INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mother Jones MAY 1982 - by Jon Pareles
TALKING HEADS TALK
Things are too normal here. At a loft in downtown Manhattan, four co-workers are having their pictures taken. A gangly, black-haired man stares silently into the camera; a tall man with a round, cherubic face pores over a newspaper; a blond woman dozes on a couch while her genial, tweed-jacketed husband trades shop-talk with me. They're old friends who take each other for granted - and ex-art students who are used to cameras. All in all, there is about as much grand-standing and flamboyance as you'd find during coffee break at a consulting firm. After the photo session, these young professionals are off to work.
What makes the scene peculiar is the work they do. The quartet is the Talking Heads: singer/lyricist David Byrne, thirty; keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, thirty-three; bassist Martina Weymouth, thirty-one; and drummer Chris Frantz, thirty-one. Since 1976, they have recorded an abundance of extraordinary music: five group albums, including a live retrospective they finished in December, and individual efforts such as Byrne's score for Twyla Tharp's ballet The Catherine Wheel, Harrison's The Red And The Black and Weymouth's and Frantz' dance hit, Tom Tom Club. More often than not, their songs conjure aberrant, visionary mental states with music by turns kinetic, eerie, joyous, foreboding, jarring. Odd songs that, incidentally, sell in the hundreds of thousands
Art and commerce slug it out constantly in rock and roll - that's what keeps it interesting. The remarkable thing about Talking Heads is that they can have their art and eat, too. As innovators with a substantial following they contradict most pop-marketing truisms. They refuse to formularize their music or their image. Each successive album has been more experimental and more ambiguous.
In a way, they have insisted on the prerogatives of visual artists - which most of them were at one time. They try a bunch of concepts and personas and want to be judged by the resulting work, consistency be damned. They reject show biz's standard one-shtick-per-celebrity attitude. Also, like visual artists, they expect a good part of their audience to think about concepts as well as execution.
Without making a gimmick of it, Talking Heads is sexually (and, in the recent work, racially) integrated; without self-righteousness, they hope their audience will infer some notions about community and spirituality from the way the band makes music. Talking Heads songs are rarely soothing or escapist or propagandists; they invite consideration not identification, and they acknowledge tension more often than release. The band assumes - and gets - committed, active listeners.
From the beginning. Talking Heads stood out. Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth - who met as classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design - debuted as a trio in June 1975 at punk nexus CBGB. But instead of black leather, S&M gear and spiky haircuts. Talking Heads wore street clothes; instead of power chords they used pinpoint melodic riffs and a syncopated beat; instead of Velvet Underground tributes they played cover versions of bubble-gum tunes. They didn't act dumb or pretentious - at that time the two acceptable rock poses - they just concentrated on performing the songs. Harrison, who had studied architecture at Harvard and played with The Modern Lovers, joined them in 1976, soon after they had signed a contract and made their first single, Building On Fire. Then, like any other rock band, Talking Heads set about finding an audience.
"We never really wanted to be an elitist art band," Byrne says. "We were always afraid of getting caught and categorized as that sort of thing. We wanted a regular audience to like us."
To reach an audience, Talking Heads followed one bit of conventional rock wisdom: they hit the road. First to Europe, where they were acclaimed, then back to New York to record their debut album. Talking Heads: 77. Then around and around the United States, like Aerosmith or REO Speedwagon.
"In the early days, people didn't know whether to laugh or take us seriously," Weymouth says. "They kept saying, 'What is this, a comedy act?'" Maybe freak-show curiosity brought out the audience initially for the "punk band" from New York, but what brought them back must have been the spectacle of four clean-cut, unexotic kids utterly fixated on their songs. In concert, Byrne became a bug-eyed, twitchy apparition, so wound up by the end of a set that he would even sing his exit line. No wonder some fans equated him with his fictional Psycho Killer.
Talking Heads made an undeniable impression in concert. Even without much radio exposure, their debut album stayed in the Top 200 for seven months, and imitators sprang up almost immediately. To a largely collegiate audience, Talking Heads were proof that even definitively uptight whites had their own real rock and roll.
And while the Talking Heads may have seemed outlandish onstage, their straight clothes were, in significant ways, not a disguise. The band shared some underlying assumptions with their career-bound audience. "We all believe in the work ethic," says Harrison.
"That's sort of the religion that all of us go along with, almost like the Puritan ethic - not as limited as the original exponents of that were, but in the sense that there is a real joy and satisfaction that come from working hard and accomplishing something. It runs counter to a lot of things that have been built up over the past ten years: that enjoyment is associated not with your work but with your leisure time, when you're relaxing or partying - all these things that, to me, are incredibly boring most of the time. It's usually much more fun to be working at things you enjoy and maybe having some sense of community with other people doing it."
Or, as Byrne says. "I feel like this is a job. But I like my work, so it doesn't bother me at all."
THIS AIN'T NO PARTY
If the Talking Heads had been the average hard-touring '70s rock careerists, they would have pigeonholed themselves as soon as possible. Nervous and childlike, maybe, or bubblegum with an existential twist. Or they could have capitalized on the cult status of Psycho Killer, turned the intensity of their shows into an act and perhaps eventually have become the preppy version of Alice Cooper, minus props. But that wasn't the plan.
