Talking Heads Back Catalogue- Part the First

And there we have it – the years 77 – 82. These were the most fertile years in the Talking Heads story and they are the ones that stand up to most scrutiny.

 

Talking Heads Back Catalogue; Part the First.

In the mid 80s David Byrne appeared on the front of Time magazine underthe heading 'Rock's Renaissance Man'. A little OTT, perhaps, but you could kind of see where they were coming from: here was someone that had worked with just about everyone who was anyone in the New York art world. Byrne had worked with the theatre director Robert Wilson, the choreographer Twyla Tharp and the composer Philip Glass. The artist Robert Rauschenberg designed a CD cover for his band and the film director Jim Jarmusch directed one of their videos. In addition to this Byrne had designed what is still held to be the best concert film ever (Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme), won an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack of The Last Emperor, staged successful exhibitions of his own art work and was just about to release his own film that he had co-written and directed.

 

And we still haven't really touched on his day job, fronting Talking Heads.Talking Heads were thought of as being the thinking persons rock band. It was a title that supposedly flattered them but it was also one that ultimately did them a great disservice. They were undoubtedly critical darlings for most of their existence but I think that their rather rapid fall from grace lies with the fact that they were considered as being somehow 'above' rock music. There was certainly something about the group that allowed them to be portrayed as the rock band of choice for people who didn't actually like rock music: they were witty and intelligent people; their lyrics were interesting and, more importantly, oblique; they didn't look like other rock stars; they hung out with the right kind of (arty) people. This led to Talking Heads being perceived as the archetypal art school band whilst the group themselves thought that they were making dance music. There is, of course, something disingenuous about this pose: the group met at an art school and their first couple of albums did reflect an art school aesthetic. Anyway, as I've said, their standing appears to have diminished somewhat over recent years, even if best ofs appear with great regularity. The accepted line now is to damn the albums with faint praise and to look at their videos and say: 'Do you know, they aren't nearly as radical and adventurous as once we thought.' Balls, clearly, but ultimately such discussions evolve around opinion and taste.

 

More important, for now at least, is that Talking Headscreated a very good creative template for many of the bands that arearound today. We are going through something of a new-wave revival atthe moment and any band that wants to succeed – to move beyond pastiche– needs to listen to Talking Heads' first four albums. At the moment almost everything out there – however good it may be – is rather generic. I think the same claim could be made for Talking Heads' first album. It was good but it was lacking in personality. What they did,over the next three albums, was to make conscious and successful leaps both in ambition and in sound. Partly because of Byrne's delivery,these were all recognisably Talking Heads albums, but they all made huge strides in complexity and, I think, in quality.

 

Most of today's bands are wearing second-hand clothes – Talking Heads teaches bands (and I have most hope for Franz Ferdinand) that you can make artistic leaps that improve both your critical and your commercial standing. In 1977 Talking Heads were clearly a part of the scene that spawned them but no rock bands sounded anything like the Talking Heads of Remain in Light. What price a few more of such bands today? On with the albums...

 

Talking Heads:77

Talking Heads are clearly finding their feet here. Jerry Harrison (of the Modern Lovers) had only just arrived to turn them into a fourpiece. The sound is clear, sparse and simple, and consists basically of guitars, bass and drums. Byrne's voice is clipped and brittle throughout and his stage persona – alternatively hysterical and blankly monotonous, as though being shot full of tranquilisers in between fits of madness – is present, even though it will be taken to extremes onlater albums. The album kicks off with Uh-oh, Love Comes To Town, a very poppy and funky little tune, embellished with steel drums. There are joyful thrashes such as Who Is It? and some great songs, notably Don't Worry About The Government. In a way, one of the most important things about the album is what is missing – producer Tony Bongiovi wanted to have a cello on Psycho Killer, still one of the group's most iconic songs. Fortunately for us all the band won the argument and the song that has perhaps most defined Byrne's on-stage persona remained vitally unadorned. Psycho Killer also gave the first sign of David Byrne's somewhat carefree and off hand manner when it came to song credits - they stated that David Byrne 'got some help from Chris and Tina.' Within a few years the group nearly split up when the credits for Remain in Light seemed to relegate Chris, Tina and Jerry to the role of backing band.

