I first came across Talking Heads because the local music club where I saw many gigs, Friars Club in Aylesbury, Bucks, started playing the group's deliciously quirky single Love Goes To Building On Fire after the headlining band had just left the stage and everyone filed out of the hall."To some extent I happily don't know what I'm doing. I feel that it's an artist's responsibility to trust that” - David Byrne
Thanks to DJ Kris Needs for that. The other record he played after that was The Rubinoos' I Think We're Alone Now.
Anyway, I duly bought the single and turned up on January 24th, 1978 to watch the band headline at Friars, with Dire Straits, would you believe, as support. For some reason, it was a poorly-attended gig, so much so that the upper level of the venue was closed. A year or so later and that certainly would not have been the case. The group, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison were great that night. I can still remember the audience going wild for Psycho Killer and my being fascinated by Byrne's oddball, paranoid stage presence. Dire Straits were great too. For more information on this gig, check out https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk.
The next time I saw them, it was December 1st, 1980 and the group triumphantly headlined at the Hammersmith Palais (with a young, relatively unknown U2 as support, delighting their small but enthusiastic following). The group was an extended one then, featuring guitarist Adrian Belew and several African musicians. It was one of the best gigs I have ever had the privilege to attend. I never saw them again, but those two gigs were memorable, I have to say.
Despite many musical changes in their eleven year career, Talking Heads never quite lost that earnest, shy studenty appeal. It was a great shame that they went their separate ways in 1988 - Byrne to work with Brian Eno and Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison to many other projects. At their best they were fantastically adventurous, innovative and, above all, mightily influential.
Uh-Oh Love Comes To Town/New Feeling/Tentative Decisions/Happy Day/Who Is It?/No Compassion/The Book I Read/Don't Worry About The Government/First Week, Last Week...Carefree/Psycho Killer/Pulled Up
"Like Sparks, these are spoiled kids, but without the callowness or adolescent misogyny; like Yes, they are wimps, but without vagueness or cheap romanticism. Every tinkling harmony is righted with a screech, every self-help homily contextualised dramatically, so that in the end the record proves not only that the detachment of craft can coexist with a frightening intensity of feeling—something most artists know—but that the most inarticulate rage can be rationalised. Which means they're punks after all” - Robert Christgau
From New York’s CBGB’s punk scene came a surprising oddity - the quirky, post punk before punk had barely begun, band of somewhat dull earnest middle-class studenty-types led by a hyper-active nerdy, oddball lead singer in David Byrne. This was Talking Heads. The like of them had not been seen or heard before - jangly sometimes funky guitars, a solid bass and drum beat, sudden changes of pace, jerky riffs and Byrne’s manic, often unsettling vocal delivery. Nobody knew quite what to make of them. They helped to kill off punk’s anger almost immediately - their music and lyrics were thoughtful and cerebral, not destructive, although they were often downright weird. The times were a-changing already. In many ways they inspired many a post punk band. Their clean-cut, short-haired appearance was de rigeur in these anti-typical rock days and similarly influential. Jonathan Richman had been looking like that since 1972, though, it has to be said.
Kicking off with the short, frantic, psychedelic sixties pop-influenced Uh-Oh Love Comes To Town we were presented with an album full of shortish, sharp guitar-driven odd songs with strange lyrics and a sort of thrillingly unique guitar sound. They were totally uncategorisable. I remember seeing them live in early 1978 and being captivated by them, both musically and performance-wise.
They were, I have to say, an acquired taste, were Talking Heads, but their songs had hooks, such as the catchy chorus part on Tentative Decisions, the deliciously energising guitar funk of New Feeling and the gently tuneful and enchanting First Week, Last Week...Carefree.
Happy Day starts a bit like The Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning before ending up as a quirky number with a decidedly odd, yelping vocal from Byrne.
Another having the same effect is the album’s closer, Pulled Up, which also had a great riff and a madcap high-pitched chorus vocal from Byrne.
