Other voices, distant worlds

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Brian Eno and David Byrne, EMI, reissue

March 19 2006 / The Observer

In the late Seventies, Brian Eno began to work as producer and motivational guru with Talking Heads but soon he became virtually the fifth member of the band and this collaboration with David Byrne, an off-shoot from their main work with the Heads, is perhaps the best of what he achieved during that intense, exciting period when the can-do aesthetic of punk combined with emerging technologies to enable the creation of an entirely new kind of music.

This album takes its title from a novel by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutola, and what differentiates it most obviously from the Talking Heads sound is that David Byrne doesn’t sing on it. He is present all right, in so many interesting ways, but never in voice. In fact, there are no real singers here at all: merely an assemblage of sampled and taped voices, displaced spirits adrift in this particular bush of ghosts.

When the album was released, in 1981, it sounded like very little, if anything, that had gone before. There were, in retrospect, antecedents - one thinks especially of the German Holger Czukay’s wonderful song ‘Persian Love’, with its radio samples, from his album ‘Movies’- but not many. Its fusion of the austerity of the new electronics with funky backbeats, of sprightly rifting guitars with West African drum and percussive rhythms, its pioneering use of sampling techniques and experimentations with ambient soundscapes - all of this would, in time, come to seem merely routine (if not on one single album) but, back then, the effect was startlingly fresh and innovative. What’s more, you could even dance to some of it. Just about.

Eno has spoken of how he and Bryne were trying to make “collage music, like grafting a piece of one culture onto a piece of another” and trying to make them work as a “coherent musical idea.” This would do as a kind of early definition of the cultural slippages and mergings with which we are so familiar today, in music as in food and so much else.

For a time, after the release of The Bush of Ghosts, one could hear its influence everywhere in the work of any number of young artists of ambition, from David Sylvian to Kate Bush. And you can still hear its long influence even today in some of the best of Massive Attack, Moby and Thievery Corporation.

Remastered by David Byrne, the album features seven “bonus tracks”. These are out-takes and unfinished ambient pieces from the original sessions, none longer than three minutes and all unremarkable, and yet, taken collectively, they act as a fitting coda to what is one of pop’s great adventures in sound.