel for this music with what William Burroughs was doing in the 70’s with his “sampled” prose. David Bowie jumped on board this technique, using it for much of the lyrics on Diamond Dogs. In a nutshell, scattered pieces of text are appropriated from magazines, books, newsprint etc. Cut into segments and then randomly reassembled with sound and feel taking precedence over any attempt to make Sensical statements. The mind unwittingly tries to force pattern and meaning on the random associations and that is an observation David Byrne makes in the wonderful liner notes that accompany the re-released Album.
So? Does what I like match up with what you like?
The Jezebel Spirit is an obvious favorite.
It’s a hypnotic track. The passage of spoken word that they capture is just a perfect moment of congruence (I could have sworn it was Anthony Hopkins voice conducting the Exorcism but apparently it’s an uncredited preacher). The original version, which never made it to vinyl, sampled an American Evangelist cum Faith healer called Kathryn Kuhlman. Her estate refused to sign the release which I think worked in the songs favour, as the version that graces the 1981 Album is infinitely better in my book but maybe it’s just that the latter has filled up that particular receptor site for me. Anyway here is a link to a bootleg of the original so that you can make up your own mind. Kathryn Kuhlman was a mentor for the likes of Benny Hinn, who my grandmother used to send money (she couldn’t afford) off too America in the mail.
When John Milton describes Hell in Paradise Lost he writes:
“… And in the lowest deep a lower deep Still …”
Now if i was called upon to do a ‘make-over’ of Hell, that final hidden circle would be put aside for the likes of Benny Hinn and Katherine Kuhlman and I’d throw Brian & Bobbie Houston and the entire congregation of Hillsong Church in there as well.
Regiment is the other ‘big number’ on this album. It’s everyone’s favorite including mine.
There’s such a muscular groove driving this song, it pounds everything it crosses into submission. And the looped chants, the exultations to Allah that cut in and out trading places with the guitar are inspired.
Solo Guitar with Tin Foil is another highlight, though I can understand why it wasn’t included in the original release. It’s a lovely, atmospheric piece, a little out of place but still…
David Byrne makes a really, really interesting point in his accompanying notes about the Album. Turning accepted order on its head he writes:
… In the West anyway, the causal link between the author and the performer is strong. For instance it is assumed that I write the lyrics (and accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to “express”. And that as a performer it is assumed that everything one utters is naturally autobiographical. I find that more often, on the contrary, it is the music and the lyric that trigger the emotion within me rather than the other way around. By making music we are pushing our own buttons, in effect, and the surprising thing is that vocals that we didn’t write or even sing can make us feel a gamut of emotions just as much as ones that we wrote. In a way making music is constructing machines that, when successful dredge up emotions – in us and in the listener. Some people find the idea repulsive, for it seems to relegate the artist to the level of trickster, manipulator, deceiver. They would prefer to see music as an “expression” of emotion rather than a generator of it ...
I found this idea astonishing! It is something I’d never thought about before and is probably the most “revolutionary aspect of the Album.
The official Bush-Of-Ghosts site is somewhere you could while away more than a few hours. Most of the Album is available for download and you are encouraged to re-mix it, in whatever permutation you choose then upload it back for all the world to listen too. There are some wonderfully creative souls out there.
I’m going to close with a link to Qu’ran
It was a favorite on the original album and it’s a shame that the pressure of political correctness and a more militant Islam has forced it from the re-released Album.
I love the droning whine in the background as it moves up and down the register like a plague of locusts descending from the desert. Likewise the stumbling rhythm that runs through the music like a drunk that’s falling and catching himself as he staggers down dark alleyways.