** The non-album single, Love Goes To Building On Fire, is an absolute gem. Totally un-analysable though. God alone knows what it meant. Musically, it was full of all sort of things - twittering bird noises, thumping drums, staccato but melodic guitars and bizarre vocals, it appealed to many, though, and was a hugely popular track at my local music club, Friars in Aylesbury. It was loved by punks rockers and proggies alike.
That was an initial sign that in 1977 Talking Heads attracted a wide-ranging cult audience of both arty types and punks. They straddled many a sub-culture, probably because they were so difficult to pigeonhole, many found themselves enjoying their decidedly oddball but often irresistible music.
Back then in 1977, Rolling Stone hailed the album as one of "the most definitive albums of the decade" and even in that year are pointing out that the band were "not remotely punks". Quite why they were seen as part of the punk scene was always a bit perplexing, probably because they gigged on the same circuit, at CBGB's and the like, but apart from that, they were firmly avant-garde and arty, just as Television were.
** The bonus tracks included on the expanded release of the album are the gently melodic and alluring I Wish You Wouldn't Say That, with its slightly African-sounding percussion (marimba?); the equally inviting, tuneful tones of I Feel It In My Heart and the acoustic/electric merge of Sugar On My Tongue. All these tracks are attractive and would have fitted fine within the album. I guess in later days they would have been included, but this was sill the era of thirty-forty minute albums.
Thank You For Sending Me An Angel/With Our Love/The Good Thing/Warning Sign/The Girls Want To Be With The Girls/Found A Job/Artists Only/I'm Not in Love/Stay Hungry/Take Me To The River/The Big Country
"At that time I said, 'What are we gonna call an album that's just about buildings and food?' And Chris said, 'You call it more songs about buildings and food..." - Tina Weymouth
“More Songs About Buildings and Food transformed the Talking Heads from a quirky CBGB spectacle to a quirky near-unanimously regarded "it" band. New producer Brian Eno can take his due credit for the album's success, smartly tightening up the rhythm section's energy for more dance-oriented beats and a more prominent role in general, though without taking the limelight off head Head David Byrne's nervous sputters…”
Highlights are the short, frenetic opener Thank You For Sending Me An Angel, with its invigorating drum intro and Byrne’s soaring vocal, the heady and funky Warning Sign (again featuring a great drum intro), the energetic The Girls Want To Be With The Girls and the somewhat hyper (again!), breathless funky rock of Stay Hungry. The roots of some of the Remain In Light material can be heard on this track's fade out. Also very enjoyable is the fabulously funky guitar intro to With Our Love and the backing bass too.
The Good Thing has a catchy vocal chorus over a upbeat handclappy tune and some of the trademark guitar from the previous album. There are some exhilarating bass lines on this album, particularly on Artists Only and the lyrically perplexing Found A Job, all blended with that funky fast strummed guitar sound that so characterises this phase of the band’s work. While all these tracks bear hallmarks of the sound developed on the first album they also feel fuller, bassier and more rhythmic.
The real standouts, though, are album’s two final tracks - a wonderful, brooding extended cover of Al Green’s soul classic Take Me To The River that gives a whole new light to the song and The Big Country, a cinematic look at the USA from the air, that proclaims “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me”. The first one tracks could all have appeared on the first album, but it was here, on these final two tracks, that we saw the band beginning to diversify more than just a little, particularly in their covering a slick, soul classic such as Take Me To The River, which took them away from niche, cult band territory and set the tone for the next album, which would prove to be a ground-breaker.
Regarding the album's somewhat mystifying title, Tina Weymouth said this:-
"....When we were making this album I remembered this stupid discussion we had about titles for the last album," Tina smirked. "At that time I said, 'What are we gonna call an album that's just about buildings and food?' And Chris said, 'You call it more songs about buildings and food..."
** Funnily enough, though, the bonus tracks on the expanded version of the album include an ahead of its time, far funkier version of Stay Hungry and a really grungy I'm Not In Love. Also a fantastic country version of Thank You For Sending Me An Angel which out-does the original.
