By Josh Loynes
Early sampling, World Music, an unread novel from 50’s Nigeria and an angry letter from the Islamic Council of Great Britain. Climb into your DeLorean/police-box/whatever your preferred method of time travel may be and take yourself back exactly 4 decades, to February 1981 and the long-awaited release of what would prove to be a divisive, somewhat controversial and strangely prophetic album- My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (listen below).
Around the turn of the decade, as the collected humans on Planet Earth kicked everything up a notch and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the madcap riot that was the 1980’s, a young Mr David Byrne was already well on his way to being crowned the King of Arty New Wave. His band, Chattering Craniums, had seen critical success with their last two albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music) at the tail end of the 70’s, and to top it all off he’d met an old, kind-hearted Englishman who was far too polite for anyone to point out he was losing his hair. Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno had worked as a producer on both of the aforementioned Babbling Bonces records and during the brief lull between these and the recording of what would become Discoursing Domes’ magnum opus Remain in Light, both he and and the young Mr Byrne found they had some time on their hands. Suggestions of a lengthy game of eye-spy or charades were quickly dismissed and, after a particularly competitive game of scrabble broke out in a fierce scrap over the spelling of the word ‘quixotic’, the dynamic duo decided to hunker down and make something Avant-Guard, exciting and, crucially, quite pretentious. And so, with typical middle class art school zeal, they set about making their masterpiece.
Or that’s how the story supposedly goes. The deeper origins of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts aren’t as clear cut as some would rather make out, with the project originally having started with some collaboration between Byrne, Eno and ‘Fourth World’ cosmonaut Jon Hassell. According to Hassell, who is largely believed to have never told a lie in his entire life, the young Mr Byrne had been ever so keen to help out with “anything that was needed” while recording Hassell and Eno’s catchily titled ambient triumph, Fourth world, Vol. 1: Possible Musics. Unfortunately by that point all the jobs had been given out and everyone already had a brew, so the young Mr Byrne’s melodic magic never graced the studio’s walls. Maybe that’s what Bush of Ghosts really is, a young King David’s revenge? Or perhaps I’ve been watching too much Adam Curtis and began seeing plots and conspiracies everywhere. Either way, Hassell’s continued collaboration with Eno-man and his trusty sidekick Byrne-boy ended with him quitting the project almost immediately as the dangerouslybored (as previously mentioned) duo set off and began twatting about with radios.
In all honesty it can’t really be said for sure how much of the project is the work of Jon Hassell, with him having contributed “sketches” to it and later claimed the album “came out of me”, while also bowing out of the project so early, as it began to move in directions that just he wasn’t there for. His name was removed from any credits, but the influence of Fourth World’s ‘Fourth world’ mix of tribal world music and heavy ambient textures can’t be denied when listening to Bush of Ghosts, as brilliant as all of Byrne and Eno’s nonsense is. There’s also a fair claim to be made that Fourth World’s music captures the spirit of the 1958 Nigerian novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, far more accurately than Byrne and Eno’s effort, with a now old Mr Byrne admitting in the 2006 reissue’s liner notes that neither of them had read the book, and the title just “seemed to encapsulate what the record was about”.
But I digress.
What the unfathomably bored Professor Eno and Head Prefect Byrne did produce was a bizarre, manic and technologically revolutionary mix of funk, world music, droning synths, and spliced and repurposed samples of everything from Algerian chants to political speeches to exorcisms. In the words of “Dr Eno, I presume?”, Bush of Ghosts is his “African psychedelic vision”, something which sounded a bit colonial even to audiences back in ’81.
The first track developed for the project appears second on the album, Mea Culpa. By all accounts this began as an example from Eno as to the kind of thing he was wanting to do with tape loops and samples- using them as the main focus and essentially lead vocals of the tracks while building a driving mix of sounds both defiantly electronic and primally organic beneath. This is what was achieved on the finished song at least. The John Carpenter-esque two chord synth melody drones oppressive in the background, a heavy cloud hanging above frenetic and layered polyrhythmic tribal drumming. The raw and natural feeling to the percussion casts a stark juxtaposition to the synthetic world around it, as dominating the track and taking the lead is a collaged recording stolen off the airwaves by notorious radio pirates, Captain Brian “long-hair” Eno and his loyal first mate David “seasick” Byrne. The bounty in question was a back and forth between a calm politician and a very cross indeed constituent, speaking on a New York radio call-in show sometime in July 1979. The recording is chopped, broken up and distorted beyond comprehension, leaving it as just about recognisable speech sounds dancing to a melody of alternating fury and measured reassurance. What immediately springs to mind for me with this track is the very similar broken speech sounds found on Boards of Canada’s fantastic Telephastic Workshop, from their 1999 album Music Has the Right to Children. More on this later though.
