INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Classic Pop JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2014 - by Mark Lindores
Nearly forty years ago, a bunch of art-school misfits were adopted by the New York punk scene. They went on to become the new faces of new wave, their unique blend of music and art resulting in their own brand of pop.
As first gigs go, there really is no better way to launch a band than by sharing the bill with the Ramones at seminal New York City nightspot CBGB - AKA the birthplace of punk. Yet that's exactly how Talking Heads made their live debut in 1975, just months after graduating from Rhode Island School Of Design and heading to the Big Apple to pursue their dream of forming a band that combined the sounds they were hearing from the city's burgeoning punk-rock scene and their keen passion for performance and conceptual art.
Having already been in a short-lived band called The Artistics while at art school, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth lived together in a communal loft and played gigs around New York, where they quickly built up a strong following due to their signature nerdy punk-funk being a stark contrast to everything else around at the time. The addition of Jerry Harrison completed the line-up and the band landed a deal with Sire Records in 1977.
They went on to become one of the '70s' and '80s' most original bands, incorporating a range of influences into their music - namely, world music, funk, Americana and country. As well as being an aurally arresting entity, Talking Heads emphasised their showmanship and - utilising skills they'd honed at art school - became one of the first multimedia groups with their avant-garde videos, artwork and mesmerising concerts.
Though Talking Heads' true success couldn't be measured by chart placings and record sales, they nonetheless managed to achieve commercial success as well as critical. Between 1977 and 1988, they released eight studio albums as a group, as well as a number of solo ventures and side projects, including Tom Tom Club.
Following persistent rumours of fractious relationships within the band, an official split was announced in 1991, three years after the release of Talking Heads' final album, Naked, in 1988. While the band reunited to perform at their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2002, they quickly dispelled any rumours of a full-blown comeback, stating that performing at the ceremony "gave our group a happy ending".
THE MUST-HAVE ALBUMS
MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD  Not just leftovers, this has become a favourite among Heads fans
Entitled as a subtle reference to the general consensus that sophomore albums consist of leftover tracks from the debut release, this was Talking Heads' second LP and marked the beginning of their long-term collaboration with Brian Eno.
Already renowned for moulding art-rockers such as David Bowie and Roxy Music into chart-friendly superstars, Eno was the perfect choice to co-produce the album, toning down the quirks and overt eccentricities that had at times marred their debut, and shifting focus from David Byrne's vocals to Tina Weymouth's bass and Chris Frantz's drums, resulting in a more danceable sound than that of Talking Heads: 77.
Though the album failed to produce a UK hit (a cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River enjoyed moderate success in the States), it reached Number 21 in 1979 and is regarded by Heads fans as one of the band's finest works due to the inclusion of favourites such as The Big Country, Artists Only, I'm Not In Love, Found A Job and The Girls Want To Be With The Girls.
FEAR OF MUSIC  The humour was pushed aside for darker themes and sounds
While More Songs About Buildings And Food had been recorded in the Bahamas, Fear Of Music began life in Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz's New York loft. This shift was reflected in the music - much darker, both sonically and thematically, it was in stark contrast to the previously omnipresent humour.
David Byrne's lyrics on the album were as abstract as ever, covering subjects such as urban guerrillas, the boredom of eternal life in paradise and the sneakiness of animals. With Brian Eno on board again, Fear Of Music was very much a transitional album in Talking Heads' canon, with the fusion of guitars and electronics culminating in an eclectic collection of songs, which proved to be a creative high point.
From the opening I Zimbra (the birth of "ethnofunk"), which incorporated world music into the band's spiky, tension-laden punk-pop, to the sublime simplicity of tracks such as Drugs and Air, the beautiful melody of Heaven and the album's first single, Life During Wartime - what Fear Of Music lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for with its abundance of standout moments.
REMAIN IN LIGHT  - An album that kick-started a rich period of success for the group
Having been plagued by bouts of writer's block following a prolific three albums in as many years, David Byrne once again retreated to the Bahamas to work on Talking Heads' fourth album. Here, he welcomed not only input from the other members of the band but additional musicians, too, including Fela Kuti (whose music turned out to be a huge influence on the record).