I Zimbra/Mind/Paper/Cities/Life During Wartime/Memories Can't Wait/Air/Heaven/Animals/Electric Guitar/Drugs
"We're in a funny position. It wouldn't please us to make music that's impossible to listen to, but we don't want to compromise for the sake of popularity" - David Byrne
This was the album which saw Talking Heads move away from the guitar-based, quirky vocal three minute song fare of most their first two albums. As well as creating a much darker, bleaker soundscape on many of the album's tracks, they also began to experiment with “world music" rhythms for the first time., something thy would carry on doing until the end of their career. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on the enthusiastic stonker of an opener, I Zimbra, with its nonsensical chanted vocals over African-derived tribal percussion sounds and a heavy disco bass. Talking Heads were taking their post punk arty rock to the dance floor. Overall, though, the ambience on here matches the black, solid industrial metal of the cover. It is uncompromising and industrial. Seven tracks had stark, one-word titles too. You have to say that I Zimbra, good as it is, doesn't really fit with the general feel of this album. It would have been better suited to the next one.
As on the previous album, ex Roxy Music member Brian Eno produced the album, although there was a certain amount of home produced influence on the initial tracks that were laid down Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth's house by a rudimentary set of cables running from a room into a shed.
Mind had an insistent, high-pitched guitar sound, another deep rumbling bass and David Byrne’s obsessive, slightly bonkers vocal. Bassist Tina Weymouth described Byrne’s sense of rhythm as “insane but fantastic”. There is something completely captivating about the track, though. When the guitar cuts in at the end, backed by that echoey bass it is a superb moment.
Two of the album’s cornerstones are up next in firstly the scrumptiously funky Cities, about fascination with urban life - “think of London, a small city - dark - dark in the daytime..”. This has a great groove to it and Byrne’s crazed hollerings - “look over there! A dry ice factory!” give it a sense of paranoid unease. I could carry on quoting from it, it is chock full of classic Byrne-isms. It has an excellent mid-song guitar part too, similar to those used by Eno on David Bowie’s 1978 album, “Heroes”.
The heavy, clunking Memories Can't Wait has a shuffling, insistent rumbling bass sound. Listening to it again, it really is great stuff. Introspective, dense and metallic but somehow it burrows right into your system. Whereas Byrne’s voice was the dominant thing on the first album, here it functions more as a supplement to the music. An adjunct.
The ambience changes just a little with the melodic murk of Heaven, which is just sad, moving and uplifting at the same time. Yet again it features a peerless bass line.
In a way, coming from the 1978-1979 period, this album should be paired with Bowie’s “Heroes”. A good thing to do is put both of the albums in a playlist queue and play the tracks at random. Most interesting. Work out which is the most sombre, which has the strangest lyrics. Concluding my feelings about the album itself, it is by far Talking Heads' darkest work but it has a real sort of noir appeal to it and was hugely influential - the very epitome of post punk from a band who were never punks after all, were they?
** The bonus tracks on the extended version include the odd, frantic funk of Dancing For Money, with its incomprehensible lyrics. Did this deserve a place on the album? No.
Born Under Punches/Crosseyed And Painless/The Great Curve/Once In A lifetime/Houses In Motion/Seen And Not Seen/Listening Wind/The Overload
"The ambition was to blend rock and African genres, rather than simply imitate African Music" - Jerry Harrison
By 1980, Talking Heads were now in full tribal dance music meets oddball post-punk band mode and the trends that had crept into their second album and expanded upon considerably in Fear Of Music were now given freedom to roam all over this truly remarkable album. I remember seeing them perform most of this album live at the old Hammersmith Palais on 1st December 1980, they were superb, with a band that increased in size song by song. By the end there were several African musicians joining the group and additional guitarist Adrian Belew. It remains one of my favourite ever gigs.
The old “side one” is a stimulating three-track masterpiece of disco/rock/funk where insistent, danceable tribal and Afro-Funk rhythms blend with searing lead guitar, female backing vocals, David Byrne’s bizarre lead vocals and Tina Weymouth’s excellent bass. It is difficult to find words to sum up the brilliance of these three extended tacks that sort of all join together in complete whole - Born Under Punches then Crosseyed And Painless then The Great Curve. Lyrics are random, streams of consciousness, sometimes chanted, sometimes repeated, key phrases emphasised over an absolutely exhilarating backing. The pace or the rhythm never let up for a minute. A remarkable side of music, even now, some thirty-eight years later. "The world moves on a woman's hips...", from The Great Curve, always was a wonderful line.
