‘Remain In Light’ Remain Inside — Talking Heads’ COVID-19 Prophecy

You’ve likely read the comment, “This album is ahead of its time,” but what does that even mean?

Just before the Talking Heads created their most critically acclaimed album, Remain in Light, the group was getting sick of talking to each other. David Byrne was considered “too controlling” by the other 75% of the band and like all rising rock stars, hinted at leaving the group in early 1980 to pursue his solo career. Lucky for music enthusiasts, art prevailed over war. The ‘70s are proof that tension in the recording studio has a track record of birthing masterful albums. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Beatles’ Let It Be, stand the test of time in terms of compositional and lyrical genius, but nothing foreshadowed our current social and economic COVID-19 pandemic like the Talking Heads fourth studio release. 

Remain In Light transformed a new-wave, post-punk quartet into a 10-piece worldbeat-funk band in just eight African-inspired tracks. And where there’s polyrhythmic improvisation, there is prophetic intellect. Evidence of Talking Heads time travel can be found in the album made public on October 8, 1980. Nearly 40 years later, the 40-minutes body of work speaks to our society more than ever. 

BORN UNDER PUNCHES (THE HEAT GOES ON)

David Byrne greets the listener with, “Take a look at these hands,” an ode to obsessive hand washing during a time of paranoia, uncertainty, and cleanliness. 

All I want is to breathe. I’m too thin.
Won’t you breathe with me?
Find a little space, so we move in-between. In-between it.
And keep one step ahead, of yourself.

Look up symptoms of COVID-19, and find “shortness of breath or difficulty breathing” at the very top of the list. How can we prevent the spread? By creating a safe space (six-feet to be exact) between us. 

Don’t you miss it, don’t you miss it.

Some ‘a you people just about missed it! Last time to make plans!

Well I’m a tumbler…
I’m a Government Man.

The government men across the globe have canceled social gatherings to prohibit the spread. Before everyone had a chance to say their last goodbyes to each other, bars, restaurants, college campuses, sporting arenas, public parks, coffee shops, and libraries were closed down until further notice. 

Never seen anything like that before.

The nation is under attack as we fight an overwhelming and unprecedented battle. Quarantined citizens are emotionally drained, sick patients are physically deteriorating, workers are financially crippled and hospital works are most of the above. 

All I want is to breathe.
Won’t you breathe with me. Hands of a Government Man.
Find a little space so we move in-between.
And keep one step ahead of yourself. Don’t you miss it! Don’t you miss it!

As compassionate people come together to praise essential works, conservative Americans are unable to face themselves at home as they fight to reopen and build a wall around logic. “Born Under Punches” describes a government turning a blind eye to human suffering, a lack of air, social distancing and unprecedented events. And that’s just the first track.

CROSSYEYED AND PAINLESS

David Byrne now plays a man gone mad from media. 

Lost my shape

Trying to act casual

 Can’t stop, I might end up in the hospital

Some die and some are asymptomatic, but all are impacted by COVID-19. Emotionally, physically, or socially. For the majority of Americans, a privileged, everyday life came to a screeching halt as cases began to skyrocket. 

They’re back, to explain their experience.

In the age of social media, many stories are told, most are fake news. This disease was considered to be extremely deadly in some circles, yet many citizens have recovered, and even more may have had it without knowing. 

I’m ready to leave
I push the fact in front of me
Facts lost
Facts are never what they seem to be
Nothing there!
No information left of any kind
Lifting my head
Looking for danger signs

No right answer. Scientists and reporters are doing their best to report facts, but the paranoid public isn’t confident they are moving in the right direction. 

The island of doubt
It’s like the taste of medicine
Working by hindsight
Got the message from the oxygen
Making a list
Find the cost of opportunity
Doing it right
Facts are useless in emergencies

The White House ridiculed New York’s Governor Cuomo for asking about respirators.  The cost of respirators was said to be too high as the governor tried preparing for the rising curve. Regardless of the emergency, egos and economics got in the way, deeming the facts useless. 

Friends. Live Music. Incomes. Lives. Society as we know it. We are all “still waiting” to understand the next moves. “Get the message from the oxygen.” Speaking of curves, let’s move to the next track.

THE GREAT CURVE

Sometimes the world has a load of questions

Seems like the world knows nothing at all

The world is near but it’s out of reach

Some people touch it, but they can’t hold on

Who do we believe are the experts as the disease is studied more every day? Exiting our front door can be deadly. Our neighbors live next door, but it is against the rules to interact with them. Some ignore the rules and socially gather only to contract the disease and lose everything. 

She is moving to describe the world
Night must fall now-darker, darker
She has messages for everyone
Night must fall now-darker, darker

Byrne draws a connection between a woman and Mother Earth. Across the world, we see positivity and optimism from an environmental perspective. As we focus on the COVID-19 curve as a human race, there is a much bigger picture we are not concentrating on. The woman in this song is part human and part Earth and we need to protect her. She is shifting as some of the most densely packed cities in the world react to COVID-19. 

A world of light, she’s gonna open our eyes up

For the first time in decades, densely populated cities like Punjab, India are experiencing the positive impact of global lockdown as the human-influenced smog lifts. They now open their eyes to the Himalayan Mountain peaks for the first time this millennium. 