"We preferred to show the complexity in life," says Harrison, "rather than distill it into one thing, as if the songs had to say the same message." What they came up with - their artfully mixed messages - turned out subtler and more radical than simple protest. Talking Heads used a classic artist's strategy-exaggeration - to build a critique of modern America from the inside. Unlike such politically oriented bands as The Clash, The Specials or The English Beat, Talking Heads don't see themselves in clear and present danger; as smart, upper-class baby-boomers, they can hardly pretend to be oppressed outsiders. Nor, it seems, can they sustain enough moral certitude to tell the world exactly what's wrong. With their first three albums, Talking Heads' solution was to triangulate: to show characters in such extremes of acceptance and isolation that an active listener would want to find a middle ground.
Talking Heads: 77 was populated with loonies, most of them fairly standard, like the fed-up anti-neurotic of No Compassion - "What are you, in love with your problems?" he snarls - and the goofy lover in The Book I Read. Just as loony as the rest of them, though, was the cheerful, upscale urbanite of Don't Worry About The Government, who burbles, "My building has every convenience / It's going to make life easy for me." Absurd, yes, but telling: Byrne had found an everyday subject, and a surprisingly common emotion, that pop had barely touched.
That happy consumer reappears in force on 1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food, Talking Heads' first conceptual masterpiece. Maybe they took the R&B euphemism for sex - "working" - just literally enough; somehow, Talking Heads decided to make an album about work and love (and frequently, work as love) and by extension about people caught up in corporations, in machines, in the economy. In Warning Sign, a character gets horny and shouts: "I've got money now!" mistaking the lump in his pants for cash; in Found A Job, a moral is drawn: "If your work's not what you love, then something isn't right."
More Songs About Buildings And Food is not only pop's best album about productivity (and great party music), it's also one of the few attempts to examine how people connect with institutions - something Byrne would try again in The Catherine Wheel score. "I've always felt that was a real challenge." Byrne says. "These were the places and kinds of things that people deal with for a good part of their day and a good part of their lives. Writing about impersonal things like General Motors or writing a moving song about something fairly mundane - it's pretty hard. The challenge is to write without being ironic or witty or making fun of it or criticizing it, to take something like shopping and really empathize with it. I'm always afraid that people will see something I've written as too critical; I always think it has a more devastating effect if it almost seems sympathetic with the character in the situation. It's hard, and I don't think I do it very well."
Fear Of Music (1979) reversed the polarity of More Songs About Buildings And Food. While More Songs' characters were plugged into society. Fear Of Music left them alone and terrified in a world where even the air was out to get them. In Life During Wartime, Byrne cast himself as an unheroic urban guerrilla: renouncing parties, surviving on peanut butter, transmitting messages, hearing rumors of weapons shipments and of cities falling and of graves just outside town. He was connected only to the imminent collapse. Some listeners, eager to identify the singer with the song, found it realistic; for Byrne, it was just one of many personas he considered "believable and plausible." Taken together, in fact, the first three Talking Heads albums add up to a nightmare for the lone ego: fit in and be swallowed whole; or stay outside and fight endless battles. Either way, it's terminal.
A UTOPIAN PARADIGM
While Byrne's lyrics took the ego to a dead end, the band came to realize that their songs' format contradicted their content. For three albums, they had played eccentric-sounding but traditional rock: a singer leading a back-up band.
But in 1980's Remain In Light, Talking Heads and co-producer Brian Eno decided to experiment with the African way of making music: as a community creation in which individual parts mesh as polyrhythms, clashes turn into interplay. The ideal, as Byrne put it, was that "in sacrificing our egos for mutual cooperation, we got something - dare I say it? - spiritual... This kind of spirituality is joyous and ecstatic and yet it's serious." A utopian paradigm.
It was a powerful idea. For live shows, Harrison recruited five guest musicians, including Parliament-Funk-adelic's Bernie Worrell and future King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, and Talking Heads toured as a nine-member band. "At the time I was very taken with the idea of a mass of people doing something, putting less emphasis on my character," Byrne says. "I'm glad I did that. I think it was a very important point to make. There was a lot less Africanism on the Remain In Light record than we implied - a lot more of the rhythms showed up on The Catherine Wheel - but the African ideas were more important to get across than specific rhythms."
Not everyone got the point. Some observers suggested they were ripping off African culture. But the objection doesn't hold. As Harrison puts it, "We're not going back to the source - we're meeting it halfway."
The important thing for Byrne is that the band's music brings a sense of community rather than a focus on a leader. "Occasionally, we would do a show and a couple of songs would be real transcendent, and the audience and the band all came together for a few moments. That, for me, was something to be proud of. I thought something was happening that hadn't been happening in pop music for a while. It was odd: when it did happen, the band would instantly realize it, and the audience would realize it too."
It may be foolhardy to try to figure out what Talking Heads will do next. "I can't think of anything worse than trying to one-up yourself every year," says Weymouth. Still it is clear that the band will continue to experiment, to expand the limits of pop music. As David Byrne says, "The purpose of my generation's music was to stretch boundaries." Talking Heads is one of the few best-selling American bands that holds on to this sense of mission.