Friday, September 14, 2012

Brian Eno & David Byrne - "Qu'ran" used to be From the CD My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

I've been turning this one over in my head for a few weeks, and wasn't really sure when I would begin to write, but with the attack on the Libyan consulate Wednesday, and with the death of Ambasasador Stevens, it very much seems to me that the world is in its woeful conditions conspiring to let me know that now is the time to set figurative pen to proverbial paper.

You may know the story with this song, with this album. If so, perhaps my telling its story through mine own eyes will keep the tale from becoming wearisome on third or fourth or fifth reading.

So then, Mr. Brian Eno telegraphed to the world in his typical obfuscatory way that he had taken an interest in The Talking Heads when he named a track from his 1977 album Before and After Science with an anagram for the band's name. During the following year, drawn, as he told Kurt Loder, to the Heads' "very, very attractive material," King Eno took on the lead hat as the band's producer.

By 1979, Eno's already deep interest in world music had been transmitted to the band, evidenced by the inclusion of "I Zimbra" on Fear of Music. "Zimbra," described by Wikipedia as "inspired by African cultural music" and highlighted by Eno as "a step forward," quickly became Jerry Harrison's favorite song, and thereafter became the planned springboard for the band's next album, which would eventually be released as Remain in Light.

But before The Talking Heads reconvened, Eno and head Head David Byrne began recording My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Like Remain in Light would be, My Life was focused on layered afro-beats and had its many protuberant percussive elements glued together by a sort of spastic funk guitar. The biggest difference, really, between the Eno/Byrne album and the Talking Heads album is that the Heads album has Byrne in a conventional rock vocalist role, whereas with Bush, the vocal center of the album was taken by various and sundry samples that Eno and Byrne had dredged up.

Most of these samples were religious in nature. Beyond the song we're looking at today, "Help Me Somebody" and "Come With us" both used samples taken from the broadcasts of radio evangelists. "The Jezebel Spirit" actually featured excerpts from a tape-recorded exorcism*, while "Moonlight in Glory" samples an old spiritual sung by the Moving Star Hall Singers of Johns Island, South Carolina.

Clearly, and as you would expect, both men did their their homework when assembling this album, but what I thought when I first bought the Bush CD back in 1986 or 1987, and what I'm thinking right now as I listen to some of these tunes for the first time in probably 20 years, is that when you get a couple of cosmopolitan art school intellectuals dealing with these kinds of, let's say, esoteric sources, the potential for having it all look like a pair of highfalutin'self-congratulatory eggheads taking the piss out of those they feel to be their intellectual or cultural inferiors is, on thought, pretty fucking great.

Jon Pareles, in a negative review for Rolling Stone that nevertheless gave the album 3-1/2 stars, wrote that My Life "raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism," and in the end asked "does the global village have two-way traffic?"

Perhaps Eno and Byrne saw the question coming. Taking a lead that few would follow, E & B (and even more importantly, their crack legal team) sought to obtain permission for all the samples used on the album. In one case, that permission was denied by the estate of Kathryn Kuhlman, and "Into the Spirit World"--with samples from the charismatic faith-healer's services--became "The Jezebel Spirit" with the aforementioned exorcist.

And I'd thought--it makes sense that--this was because of their appropriation. Byrne said, in his go-to Pitchfork interview that "[w]e made a big effort to try and clear all the voices, and make sure everybody was okay with everything. Because we thought, 'We're going to get accused of all kinds of things, and so we want to cover our asses as best we can.'" But maybe, it occurs to me, they were so fastidious because they were feeling guilty, for their cultural and intellectual snobbery, for their neocolonialism. I bet that's part of it. I bet you.

And if so, fine. If an intellectual's got his snobbery, then a liberal's got his guilt. Don't want to monkey with either. But I ask: be careful what you give away to assuage your self-reproach.

"Qu'ran" had as its centerpiece sample an excerpt from "Recitation Of Verses Of The Qu'ran (Al-Ateuf, near Ghardala, Algeria)," the first track on The Human Voice in the World of Islam, a very thorough ethnomusicological joint released the year before Before and After Science was.

When I purchased My Life ten or so years later, what the clerk handed me was the first edition of the CD, and "Qu'ran" was included. But when the disc was reissued for the United States in 1990, "Qu'ran" had been removed. Byrne to Pitchfork again:
Way back when the record first came out, in 1981, it might have been '82, we got a request from an Islamic organization in London, and they said, 'We consider this blasphemy that you put grooves to the chanting of the Holy Book.' And we thought, 'Okay, in deference to somebody's religion, we'll take it off.'

Which islamic organization is to me unclear. Enoweb--the other major source of information on this thing after Byrne's Pitchfork interview--seems unsure as to whether it was "The Islamic Council of Great Britain" or the "World Islamic Council." Enoweb directly quotes Opal Information, a newsletter at the very least sanctioned by Eno, as saying it was the "World Islamic Council," whereas it was Eno scholar Gregory Taylor who told us that it was the "Islamic Council" thing, so perhaps we should go with the former as the authoritative answer. Byrne has unfortunately not specified, and in any event neither organization is listed by the Muslim Council of Britain as one of its affiliates.

I think this state of affairs--that we don't even know the catalyst for this removal of art--highlights quite well the sometimes shadowy nature of censorship, but. Regardless.

My Life's pressing history in America, at least, is interesting. The album was conceived, executed and premiered at a time when the Iranian Revolution and subsequent Hostage Crisis that together forever altered the fates of two nations were uppermost in the American mind. Its first printing (with "Qu'ran") and its second (without) sold through as Islamic revolutions flared, then failed, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon. But its first printing as a CD in 1986 (again with "Qu'ran") came during a fallow time for Islamic fundamentalism, at least in the eyes of the Western world. The CD's second printing (without "Qu'ran," then and ever after) came in 1990, when the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie still cast a large and sinister shadow.