From the moment Born Under Punches instantly kicks in almost by accident, those funky guitars arrive and then the haunting backing vocals behind David Byrne's "I'm a tumbler, I'm a government man..." ranting vocal rides insanely over it all one is hooked. "Take a look at these hands..." rails Byrne and then Adrian Belew's crazed guitar cuts in before we return to the "and the heat goes on" backing vocal. This, for me, is one of Talking Heads' finest moments.
Could "side two" improve on that remarkable piece of work? Actually no, but Once In A Lifetime gave it one hell of a go, proving that nothing is "the same as it ever was". It was a huge hit single, and still gets radio play today. It is impossibly catchy, with a killer bass line and Brian Eno's strange, watery keyboard riff. Not to forget Belew's wonderful guitar and, of course, Byrne's madcap, incomprehensible lyrics. I have heard it a bit too many times though, and while it is many people's favourite Talking Heads track, it is way down the list for me.
It is now that the album reverts, ever so slightly to a more typical Talking Heads sound, but only just. The jerky, staccato guitar-driven sound of the first two albums meet Fear Of Music's bleakness and this album's rhythms to give us four more impressive numbers.
Listening Wind is one of the album's relatively forgotten treasures, too, with its enigmatic ambience, appetising rhythms and even more thought-provoking, mystifying lyrics about "Mojique" whoever he/she was/is. Yet again the guitar is top class and the atmosphere on here eats into your senses. There are influences of North African Sufi music in places here too.
Now, what has generally been an entrancing, almost narcotic, captivating album ends on a real dark, sombre note with the spooky, intense and powerful The Overload. Apparently, Talking Heads were trying to imitate the post-punk sound of Joy Division on this one. Well, they did it. It is their own post punk classic. It sits completely at odds with the rest of the album but is no less magnificent for it. Despite the album's obvious brilliance, there is a case for this dark dirge being its best track. Personally, I can never get enough of it. It is gloomily glorious.
For me, Remain In Light has never worked as a cohesive whole - there is the urgent, infectious funk of the first three tracks; the rhythmic mystery of the next four; and then there is The Overload. This doesn't mean that it is not a great album, though, for it is, one of the best of its time. It has been rightly praised ever since for praised its sonic experimentation, rhythmic innovations, and cohesive merging of disparate genres. Many of the songs' parts were written by different members and welded together, to great effect. It is also not often remembered that there were, by now, serious divisions within the group, particularly between the notoriously "difficult" Byrne and Tina Weymouth. The presence of the also headstrong Brian Eno didn't help matters either - he had wanted the album to be co-credited "Talking Heads & Brian Eno". The album functions as a perfect whole which helps to gloss over the cracks that were appearing in the group's foundations.
** The bonus tracks on the extended version include the catchy bassy, instrumental groove of Fela's Riff; the haunting backing vocal-driven experimentation of Unison; the funky guitar and indulgent tribal chant vocal trickery of Double Groove and the Nigerian "hi-life" influenced delicious guitar sound of Right Start, an instrumental prototype of Once In A Lifetime. None of these tracks are essential but I always find when playing this album, I leave them on at the end.
Burning Down The House/Making Flippy Floppy/Girlfriend Is Better/Slippery People/I Get Wild: Wild Gravity/Swamp/Moon Rocks/Pull Up The Roots/This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
"I originally sang nonsense, and uh, made words to fit that. That worked out all right" - David Byrne
From 1983 and no longer using Brian Eno as producer, three years after their previous album, Talking Heads went into full funk rock mode. The old art rock sensibilities were still there, but there was a full, pounding bassy sound, particularly on the opener, the much-sampled Burning Down The House.
Incidentally, Girlfriend Is Better contains the "stop making sense" quote that would be used for the band's live album/film.
Slippery People has another elephantine mighty, thumping intro, together with an infectious, typically David Byrne vocal refrain. This part of the song is very Remain In Light. Once again, the sounds that the previous album had introduced were now given full rein. This wasn’t just experimenting with funk, this was merging funk with art rock, properly. It really works too. Listen to that swirling guitar sound as it interplays with the drums and strange keyboard sounds. Seriously good.