The culmination of the advances made on their previous albums, Remain In Light was Talking Heads' most accomplished work and completed their musical evolution, giving them a much richer and more substantial sound than ever before, particularly on key tracks such as The Great Curve and Crosseyed And Painless.
The third and final album with Brian Eno, Remain In Light saw the band experiment with funk and hip-hop as well as the African polyrhythms that dominated the album, and became their most successful LP to date - it saw them embark on a UK tour supported by pop-superstars-in-waiting U2, Dire Straits and OMD, and produced their first UK Top 20 single in Once In A Lifetime.
STOP MAKING SENSE  - Could this be the best live album ever released?
Although it was a live album, and predominantly consisted of previously released material, 1984's Stop Making Sense - the soundtrack to their concert film of the same name - captured the essence of Talking Heads better than any of their studio albums and remains a sonic snapshot of a band at the zenith of their creativity.
Recorded over three nights in Los Angeles on the Speaking In Tongues tour, half of Stop Making Sense consisted of tracks from that album. Additionally, the live versions of songs such as Take Me To The River, Life During Wartime, The Catherine Wheel's What A Day That Was and a euphoric Once In A Lifetime are widely recognised as superior takes on those tracks. The same can be said of Heaven and This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody), although these were relegated to the B-sides of the album's singles until they were restored to the Deluxe Edition of the LP in 1999.
Not just the highlight of Talking Heads' catalogue, in the realm of live albums Stop Making Sense is one of the greatest ever recorded.
AND THE REST...
TALKING HEADS: 77  - The band's innovative debut album has been lauded as one of the seminal releases to come from New York City's downtown punk scene, alongside CBGB alumni Patti Smith, The Ramones and Television. A masterclass in quirky art-pop, Talking Heads: 77 was the perfect introduction to David Byrne and co's idiosyncratic take on punk. A minor hit, the record contained their second and third singles, Uh-Oh Love Comes To Town and Psycho Killer (their debut effort, Love→Building On Fire, was omitted from the album), and firmly established them as one of rock's most interesting new voices.
THE NAME OF THIS BAND IS TALKING HEADS  - Entitled to clarify the name of the group as Talking Heads (not The Talking Heads), their first live release was a double album including concerts from 1977-79 and 1980-81 (the former being the basic fourpiece, the latter featuring the expanded touring band), and illustrated how much the group had grown in four years, and how much their cerebral, nervy New Wave had matured to make Talking Heads one of the must-see live acts of their era.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES  - Following the trilogy of Brian Eno-produced albums and a band hiatus during which all the members embarked on side projects, Talking Heads regrouped for 1983's Speaking In Tongues. It became their first million-seller and produced two of their best singles - Burning Down The House (their first and only US Top 10 hit) and This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody), one of the most compelling songs they ever put their name to.
LITTLE CREATURES  - Little Creatures was Talking Heads' most accessible, upbeat album and marked their big breakthrough in the UK, giving them not only a Top 10 album but also two of their biggest hits in Road To Nowhere and And She Was. Sonically, the album marked a return to early Talking Heads - hook-laden pop infused with Americana and country influences. Shifting over three million copies, it was the band's most successful LP, though it's regularly dismissed by Talking Heads purists for being too poppy.
TRUE STORIES  - True Stories was released in conjunction with David Byrne's film of the same name, and featured tracks from that film re-recorded by Talking Heads. Byrne later expressed regret that an original soundtrack featuring the movie's stars wasn't released instead. The album's biggest hit (UK 43, US 25) was Wild Wild Life, but Dream Operator and City Of Dreams also rank among Talking Heads' best. Despite not scoring a UK Top 40 single, True Stories was a success in this country, reaching number seven on the albums chart.
NAKED  - The band adopted a completely new way of working for their eighth album, crafting forty improvised jams then decamping to Paris to develop them with producer Steve Lillywhite and a vast array of international musicians (including Johnny Marr, Kirsty MacColl and Mory Kanté). The tracks came to fruition by way of the band and their guests playing them for a full day, improvising and developing the songs, then selecting the best take at the end. Naked reached number three on the UK albums chart and would be the group's final LP.