And in 2006, when the album was given a lavish expanded edition for its 25th anniversary, the Jyllands Posten, or Danish cartoons, incident was worldwide news. Chris Dahlen, who conducted the interview with Byrne for Pitchfork to coincide with the 2006 reissue, understood the nature of things quite well, I think, though I suspect he draws the wrong conclusion:
I know these things have flared up over the years, but with the recent Danish cartoon incident, it became not just an issue of respecting someone's religion. It became very combative. People began taking sides. And I think that’s maybe why people look at the omission of ‘Qu'ran’ a little differently now. At the time you could say it’s out of deference to somebody's request, but in the wake of this recent controversy, people were lining up saying, 'No, you have to print that on a billboard in Times Square, just to show them!'


He was exactly right. The recalcitrance of Kathryn Kuhlman's estate (and that nagging guilt) was no doubt foremost in Eno or Byrne's mind when a reply to the Islamic Council's letter was composed. Byrne spoke of "deferring" and Dahlen of "respect," and who can fault anyone for such politenesses? But world events since MLitBoG's initial release have coalesced in such a way that makes it clear that Islamic Fundamentalism does not consider the matter one of politeness. It is obvious to me--and I wonder why it isn't obvious to all--that the jihad, the mujahdeen, whatever you want to call it, considers speech contrary to the law of Islam to be a capital crime, a crime punishable by death.

You really don't need to point at anything beyond Khomeini's fatwa upon Rushdie to illustrate. But one can cite the assassination of Theo van Gogh, death threats upon Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those Danish cartoons, the blowup that surrounded Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, the firestorm surrounding the clown Terry Jones, the shitstorm around the accidental burning of Korans in Afghanistan earlier this year, and now, this whole Innocence of Muslims thing that got our ambassador killed, just to get started.

Sure, some of the instigators were clowns, or worse. But here's the thing about the free speech that the Western World has found it meet to champion: popular, or accepted speech doesn't need to be protected. The United States Supreme Court, a body which by this time has spoken eloquently in favor of the necessity of equality under law, has found in favor of Nazis who wished to march through the Jewish part of town. Think about that before moving to the next paragraph.

But to pre-empt myself before I stray too far from the topic at hand, let me conclude: I do not fault Eno or Byrne for acceding to this mysterious Council's request in 1982. I could probably go either way on the decision to re-delete the track in 1990. But I do believe that it was incumbent on the pair, as artists, as liberals, as simply people who avail themselves of the right to speak freely, to reinsert the track in 2006, with Jyllands Posten and the death of Theo van Gogh looming big in the rear view mirror. There is a war on, with Ambassador Stevens only the latest casualty, and this war has a lot less to do with towers crashing or with subways imploding than it does with the ability to speak freely in support or in criticism, a tradition that the United States has, for all its many faults, consistently and rightly embraced. Eno and Byrne, who have both spent great deals of time in that country's biggest and best city, should have paid more attention to what was happening each morning on its streets.


David Byrne & Brian Eno - Quran.mp3

104 kbps mp3, up forever

File Under: Neocolonialism

* David Sheppard, author of On Some Far Away Beach: the Life and Times of Brian Eno, claims therein that Eno recorded the exorcist himself, in September 1980. But I'm not sure whether to believe this or not, because on the same page, Sheppard tells us that the Human Voice album (cf later on) was one of Eno's. Which it's not. So he may not be a trustworthy source. But still, the image of Eno crouched down in the darkened pews, holding a Panasonic tape recorder as this maniac pentecostal does an exorcism, is so wonderful, I wanted to share it. (Return)

4 comments:

TAD said...

R: You're right -- popular, accepted, "safe" views don't need to be protected -- it's the stuff you DON'T want to hear or see that needs to be fought for, whatever that happens to be for each person. There's definitely stuff out there I find offensive (not for religious reasons, I have no religion), but I don't want it banned or whatever....
The views some fundamentalist Islamics apparently don't want to hear are punishable by death. (Wasn't the supposedly "objectionable" part of SATANIC VERSES the part where Rushdie implied that Mohammed wanted imagination removed from the brains of the Islamic people...? Where did I read that? Don't mean to get you in trouble tho -- can see the headlines now: "LA HISTORIA targeted!" Delete this if you want....)
...Regarding approval for the samples & etc., Eno & Byrne coulda just done like the Beastie Boys & Robert Plant (& Martin Scorsese long before them) & just used what they wanted & let the lawsuits or whatever fall where they may....
Excellent piece as always, & I've never even heard the album....

F said...

Dude,
Always an education reading your blog. Course it's easy to dazzle the ignorant, so that may not be the great complement it seems. Still, a pleasure to read. Love the way you pull information from all these difference sources to create your unique analysis. Got me thinking about Paul Simon's Graceland and the accusations of cultural theft he faced. I'd back him and Eno and Byrne. They used the source material, I'd argue, to honor it and to create something unique. It's not like they were sampling and copying stuff wholesale. I see it as the reverse. It's an injection of the old, African culture, into the new, presently mainstream western, one. Elements of the invaded are being used to infect the invaders. Like syphilis. In a good way.
As for your thoughts on Eno & Byrne's abandoning the Qu'ran track, I think you're right, that they're fooling themselves (if I read you right), but who can blame them. It's a scary thing to piss off people of conviction.

Robert Stribley said...

Thanks for making this track available. Hope they'll include it in any future releases for the reasons you cite.

Robert Stribley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.