I Get Wild: Wild Gravity is similar but this time more mysterious, intense and throbbing. It has great rhythm and is possibly the closest to that Listening Wind vibe, but it is much faster and more toe-tapping, shoulder twitching. Those rhythms that Tom Tom Club used to great effect in 1981 can be heard here, big time together with lots of "huh!" backing vocals.
Moon Rocks has yet another irresistible beat to it and has some of those archetypal jerky David Byrne whooping, yelping, staccato vocals. The line "round heads, square heads..." is so typically Byrne. Once again, the rhythm just grabs you and won't let go. The bass/keyboard/drums interplay at the end is energising.
Pull Up The Roots, with its insistent urban funky guitar riff of the type so popular in the early 1980s (such as on The Clash's The Magnificent Seven and many Chic disco hits) and the impossibly catchy This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) continue in the same irrepressible vein. For many people the latter is the cornerstone of the album, its finest cut. You can understand why. It is full of beguiling atmosphere set against what is actually a quite simple, regular 4/4 drumbeat, augmented by attractive, almost playful keyboard bits and topped off by Byrne's softer, more yearning voice.
A final point that must be made about this album is that the sound quality was the best yet on a Talking Heads offering - big, full and warm throughout.
This was a different, impressive album from a band that was always pushing the boundaries. Nothing really compares to stuff like this, not even really in The Heads' own catalogue. They were unique. This was their dance/funk album but it was one that was overflowing with their own magic touches. Although Remain In Light carries more nostalgia for me, in many ways this may be my favourite Talking Heads album.
** The bonus track on the expanded edition, Two Note Swivel, is an appealing, rhythmically regimented number in the Girlfriend Is Better style that could easily have fitted in on the album.
And She Was/Give Me Back My Name/Creatures Of Love/The Lady Don't Mind/Perfect World/Stay Up Late/Walk It Down/Television Man/Road To Nowhere
Very different from the heavy funk of Speaking In Tongues, this is a much lighter, more poppy and commercial piece of work. Again, the band changed direction while staying within their own recognisable parameters. Yes, it is clearly Talking Heads, but there are notable differences. It was the group's most accessible album, yet it was the most lightweight and is probably the one I return to the least.
And She Was is a great opener, almost a throwback to the quirky but harmonious material found on the debut album. It is really infectious, particularly on its chorus refrain. Give Me Back My Name is a bit of a throwback to the first two albums in its jerky jumpiness.
Stay Up Late is another one that breaks the mould somewhat with a sort of soul/rock piano and percussion insistent backing. Just as with the previous album, it has a style of its own, yet at the same time is obviously Talking Heads. They were the masters of changing while retaining many of their perennial characteristics.
Television Man, for example, is very much a track that could have been on their first two albums, yet once again the chorus, and Byrne’s voice as well, has the melodious tone that can be found throughout most of this album.
While Remain In Light was loosely the band’s “tribal rhythms” album and Speaking In Tongues was their “funk” album, this was their “country album”. Only loosely though, but the trends are there. It also contains the big slightly gospel-influenced hit Road To Nowhere, but as with Once In A Lifetime it is not my favourite, not at all. It is undoubtedly a catchy song, with its thumping backbeat, but for some reason it has never done it for me.
Love For Sale/Puzzling Evidence/Hey Now/Papa Legba/Wild Wild Life/Radio Head/Dream Operator/People Like Us/City Of Dreams
This was an often unfairly overlooked and sometimes criticised album that functioned as a soundtrack for David Byrne’s directorial debut film of the same name. The film is decidedly weird, to be honest, maybe unsurprisingly, but I have always really loved the album. There is some great music on there. It is often considered more of a David Byrne solo album but it is certainly worthy of attention. All the members of the band play on it so it should be considered a Talking Heads album, for me. It is credited to them.
It was released in 1986, two years before the band’s final ‘official’ album, Naked.