THE ESSENTIAL SINGLES
PSYCHO KILLER  A killer track about a killer mind
Originally written and recorded back in 1974 when Talking Heads were still The Artistics, Psycho Killer was an invitation into the mind of a maniac; the jarring, unsettling subject matter of the song becoming a recurrent theme throughout the band's catalogue.
In its earliest incarnation, it was a much more graphic insight into the psyche of a serial killer and his state of mind while committing murder. David Byrne likened the tone of the song to a film where "everyone roots for the bad guys". The track was later reworked for the group's debut album, Talking Heads: 77, and released as the record's lead single in December 1977. Although it wasn't a UK single and only reached Number 92 in the US, Psycho Killer has become renowned as one of Talking Heads' signature songs, its manic overtones and killer, danceable bassline proving the perfect introduction to Byrne and co.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME  After the success of this, they could all buy large automobiles
Although it's become something of a modernday standard, Once In A Lifetime wasn't an immediate success upon its release in February 1981, failing to reach the Top 100 in the US. It was a much bigger hit in the UK, where it hit Number 12 - the band's first Top 20 single.
The track was recorded in the Bahamas in 1980, once again with Brian Eno producing. However, it was almost shelved - deemed not good enough for Remain In Light - until Eno came up with the anthemic, uplifting chorus, which was the catalyst for it becoming the album's lead single.
"Most of the words in Once In A Lifetime come from evangelists I recorded off the radio," David Byrne told Time Out in an interview later. "Maybe I'm fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life; so distant from what I do. I can't imagine living like that."
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE  Four years in the making, this has become an essential Heads song
The lead single from the band's sixth album, Speaking In Tongues, Burning Down The House was a continuation of Talking Heads heading in a more accessible direction than on their earlier material, eschewing the experimental touches in favour of a rock-and-funk fusion. The transition paid off for them in the US, where the track became their first (and only) Top 10 single - though it failed to chart in the UK.
The song started life as an instrumental jam written by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth after they'd attended a Parliament-Funkadelic concert in 1979. It languished as an unused demo for years before it was presented to Byrne. Together, the band cultivated the track, with Byrne's unmistakable vocal delivery making it essential Talking Heads.
THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (NAIVE MELODY)  Byrne's first love song took three decades to mature
Although Talking Heads' success could never be measured by their chart placings, it's still hard to comprehend that a song such as This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) could fail to break the Top 50 in both the UK and the US (it reached 51 here and 62 Stateside). Released in 1983, This Must Be The Place was, he explained in Stop Making Sense, David Byrne's first attempt at a straightforward love song. "I don't think I've ever done a real love song - mine always had a reservation, or a twist," he said. "[This Must Be The Place] is a love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs; phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don't have any narrative qualities." Three decades on, the track is finally getting the recognition it deserves, and was recently covered by Arcade Fire.
ROAD TO NOWHERE  Death brings the band's biggest hit
Following the grandiose experimentation and bigger scope that had become an integral part of Talking Heads, everything was scaled down for the Little Creatures album, as evidenced on Road To Nowhere (to the extent that David Byrne felt the song was too simplistic until he added the choral arrangement as the song's intro).
Byrne has said that the song was inspired by the futility of life and the inevitability of death, saying that instead of postulating what lies beyond (ie "Nowhere"), we should enjoy the ride along the way; that life is about the journey, not the destination.
Despite its seemingly bleak subject matter, Road To Nowhere remains the group's biggest UK hit, reaching number six.
AND SHE WAS  An upbeat peak but, once again, the subject is bleak
One thing that was evident from the start of Talking Heads was David Byrne's ability as a great storyteller, and that was never more evident than on And She Was. While it's an upbeat and catchy track, in true Heads style there's more than meets the ear, its undeniable melody and playful bassline masking a dark tale about a drug trip.
Although the single stalled at Number 54 in the US charts, it received a lot of airplay on the radio and on MTV, its ubiquity leading to it being considered much more successful than it actually was. In the UK, the song climbed to Number 17, making Little Creatures the first Talking Heads album to produce two UK Top 20 singles.
