"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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. The Book I Read also stayed in the head as, of course, did the now iconic single, the mysterious Psycho Killer, with Byrne going full-on Anthony Perkins with his lyrics straight from the psychiatrist's couchand its killer introductory bass line. It rapidly became a cult classic with its noir ambience and overpowering vibe of unsettling paranoia. He was a decidedly odd character, was David Byrne, part naive geek, part chillingly paranoid. He suited the post-punk zeitgeist perfectly, however.
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. No Compassion is a solid piece of funk-influenced post punk-ish song, full of those frenetically-strummed guitar lines that came to characterise Talking Heads' early work. Don't Worry About The Government has a catchy feel in its verses, with Byrne singing in a sort of idiot-savant way. The refrain is oddly appealing. It is one of the album's instantly alluring numbers. 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 funk of the short track Who Is It? provided an early pointer as to future sounds as well. The album also had an attempt at being hopefully iconic with its basic all-red cover. Listening to it now, it is clear that it really was a notable debut album, nothing of its like had really been heard before.
** 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.
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.
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. Paper is a weird love song to a piece of paper, with a killer jangly guitar riff similar to the material on the first two albums. Like those songs, it carries an irresistible energy. Listen to that funky guitar backing half way through. Like half of this album, however, it is a cold-feeling song.
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”. Then there is the monumental, futuristic Life During Wartime, packed full of post-nuclear imagery and a frightening vision of the future set against an addictive disco-rock beat. Once again it is overflowing with hooky quotable lines. These two songs are, along with I Zimbra, the album's most lively, upbeat moments. The rest of the songs are far more impenetrable and esoteric. Also, the sound on these tracks is warmer and bassier, probably due to their funkier backing. Other tracks are colder, more metallic. 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. The quirky punky funk of Animals has the same impressive bass plus a cutting lead guitar and a mad, sonorously-chanted vocal ending about “nuts and berries”. The brooding, slightly menacing Electric Guitar and the similarly affecting, staccato beat of Drugs end the album in the same metallic, bassy, but electrifying vein. It is definitely an album the gets darker as it goes on. These two tracks are the gloomiest of the album. That enjoyable fun of I Zimbra seems a long way away by now.
** 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.
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.
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.
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.
** 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.
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. The intoxicating, rhythmic groove of Swamp has Byrne in deeper voice mode, something he uses far more on here than other albums. It is a track that washes its funky warmth all over you. Turn it up and get right into it. Its "hi hi hi" chorus is one that sticks in your head for the rest of the day. 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.
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.
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. Walk It Down is healthily chunky with echoes of the material on Fear Of Music about it and a strangely singalong chorus. It has a sort of commerciality to it that carries on to the next track too. 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.
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.
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.
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. Ruby Dear has a pounding, tribal style drum backing, one of the heaviest they have ever laid down. 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.