Mojo JANUARY 2008 - by David Sheppard


Talking Heads: Chronology

From twitchy art-funk beginnings to polyrhythmic pop superstardom, the story of David Byrne and co told in performance footage and more.

It should hardly have been a surprise that a band formed at art college would know all about creating visual spectacle. For Talking Heads, alumni of the Rhode Island School Of Design, such a facility would reach apotheosis in Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's nonpareil 1984 concert movie, even if their idea of mach Schau involved deconstructing the very notion of a live performance and having the lead singer cavort in a preposterously oversized business suit. Indeed, for all Talking Heads' cerebral leanings and an initial predilection for pared-to-the-essence austerity (their chosen name, TV jargon for a head-and-shoulders shot, selected because its definition was "all content, no action"), a liquid funk pervaded their music from the get-go, freeing audience hips and suggesting visceral release even as frontman David Byrne delivered his studiedly quotidian essays about civil servants, apartment blocks and sexual politics like a man battling Tourette's syndrome while struggling to escape an invisible straitjacket.

As the title suggests, Chronology offers a logical, sequential journey through the band's on-stage history, with fifteen more or less transfixing performances between 1975 (at CBGB) and 2002 (their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction), plucked from thirteen different venues and TV shows, all of it interspersed with key player reminiscences, fan footage and a montage of Byrne's implausibly self-conscious mid-'70s song introductions. Inevitably, the overriding narrative arc is one of growth, as the nerdy minimalism of the fledgling Talking Heads trio gives way to increasing confidence, extra band members and a broader musical palette. The inadvertent subtext is the inexorable marginalising of bassist Tina Weymouth. A compellingly gamine yet empowered presence behind her giant-looking instrument in 1976 footage from Manhattan's The Kitchen, by 1980's Passaic, NJ version of Crosseyed And Painless she's reduced to the rank and file of the expanded Heads' line-up - bassist Busta 'Cherry' Jones helming the Afro-funk throb. Weymouth is a vital audio-visual component in a number of other significant performances, however; not least a wired, 1978 Old Grey Whistle Test version of Don't Worry About The Government and 1979's sublime American Bandstand rendition of Take Me To The River, the moment when Talking Heads crossed the Rubicon from new wave cult to bona fide pop stardom.

Among the extras are rare photographs, original lyric drafts and a typically scattershot yet perceptive 1979 Lester Bangs essay, while riveting footage from a late-'70s Southbank Show profile captures the band writing songs, rehearsing and smoking a lot at Frantz and Weymouth's Long Island City loft in the wake of a then recently released Fear Of Music - for many, Talking Heads in their absolute pomp. It's as good a reason as any to invest in Chronology.