Indeed the story behind a lot of the samples on the album is really one of the most interesting parts of its existence, sometimes even more so than the very nerdy and ridiculously convoluted, pre-digital faffing that went on to make the field recordings actually work as songs. Track 3, Regiment, is notable not only for its absolutely fierce and confident bassline, as played by Michael “Busta Cherry” Jones, but also for the eerily beautiful and ancient sounding singing of Dounia Yunis. The sample originated from a recording session in the office of Iraqi ‘oud legend’ (the string instruments that look a bit like a medieval lute), Mounir Bashir, done in 1972 with the purpose of selecting a local singer for a Traditional Folk Festival. The recording was then found in 1976 and added to a compilation album entitled Music in the World of Islam 1: The Human Voice, and once again uncovered in 1980 by Indiana Eno and his plucky damsel in distress, Marion Byrne. In just 8 years Yunis’ voice had travelled halfway around the world and ended up appearing alongside not only Jones’ sublime bass playing but also terminal weirdo Robert Fripp and the magic of his ‘Frippertronics’, which create all sorts of frippertronic sounds as he plays a frippertronic solo that’s really rather far out. Also noteworthy is the fact that by this point no one had any idea who the woman singing was, and Dounia Yunis heard neither the original recording of her voice, nor David Byrne and his cool stepdad’s 1980 science fair project, until very recently. It goes without saying she saw not a penny for anything; never accept being paid in exposure kids.
The crowing jewel of the wide range of samples used on Bush of Ghosts however is the one that also got Misters Byrne and Eno in a spot of hot water- track 6, Qu’ran, also taken from Music in the World of Islam 1. The sample of a recital from the titular book is layered over a heavy, slow, uneasy and almost dub feeling beat, one that today would instantly be thought of as an ingenious hip hop (or trip hop) track. The melody is beautiful and thickly narcotic and appearing as the first track of the second side proudly signals the album’s descent into more pensive and somewhat darker sounds. However this hypnotising taste of the enchantingly exotic (because that’s what world music sort of is really) only appeared on the first pressing of the album, and not long after release had vanished from the tracklist completely. This was as the Islamic Council of Great Britain, who are fairly well known to be massive Roxy Music fans, sent a strongly worded letter explaining why they thought the song was blasphemy, and like teenagers caught with half a joint, Bry and Dave chucked it fast.
Replacing Qu’ran on subsequent versions of the album was the polar opposite, Very, Very Hungry. And this manic collision of rhythmic synths, sounds and beats leads me neatly back to what I was saying earlier when I mentioned Boards of Canada. So much of this album, with its tumbling, hypnotising, layered rhythms complimented by bizarre and obscure samples wouldn’t raise a single eyebrow if found nestled in the early mixes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, or any electronic group from around the early 90’s. When viewed chronologically it seems very easy to draw a straight line of influence from Bush of Ghosts to all number of things, and herein lies the difficulty of assessing the real lasting impact of it. Because while basically everything that self-described ‘fucking geniuses’ Eno and Byrne created was wonderfully ahead of its time, a lot of it had also already been done. Sampling as a way of not just embellishing but creating songs was already being explored, as was the combining of the ultra-modern synth technology with the ancient notion of a powerful beat. When looked at from this point of view, it seems more accurate to describe Bush of Ghosts as ‘prophetic’ rather than ‘influential’, a remarkably accurate exercise in fortune telling on behalf of the pair. Despite this it has also been listed as a key album of inspiration for the famous Victorian ghost Kate bush, the one who played keyboards in Pink Floyd, and Hank Shocklee’s utterly brilliant production for groups like Public Enemy, so maybe I’m being too hard on it.
A fun extra note about Bush of Ghosts is that the original album art was even designed by Factory’s own Peter Saville, by cutting up little paper people and pasting them onto a tv screen displaying a healthy case of video feedback. And with that brilliant little bit of lo-fi design, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was finished. Almost.
Despite being recorded in 1980, due to the paperwork involved with all the samples used it wouldn’t be until February 1981 that Bush of Ghosts would finally see the light of day. After all, all this using other songs business still seemed most irregular. This left the nation’s favourite double act with a lot of 1980 still to kill, and they’d learned to stay away from board games. Though there was some initial concern from cool uncle Eno that maybe he was spending a bit too much time with his weedy nephew, and that maybe David should make some more friends, he did return to produce on Tattling Têtes’ next album, Remain in Light. With tape loops, sci-fi sounds and more tribal rhythms than Piccadilly Gardens on a sunny day, Remain in Light as much carries on from Bush of Ghosts as it does The Head’s previous album Fear of Music. Like the proverbial Shakespearean ghost at the feast, Jon Hassell even showed up in the studio during the Remain in Light sessions, however after some panic it was quickly established that he wasn’t a spirit warning of their demise and was actually there to lay down a sick chorus of horns and a tasty solo to match on the track Houses in Motion. Great stuff Jon!
Critics were mixed when Bush of Ghosts was finally released, with most of them impressed by what they saw, but not particularly certain what they were looking at. Some gave praise to the level of technological skill involved and the intelligent use of rhythms and field recordings, while others such as Robert “Unimpressed” Christgau were, well, unimpressed. Overall though with records such as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts I always find that it is best enjoyed without searching for deeper meaning. Let it exist as a snapshot in time, when so much which is standard and accepted now was so cutting edge and exciting, a wonderful freeze frame of the joy of trying something new without much of a message or a purpose. Drawing once again from the 2006 reissue’s liner notes, Byrne says “it is assumed that I write lyrics (and the accompanying music) for songs because I have something I need to “express”… I find that more often, on the contrary, it is the music and the lyric that triggers the emotion within me rather than the other way around.”.
Bush of Ghosts exists for the fun of its own existence, and while the early idea that award-winning fantasy novelists Byrne and Eno create a series of recordings based on an imaginary lost culture and release them anonymously was quickly dismissed, the album that did result, with its at once ahead of it’s time and proudly ancient marriage of sounds and an entire mini mythology about the fact of it’s existent, absolutely makes it a timeless project from the pair of them.