Michael Weintrob

The World Rock Hypnosis of Adrian Belew, Jerry Harrison, & Talking Heads

The classic rock and early new wave days were both combined and cemented by the work of Talking Heads. It’s time to celebrate that.

In 1980, Talking Heads released their fourth album, Remain in Light, which promptly charted in seven countries (including reaching the Top 20 in the U.S.) thanks to the mesmerizing, rhythmic lead single, “Once in a Lifetime.” Now, Talking Heads guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison has recruited legendary guitarist Adrian Belew and an eleven-piece band to play Remain in Light in full during a 19-stop North American tour. (The show stops at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey on March 5 and at Sony Hall in New York City on March 9.)

Harrison hopes that this show will be a gift to loyal fans. “Maybe this has been a favorite record of theirs for so many years, so we’re bringing it to life with new players and the excitement of doing it again,” he tells us, adding that he and Belew had intended to do this current tour to commemorate Remain in Light’s 40th anniversary, but the pandemic delayed their plans until now.

A concert in Rome during the album’s original 1980 tour was recorded and is available on YouTube, and Harrison points to this as a key inspiration for this 2023 string of shows. “There was just something really special about it,” he shares.

Belew agrees about that Rome show’s importance: “That was the impetus and also the blueprint of what we’re trying to do for most of the material – try to remain faithful to some of that. But we also do a little bit from other Talking Heads records, Jerry decided he wanted to do one of his songs, and we do one of my songs, too. Really, though, this is all about the joy of Talking Heads music and what they achieved. And I think we do it really, really well. Everyone walks out totally thrilled and happy, dancing around. I really felt like this is a good time in the world to have some more of that, and Jerry felt the same way.”

Touring the album this time around, “There’s so much variation in the band,” Belew adds. “We have multiple guitarists, multiple keyboard players, a drummer, a percussionist, and a bass player. I love the fact that it’s such a big thing. It’s a pulsing, big, joyful sound.”

As for why, exactly, people have connected so strongly with Remain in Light, Harrison theorizes it’s because Talking Heads blended rock with world music influences to create something “that was so exciting and powerful.”

“I think that opened the horizons of bands going forward,” the keyboardist continues. “I think we have been really influential to many bands. Arcade Fire is an obvious one, but there’s a lot of others, and so I think Remain in Light started to become part of the canon of music that can inform your creative process. I think the uniqueness of the sound of the record, of the songs, of the songwriting process, of the layering of music – all of those things were a line in the sand from music before then and music after then. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s retained its place of being a very important album.”

Belew has his own theories about why Remain in Light has resonated so strongly with listeners. “It’s got this wonderful almost hypnotic dance feel to it, and there’s so much going on, so it’s got a lot of what they call ‘ear candy.’ The material is great, but I think overall, it’s just such an unusual sounding record. There wasn’t anything like it at the time. It was a big departure for Talking Heads from their previous records. Then this record, they went in the studio and layered one thing after another.”

The famed guitarist was a guest musician for Remain in Light’s recording sessions and the subsequent world tour, which gave him an exceptional vantage point. “It was right as their success erupted – it was interesting to be there in that moment,” he shares. “I watched them become really famous and successful.”

Harrison and Belew bonded during that time because of their shared love for unconventional music. While they had both started out playing in their school marching bands – Harrison on the saxophone and Belew on drums – they had both eventually gravitated to playing the guitar as a main instrument (with Harrison additionally becoming masterful on keyboards).

Belew’s versatility emerged out of the way he approached his playing right from the start. He explains, “I studied a lot of guitar players to teach myself. I learned how to play a classical piece or two. I learned how to play fingerpicking. Anything that I liked the sound of, I would learn from the record. And so my background was pretty wide. I feel like I can play anything.” He first rose to fame in the 1970s playing with Frank Zappa and David Bowie, who both encouraged his highly unorthodox style. 

The 1970s was also a pivotal time for Harrison as he launched his career. He recalls being spurred on by his dismay with the prevailing rock scene at the time. “Music had started to become the province of very, very highly trained musicians: it was the beginning of prog rock and bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes… and it was something that I kind of hated,” he admits. “I thought that the raw energy of rock and roll was being replaced by fifteen minute solos.”

Instead, Harrison went for an entirely different ethos when, in 1972, he co-founded the band The Modern Lovers, for whom he played keyboards. “I think of The Modern Lovers as being one of the progenitors of punk music – and that means, if you have an idea, finding a way to express it and doing it compactly. We were deliberately raw. We were in opposition to overly grandiose and overly professionalized music. That’s a very essential part of my style. That’s also why Talking Heads thought I would fit in with them.”

After joining Talking Heads in 1977, he then achieved extraordinary success with them across eight critically acclaimed studio albums. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, as well. “I feel very fortunate that we ended up meeting each other and that we got to play all those records together,” he says.

Since Talking Heads disbanded in 1991, Harrison has gone on to release three solo albums and has become a highly successful producer who has worked an impressive array of artists, including No Doubt, Violent Femmes, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

Belew has also enjoyed a successful career since contributing to Remain in Light. He went on to release more than two dozen solo albums and was a longtime member of King Crimson. He has also recorded and toured with a vast array of artists, including Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, Cyndi Lauper, and many more.

As both musicians pursue their careers throughout the past 40 years, they’ve kept in close contact, which makes it even more special that they’re able to do this new Remain in Light tour together now. 

“It’s satisfying because we’ve remained good friends,” Harrison says. “Adrian played on all of my solo records. I just respect his uniqueness of his playing, and he’s such a gentleman and gracious person. He’s very easy to work with and an amazing talent.”

He also feels that Belew’s friendship has given him the right opportunity to revisit his past now. “I always felt that just one of us [former Talking Heads members] going out and trying to do a tour of lots of Talking Heads songs – with the exception, I guess, of David [Byrne] – would always seem a little bit, ‘Well, that’s kind of funny,’ or a little inauthentic. But by Adrian and I doing Remain in Light, that he was an important part of and certainly a member of that tour, it gives it authenticity.”

Belew agrees that it’s an authentic show and also offers a few more reasons why fans should check it out: “You should come see this particular tour because it really is a joyful, fun show,” he says. “You will definitely be up and dancing. This is your chance: I don’t think you’ll have another shot at seeing something like this, so don’t miss it!”