I was introduced to the music of Talking Heads when the band was at its commercial peak. But to say I was introduced is not quite correct. I think, actually, the music announced itself. I’m talking the big hits – Road To Nowhere, And She Was, Burning Down The House, that sort of thing. For they were the introduction/opening announcement.
The concert film and live album, Stop Making Sense, and the studio albums either side of it (Speaking In Tongues, Little Creatures) were my early fuel. I was maybe 10 years old and this music was exciting. It was punchy, quirky, upbeat, uplifting. My parents and my brother were fans of the music but I still feel like I discovered it for myself. I certainly cut my own path from that early introduction, from seeing the big-suited-David Byrne-with-boom-box from Stop Making Sense.
Actually the song Once In A Lifetime was possibly my introduction – being that it comes from the earlier Remain In Light album. In my earliest listening to the band (given my age) I had Once In A Lifetime in a line with Road To Nowhere and Burning Down The House and the other big singles (and some album-tracks like Swamp and Stay Up Late).
From there I worked back to the band’s earliest material.
Those first four Talking Heads albums are exquisite – sure. And start-to-finish Remain In Light is the one for me, no question. But I still think all of the material that followed, the stuff that I started with, features great performances and incredible pop songwriting. The band did not release a dud album as far as I’m concerned.
In fact my second favourite album to play through beginning to end (as is the way with albums) is Naked; the band’s swansong – often dismissed as a lacklustre set. Sure it points to where Byrne was heading – in fact at that stage it’s very clear he felt he would have gotten there even sooner if not for lugging the rest of the band. Naked is a blueprint (or the beginning of one) for the start of Byrne’s solo career. But, in a sense, he had started his solo career while with the band.
The brilliant My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (a collaboration with Brian Eno that was made in and around Remain In Light) is a Talking Heads album without any pop songs. Byrne had also written for film and theatre but Naked is the start of the sound he would chase-down as a solo artist.
That debut album by Talking Heads – ten years before Naked – is lean and filled with sharp ideas. If Byrne would go on to write musical short-stories across More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, with Talking Heads: 77 he was still finding his song-voice as a writer; composing prose-poems rather than stories, sketching rather than painting.
This is not to suggest that anything was underdeveloped – just a different approach. The band offered Psycho Killer on its debut, one of the enduring Talking Heads songs. Don’t Worry About The Government is another fine piece. And now 40 years after it was recorded Talking Heads: 77 feels like a template for bands to adopt. A perfect slice of punk-era pop music. Just under 40 minutes, this album could be a great resource for young bands. (Did anyone else get the feeling that, six or seven years ago, a bunch of bands popped up claiming an influence from Talking Heads but it never felt like they’d really done the listening? Or was that the fault of a bunch of music-writing hacks jumping to that delusion?)
More Songs About Buildings And Food was released in 1978 and opens with Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, so many good songs on this album – I’ll highlight Warning Sign and The Big Country (and yes, the cover of Al Green’s Take Me To The River).
And then Remain In Light (1980) builds on the previous albums, the groove elements ratcheted up for Born Under Punches, Crosseyed And Painless and The Great Curve. Killer band sound here – and building on the earlier album’s collaboration where the band plays the instruments and the producer (Eno) plays the band.
It is easy to see why the “early” Talking Heads albums are raved about; revered. Four albums in four years – each one improving on the one before it, a pattern emerging, a band progressing; each album a mini-masterpiece in and of itself – but a jigsaw-piece too for a larger puzzle. Never any absolute repetition, always a step forward and/or to the side.
The albums that followed might have netted some big pop success but there were still wonderfully subversive and silly songs, gorgeous songs, clever songs. Take 1983’s Speaking In Tongues, which contains almost every kind of Talking Heads song. Sure the heat is turned down from the explosive first four, but as the funk simmers we still get Moon Rocks and Swamp; Making Flippy Floppy and Girlfriend Is Better. And one of the very best songs the band ever made: This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody).
And 1984’s Little Creatures might seem like all the soul is gone from the band – especially with over-played radio staples And She Was and The Road To Nowhere but Walk It Down is great and two singles that never felt like they were trying too hard were Creatures Of Love and The Lady Don’t Mind.
True Stories is another example of an almost-Byrne solo project in that it doubles as the soundtrack to his film of the same name. Some great songs here (including the odd Papa Legba) and the song Radio Head – which would be the inspiration for a bunch of English lads in a band that seems to have done quite well. Yes, the likes of City Of Dreams might be a million miles from the Eno-produced material or that early, vital punk-leaning sprightliness. But it’s still real to me, dammit.
And then to 1988’s Naked, the band’s final album. So many great songs here – from the ones that do make it on to the compilations (Blind, Nothing But Flowers) through to the less-obvious and brilliantly dark, disturbing songs: The Facts Of Life, Mommy Daddy You And I, Bill, The Democratic Circus.
Byrne’s songwriting was great, sure – but this was a band that, to me, worked because of the tensions. And because of the great players, always working for the song then, but sometimes working against each other.
Chris Frantz deserves credit for playing some great, deceptively simple drum parts; for introducing a lot of the Fela Kuti music (and the like). And for playing with and against the bed of percussion that was often used to augment the sound. Frantz was great at leaving/creating space.
Tina Weymouth was a great foil as bassist, occasional guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist And Jerry Harrison was the multi-instrumentalist fleshing out Byrne’s ideas; if we were talking basketball he would lead the table in assists rather than in points.
From that quartet, often at war with each other, Talking Heads also stretched out to an incredible live band with Bernie Worrell and Adrian Belew (among other notable players).
The known concert film/album is Stop Making Sense – and it is (still) brilliant; Bono was certainly watching (and knicking ideas to bloat for his Zoo TV shows) but the 1980 Rome performance that you can now see on YouTube is stunning (you can buy it on DVD in fact). Watch this live clip of The Great Curve and from there you can take in other songs as you wish. Amazing stuff. Similar performances were captured on the live album, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads.
So, the point of all this? Well, I just wanted to gush about one of my favourite bands. I hadn’t ever written about them (outside of my Vinyl Countdown)but I’ve been a Talking Heads fan for what feels like most of my life now. An amazing band, with, to my ears, a nearly perfect catalogue; it dips in places, but I don’t think this band ever made mistakes. I think some of the material has been over-played, some of the songs are less exciting than others too, but there’s so much to explore with this band; to re-discover with each and every listen. And that’s what I mean by perfect – it’s perfect for re-visiting, it’s a good amount of records to want to get your head around.