ONLY FOR THE BRAVE
NO TALKING, JUST HEAD  - Recorded by side project The Heads (all of Talking Heads minus David Byrne), this album saw the singer sue his old mates on the basis that the name and presentation were too similar to the original group. The LP was a major misfire.
SOUNDS FROM TRUE STORIES  - The second LP of a planned trilogy (True Stories was first, the third was to be the songs performed by the actors in David Byrne's film), Sounds From True Stories comprised iffy background music and a bunch of weak extra tracks.
THE MUST-WATCH VIDEOS
ONCE IN A LIFETIME Directors: TONY BASIL/DAVID BYRNE
As one of the first promos to be on heavy rotation on MTV, Once In A Lifetime - with the enduring image of a sweating, erratic David Byrne dancing manically and looking like a demented door-to-door salesman in nerdy glasses, suit and bow tie - became one of the first icons of the video age.
Relying solely on Byrne's magnetism, the film features him emulating the African tribesmen relayed behind him on a video screen, before he dissolves into a series of seizure-like movements. The choreographer and co-director, Toni Basil (she of Mickey fame), revealed that the band watched videos of people having fits to enable the singer to perfect the movements.
Widely accepted as a piece of performance art, the Once In A Lifetime video is now exhibited at New York's Museum Of Modern Art.
ROAD TO NOWHERE Directors: DAVID BYRNE/STEPHEN R JOHNSON
As former art students, Talking Heads embraced all aspects of visual arts to complement their musical output - a lot of effort and thought went into their artwork, stage show and videos. In 1985, the video for Road To Nowhere broke new ground, referencing conceptual art and using up-to-the-minute technology to create some stunning special effects.
Directed by David Byrne and Stephen R Johnson (who would go on to direct two of the most celebrated videos of the '80s - Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer and Big Time), Road To Nowhere featured a number of revolving objects and scenarios - all essentially leading nowhere - interspersed with footage of Byrne running on the spot. The innovative clip received a nomination for Video Of The Year at 1986's MTV Video Music Awards.
WILD WILD LIFE Director: DAVID BYRNE
Set in a karaoke bar, the video took the offbeat humour of the band's previous promos and took it to a whole other entity - it's pure comedy. As well as the group themselves, the video features a cast of eccentric characters. Actor John Goodman from the True Stories film makes a cameo appearance, as do impersonators of Prince, Jon Bon Jovi, Meatloaf, Ron Jeremy and Billy Idol, among others.
The clip won Best Group Video and Best Video From A Film at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards. Despite being one of the group's best-known songs and videos, it had never been performed live until June of this year, on David Byrne's world tour.
STOP MAKING SENSE Director: JONATHAN DEMME
Filmed over three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre in December 1983, Stop Making Sense (which was named after a lyric in Girlfriend Is Better from Speaking In Tongues) has become the benchmark by which live music is now measured.
Relying on their art-school backgrounds, the band pioneered the notion of creating a multimedia spectacular instead of a straightforward rock concert, fusing music, performance art, theatre and dance - every aspect of which was captured meticulously by director Jonathan Demme.
As well as being a visual feast, the shows were the first to be recorded exclusively using digital techniques, capturing how well the music translated into the live arena and spawning a successful soundtrack album - a timeless celebration of one of music's most original bands doing what they did best.
As the relationships between band members were purported to be strained throughout their success (the solo ventures and side projects they embarked upon were an opportunity to give them breaks from each other when things got bad), all members of Talking Heads maintain that there will never be a reunion (Tina Weymouth has gone on record describing David Byrne as "a man incapable of returning friendship") and continue to release new music and tour individually.
Byrne continues to be prolific within the realms of music, art and theatre. Last year, he published How Music Works, an overview of music as an art form, and he's been recording and touring with St Vincent and Peter Gabriel, as well as writing Here Lies Love, a musical based on Imelda Marcos, with Fatboy Slim.
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth have revived Tom Tom Club and are touring in support of 2012's Downtown Rockers EP. This summer, they played the Glastonbury Festival.
Jerry Harrison still performs and produces for other acts. His credits to date include No Doubt, Fine Young Cannibals and Crash Test Dummies.