ONCE IN A LIFETIME

One of the Talking Heads most popular tracks might also be one of their most 2020 quarantine-relevant. 

And you may find yourself

Living in a shotgun shack

And you may find yourself

In another part of the world

And you may find yourself

Behind the wheel of a large automobile

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house

With a beautiful wife

And you may ask yourself, well

How did I get here?

Remember in 2019 when people were not forced to remain inside and reflect? It was okay to be on autopilot and walk the streets or fields or cities in between and just be without being. In quarantine, we are tasked with the most impossible job of all—learning to cope with ourselves with little outside influence. 

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

We stand over the sink, hands under the water, repeating the birthday song in hopes of resolving and removing the one-in-a-lifetime virus from each finger. We would love to return to a same as it ever was time, but it will likely be a new normal. Will we remain in our houses forever or return to the world we once knew? Or will it be a hybrid?

HOUSE IN MOTION

The second half of the album must disprove the notion of a sonic COVID-19 quarantine conspiracy, right?  If you are currently pacing in your home, reading, thinking, moving, and wondering more than usual, then this one is for you. 

I’m walking a line

I’m thinking about empty motion

I’m walking a line

Just barely enough to be living

Get outta the way (no time to begin)

This isn’t the time (so nothing was done)

Not talking about (not many at all)

I’m turning around (no trouble at all)

You notice there’s nothing around you, ’round you

I’m walking a line

Divide and dissolve

Good news, you get to leave your home and walk around the grocery store in a paranoid state. The aisles are blocked off, forcing you to treat your neighbors like Neanderthals. Saying hello isn’t the same without a mask and we can barely say goodbye without wondering what level of COVID-19 they left on us. The same beautiful house that was written about in “Once in a Lifetime” is the same place you escape to wash the outside-world filth from your potentially pandemic-covered hands. 

I’m walking a line
I hate to be dreaming in motion
I’m walking a line
Just barely enough to be living
Get outta the way (no time to begin)
This isn’t the time (so nothing was done)
Not talking about (not many at all)
I’m turning around (no trouble at all)
I’m keeping my fingers behind me, ‘hind me
I’m walking a line
Divide and dissolve

Does this scare you? We are social creatures. We are supposed to be fully living and interacting with peers according to our elementary schooling. The narrator is crushing the idea of social contact and, instead, inviting the paranoia of his peers. Full-blown, introverted paranoia.

SEEN AND NOT SEEN

He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books…

He thought that some of these faces might be right for him…

And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind…

Or somewhere in the back of his mind…

Are we spending too much time streaming music, watching Netflix or staring in a mirror? The focus of this spoken-word-by-Byrne reflective track is post-pandemic physical appreciation. Who cares about what happened in 2019 if it’s possible to reinvent in 2020? We finally escape out of quarantine, but what is stopping us from impulsively mistaking our own identity? Should we redefine our social, physical and emotional selves, or is this a good spot to restart? 

They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish

Whim, or momentary impulse…

Some may have gotten half-way

There, and then changed their minds.

He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.

Is the narrator saving face for the previously mentioned government man or is he just trying to act casual? 

LISTENING WIND 

What happens to people in countries that lack access to 5G or vaccines or respiration or clean water? Is Mother Nature watching out for her children or is it the lack of tourism that prevents their people from the global disease? 

Mojique buys equipment in the marketplace
Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone
He feels the wind is lifting up his people
He calls the wind to guide him on his mission
He knows his friend the wind is always standing…by.
Mojique smells the wind that comes from far away
Mojique waits for news in a quiet place
He feels the presence of the wind around him
He feels the power of the past behind him
He has the knowledge of the wind to guide him…on.

A return to nature. The wild is calling. What were the redefined terms of survival of the fittest in 1980 (or 2020)? 

THE OVERLOAD

A dark, eerie, Brian Eno-driven piece closes the album with an apocalyptic exclamation point.

A terrible signal
Too weak to even recognize

A gentle collapsing
The removal of the insides
I’m touched by your pleas
I value these moments
We’re older than we realize
In someone’s eyes

Free healthcare was the topic of debate less than two months before 2020 changed America. Who is this “someone” Byrne speaks about? What is the underlying ignorance that haunts us throughout an album recorded in 1980? 

A change in the weather
A view to remember
The center is missing
They question how the future lies
In someone’s eyes

We are reminded that Mother Earth is slowly healing during human dormancy, yet the pessimistic power of the composition reminds us that there is a serious problem.  Midtown Manhattan’s Times Square is one of the most photographed locations in the world. A central hub of a global city. Currently, it’s empty and missing. 

The gentle collapsing
Of every surface
We travel on the quiet road
…the overload

The closing lyrics of the album are about as poignant as the opening. As local and state governments look for ways to reopen a social society, they call for extra hands to sanitize surfaces, and open up roads for people, not cars. Has Mother Nature finally forced us to abide by her rules or is our society too ignorant and self-centered to protect one another? Either way, the answer is overwhelming. 

A favorite album will transport you to a time when you needed the music most. But an iconic album encapsulates the present, whether you like it or not. Remain in Light was written during the political, economic, and social injustices of the late ‘70s, yet it connects the same unprecedented, introspective, unusual feelings we have during a global pandemic – mask off and same as it ever was. 

Covid-19remain in the lightTalking Heads