Incidentally, in the film the songs are sung by various characters. On this album, though, Byrne takes lead vocals. Apparently, he didn't want to do this and always regretted his decision to sing on the album. Personally, I am glad he did. It turns it into a proper Talking Heads album.
The songs feature a variety of styles, some which hark back to the band’s earlier albums, some to the group’s interest in world music and there are also dabblings in country.
Love For Sale opens the album with a huge thumping drum beat and some chunky riffs. It is as rocking as the group had been since probably the Fear Of Music album seven years previously. The same applies to the frantic new wavey thrash of Puzzling Evidence which is driven along by a very Attractions-like organ riff. The song's massed backing vocals put me in mind of the Remain In Light album. It keeps up a frantic, breathless beat from the first note to the last.
Hey Now is a sort of gospel meets the Little Creatures album, backed by some African-sounding guitar in places and some Cajun accordion too. It is a thoroughly catchy number, full of all sorts of different influences.
Papa Legba is a rhythmic, Haitian-influenced mysterious voodoo-inspired shuffling number that is thoroughly intoxicating. It has a menacing drum beat and a haunting vocal from Byrne and bags of atmosphere. Great track.
Wild Wild Life was a single and is the album's best known track. It is a superb, upbeat rocker with Byrne at his energised manic best. The chorus is irresistible as is everything about it. It is up there in any Talking Heads 'best of' list I may care to make.
Radio Head (a song which inspired a group's name) is a gospel-influenced piece of muscular mid-pace rock. It reminds of Road To Nowhere a bit. Once more, it is vibrant and enthusiastic with another instantly accessible chorus.
Dream Operator is a slower pace, melodic and vaguely Beatles/McCartney-esque number which features some nice keyboards, a waltz-like beat and a plaintive vocal. Once again, it is a song that one can instantly be attracted to.
People Like Us is a nice slice of country rock, enhanced by some fine steel guitar and violin as well as a chunky, riffy backing to the chorus refrain. This short but immensely enjoyable album ends with the typical Talking Heads anthem of City Of Dreams, which ranks alongside The Big Country as one of their finest album closers. Check out that great guitar break in the middle too. This is definitely one of the band's underrated classics.
Don't ignore this album. It's a good one.
Blind/Mr. Jones/Totally Nude/Ruby Dear/(Nothing But) Flowers/The Democratic Circus/Facts Of Life/Mommy Daddy You And I/Big Daddy/Bill/Cool Cool Water/Sax And Violins
For their final album, released in 1988, Talking Heads returned to the African-influenced polyrhythmic sound of Remain In Light. Recorded in Paris, using many different 'world music' musicians, it is a rich, bassy, horn-powered delight of an album.
Blind is a potent, rumbling funky opener that would not have been out of place on Speaking In Tongues.
Totally Nude is almost Hawaiian guitar meets South African township jive in its backing, as also is the wonderful, ecologically aware, ironic Nothing But Flowers. It is my favourite track on the album and one of their best ever. Byrne sings from the point of view of a frustrated, disillusioned first world person who has seen technological and urban development reversed and much of his world replaced by greenery and flowers - "this was a Pizza Hut - now it's all covered with flowers...". Some feel Byrne is mocking the ever-increasing ranks of the ecologically aware among his peers, but I feel he is making the character he sings as into a sad one, one we should ironically feel a little bit of pity for, despite the correctness of what has happened.
The Democratic Circus is an attractive, slow rhythm beguiling number with hints of a swampy blues guitar lurking quietly behind its gently syncopated beat. That beat reminds me slightly of Paul Simon's Rhythm Of The Saints material, as indeed does a lot of this album.
The mournful The Facts Of Life has hints of The Overload from Remain In Light. On all the tracks, there are some truly great soundscapes. Mommy Daddy You And I is backed by some attractive, understated accordion-like sounds and a sleepy beat. Once again, although the song has typical David Byrne quirkiness in its vocals, it has a rich warmth of 'world music' - influenced backing.
Critically, this album went down well, but it seemed to be pretty well known that the band members, particularly David Byrne, were diversifying off on their separate ways. A shame, but their contribution over ten years or more had been a remarkable one.