If Horslips – along with Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy – opened up the possibilities of Irish music in the 1970s, I was seeking new influences as the 1980s began. I already had discovered David Bowie (and I’m still grappling with the question of my favourite Bowie album) and while I loved the early 1970s personae I was particularly intrigued with stripped back brilliance of his Berlin era work with its cute songs interspersed by lavish if depressing electronica.
The curious name Brian Eno haunted the sleeve notes of albums like Low, Heroes and Lodger but in this pre-Internet era I had no idea who he was (or his links to Roxy Music). Another band Talking Heads was also simmering at the edge of my conscience though it would be a year or two before albums like Fear of Music and Remain in Light would become lifelong favourites.
In the early summer of 1981 I was not quite 17 years old and preparing to do my school Leaving Cert and examining options what to do next. One option was to study maths and science at the Limerick NIHE (National Institute of Higher Education – now the University of Limerick). We did a family excursion to Limerick to check out the campus and spend a day in the city, 80 miles (everything was in miles those days) from Waterford.
I don’t recall much about the NIHE and never seriously explored the Limerick education option but the trip had one lasting consequence. While left alone to wander the streets I found a record shop and found this mysterious LP with its abstract but intriguing cover and odd title. With five quid burning a hole in my pocket money I bought it on impulse.
I couldn’t wait to get back to Waterford to play this new record. From the first listen I was hooked. I was expecting to hear possibly Eno’s voice and definitely Byrne’s voice on the songs but neither were there. I had no idea I was listening to one of the earliest albums to use sampling and I loved this idea of using “found voices” to overlay on great music.
German musician Holger Czukay, co-founder of Krautrock group Can had experimented with the technique in the 1970s but as Byrne said in an interview the difference was they decided to make it the lead vocal on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The title comes from a 1954 novel by Amos Tutuola who wrote folk tales of his native Yoruba people in south-west Nigeria in dangerous pre-end colonial times. The bush of ghosts are different towns, inhabited by a different type of ghost, each representing a different problem in life.
Byrne had long adapted African influences for Talking Heads and the politics of America in the 1970s were rich fodder for the vocals. The opening song has a radio shock jock screaming “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.” He reminds us “we ought to be mad at the government not mad at the people.” The music rushes us on to be mad about something.
Another radio voice provides the Mea Culpa of the second song, with an Irish bodhran providing a cross-cultural percussive pulse. Eno said the lo-fi song was about inner-city oppression and political powerlessness. For me it was simply another aural experience I’d never encountered.
The novelties continued with song three Regiment. It was one of two songs on the album sampled from The Human Voice of Islam attributed to “Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yunis”. Only recently I heard Dunya Yunis was a woman, I always assumed it was a male voice. Her Arab airs suddenly veered the album off in a new direction.
Then the album was yanked back into the growing power of Christian fundamentalism with two tracks sampling American preachers. In Help Me Somebody a revivalist black padre asks us to “take a good look at yourself / And see if you’re the kind of person that God wants you to be”. The next track The Jezebel Spirit samples an exorcist at work, laughingly creepily before launching into his spiel: “Spirit of destruction / Spirit of grief / I bind you with chains of iron.” It was powerful nonsense (no surprise The Exorcist was one of the most memorable films of the era). It was also great music and electrifyingly liberating to a teenager losing his faith in Holy Catholic Ireland. All this just in side one.
Side two is the weaker side. Because I have an early version of the album I still have the song “Qu’ran” – which features samples of Qur’anic recital- as the opening track on that side. When the album was re-released a year later it was removed at the request of the Islamic Council of Great Britain. If Eno/Byrne’s warning about the dangers of Christian Fundamentalism were ahead of its time, so was the dangers of Islamic Fundamentalism, with Islam still a weak force in England at the time. Nonetheless the artists agreed to the Council’s request. The two Yunis songs Regiment and The Carrier stayed as did A Secret Life, more Arabic sampling from Samira Tewfik, another Lebanese woman better known for her specialist singing in Jordanian Bedouin dialect. All the while Eno and Byrne superimpose their own version of Western electronica on these samples of world music.
Ghosts became a hugely influential album on musicians that followed. Today the album seems unremarkable because sampling is so much part of musical culture. As one recent review said with today’s advanced technology, a child could create music based on samples and loops. “But back in analog 1981, Byrne and Eno had to do things with scissors and tapes and to play samples in real time.” Analog or not, the music has not dated and remains a deeply rewarding way to pass three quarters of an hour. My tastes in music were never the same again.