Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Brian Eno and David Byrne put the empty American dialogue to music

Illustration for article titled Brian Eno and David Byrne put the empty American dialogue to music

In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in honor of Independence Day in the United States, our favorite songs with the word “America” in their titles or lyrics.


David Byrne and Brian Eno did not invent sampling with 1981’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but—appropriately for a discussion of America—they approached it like pioneers anyway, with the album becoming sort of the Christopher Columbus of electronic music in terms of legacy and how hotly its importance has been debated. To Byrne and Eno’s credit, unlike Columbus, they didn’t murder anyone in taking sampling for themselves. Furthermore, their collaboration embodies another classically American motto: If they didn’t do it first, then at least they did it best.

Conversely, “America Is Waiting” is not the best track on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. (I’d give that honor to “Help Me Somebody,” “The Jezebel Spirit,” or “Regiment”). But it is the first, and as such it serves as the listener’s introduction to what Byrne and Eno were up to when they started piecing together bits of the Talking Heads’ stuttering funk with shards of found-object dialogue, using analogue tape loops that had to be manually synched.

Over scratchy, Gang Of Four-indebted guitar and loopy synth squiggles, the voice of a radio DJ (Ray Taliaferro of San Francisco’s KGO News, to be exact), declares, “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another”—but what that message is, we never discover. Instead, Taliaferro’s exclamations are chopped into generic rants about the status quo (“Takin’ it again,” “No will whatsoever—absolutely no honor,” “We ought to be mad at the government, not mad at the people”) that are then answered by a resigned, “I mean yeah, well, what’re you gonna do?”

These repetitive phrases and the ceaseless martial step of Byrne and Eno’s rhythm track form a timeless American dialogue: a fed-up voice in the night calling for action, only to be answered by a refrain of apathy and the forward march of time. (Oliver Stone used this dialogue to great, if on-the-nose effect in Wall Street, where “America Is Waiting” underscored scenes of unscrupulous stockbrokers making deals while the nation stood by, takin’ it again.) Much as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts didn’t invent sampling, while still introducing it to the wider audience that perfected it, “America Is Waiting” doesn’t claim to be making any profound statements. It’s just saying that there is one waiting to be made. What’re you gonna do?