John Doran restarts our Unspun Heroes series with a look at Eno and Byrne's seminal album, 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts' - a huge influence on artists like Gold Panda, Rainbow Arabia, Burial and Salem.
'My Life In The Book Of Ghosts' was originally a novel by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola, which told the story of a young boy abandoned in an impenetrable stretch of jungle inhabited by the undead. The story is a metaphor of sorts for the cataclysmic effects of slavery and colonialism and was chosen by David Byrne and Brian Eno in full knowledge of the accusations of cultural appropriation and theft that the pair would face in the release of this landmark album, as well as a signifier of their interest in African music.
Brian Eno, the ambient innovator and former Roxy Music electronics expert, had already worked on several Talking Heads albums as producer and his closeness to frontman David Byrne and ubiquity in the group was causing resentment amongst the other members. The pair decided to take the experiments with world rhythms that they had conducted on tracks such as 'I, Zimbra' to the next level by recording an album together.
They took a love for funk, Afrobeat and post punk and combined it with emergent sampling technology to create a fully realised sound that was at once very tribal and very futuristic. Both of the singers said they were bored with their own voices and wanted to draw from the babel of world communication using ranting televangelists, Arab tribesmen and hectoring priests, mainly taped off the radio instead of traditional vocals. Eno described these voices snatched from the ether as being like, “transmissions from a desperate planet”.
Avant garde boffins such as Stockhausen and John Cage had been messing about with taped voices since the 1950s and Holger Czukay of Can mashed up world music and samples on his 1979 album 'Movies' but the impact of the much more popular '...Ghosts' was immense. The idea of taking a prerecorded voice and incorporating it into a new track would loom large in house, techno, hip hop, industrial and drum and bass.
Elsewhere the idea of combining ‘primitive’ rhythms with cutting edge dance beats still informs the ethno techno and hypnogogic pop of Rainbow Arabia and Gold Panda. Not to mention the influence it has had on newer ghosts in the urban jungle such as Burial and Salem. Click here to read an essay by David Byrne on the influences that shaped the album.
Prefiguring all the troubles that would beset hip hop production for the next 30 years, they were denied permission to use some of the sampled voices and had to replace those tracks. And one song called ‘Qu’ran’ nearly earned the pair a fatwah because it featured tribesmen singing passages from the Islamic holy book; it was dropped and has still not been reinstated.
The main thing about 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts', however, is that it is a great dance album full of surprising, funky and unusual rhythms and feels like a deliriously drunk cab ride across a foreign city; a night with the windows rolled down, soaking up a thousand radios, a thousand rhythms and a thousand voices all joining in one communion.