 

More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978)

The influence of Brian Eno on Talking Heads has been much debated but there is no denying that when he came on board as producer their sound became increasingly complex and interesting. The band appeared more confident, the song structures were denser and more intricate and Byrne's voice began to show more range. The overall sound is dark and urgent and there is an atmosphere to the album that Talking Heads: 77 lacked. Keyboards play a greater part (perhaps because of Eno, perhaps because Jerry was more integrated into the group) but they are not there to provide simple harmony – in general they are drunk, discordant and strangely menacing. As for the songs – well, The Big Country is the stand out track, even if it is probably the most out of keeping (production wise) with the rest of the album. The song's narrator is in a plane looking down over rural America; the track's sound is suitably open and sparse, with country-ish guitars. The pay-off is that, whilst the narration appears to be a paean to the 'simple' life, the chorus informs us that our observer wouldn't live there if you paid him to. Elsewhere, Take Me to the River is a cover of the Al Green number and was a surprise hit for the band. Production wise the track is notable for the fact that Eno compressed the sound – don't ask how - so that as the song progresses it appears to be getting louder. But it is not.

 

Fear of Music (1979)

Fear of Music takes the idea of compression from Take Me To The River and applies it to the whole album. Imagine being stuck in a lift with a madman and realising that you are quickly running out of air – Fear of Music is that claustrophobic. It also opens with a pretty obvious statement of intent – I Zimbra is a percussion based track that combines the Dadaist nonsense poetry of Hugo Ball with overt African rhythms. Much of the rest of the album sees Byrne at his nuttiest – the narrators of Mind, Cities, Paper, Animals and Electric Guitar are clearly as mad as a box of frogs. Aside from these songs of insanity –or rather, I think, songs about people incapable of dealing with the modern world – there are disturbing tracks such as Memories Can't Wait and a clutch of Talking Heads' very best songs. Heaven, according to the song, is a place where nothing ever happens. I think it was Lester Bangs who thought such an observation apposite given that nothing – not animals, paper, air or even your mind – could be trusted. Life During Wartime, always a live favourite, gets its first outing here. The extent to which this narrator is delusional – is he really involved in some underground resistance? – is unimportant compared to the sheer energy and urgency of the song. Pretty much essential.

 

Remain in Light (1980)

It is easy to discern, after the event, the direction that Talking Heads were heading in, and to suggest that in one album the band'sinterests and influences found their fullest expression. Or, more strictly speaking, we should be talking about Byrne and Eno's interests, as their other collaborations of the period (listed below) will show. As stated, Talking Heads came pretty close to splitting upover Remain in Light and the album credits - all songs by David Byrne,Brian Eno and Talking Heads – did seem to suggest where the creative energies behind the album lay. But what about the music? Well, Talking Heads left the diseased sounds of Fear of Music behind them and decided to explore the realms of African funk. Side one opens with just three tracks, played pretty much all on one chord, and dominated by intricate percussive interplay. Byrne's still there of course, but his madness seems a little less focussed than on Fear of Music, and he even manages to get involved in a little call and response action. The songs – the standout being Crosseyed and Painless – are essentially jams; dense, evolving, and incredibly tight. Side two unravels the sound. Once in a Lifetime we all know and need not be discussed, whilst Houses in Motion follows a similar template to side one. Seen and Not Seen shows Byrne at his most monosyllabic (well, not quite, that will come a few songs later) as he describes a man trying to change his face by sheer willpower. Listening Wind is a sympathetic portrayal of an African boy planting bombs in an attempt to free his country of American influence. The album finishes with a dirge – The Overload – that makes Smog soundlike Girls Aloud. Purchase this.

 

The Name of this Band is Talking Heads (1982)

1982 yes, but the album was only released on CD in 2004 and, as the review elsewhere here points out, it was well worth the wait. In fact,if you were only going to buy one Talking Heads album then it should be this one, even though it means you will miss out on the entire second half of their career. The first CD showcases live performances from 1977-79, the highlight being the tracks from the rare as hen's teeth Live on Tour: The Warner Bros. Music Show. Of particular interest is Electricity (Drugs), a track that sounds very different (and a whole lot funkier) than either of the tracks that ended up on Fear of Music. Disc 2 is a run through of the Remain in Light tour. Here the band is extended to nine people and includes funk greats like Bernie Worrell. As with the first CD it is one of the lesser tracks that provides themost welcome of surprises - Animals unwinds from an uptight rant into agentle lullaby. This is an essential purchase.

 

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)

Byrne and Eno's album was actually recorded in 1979 and would have come out in 1980 but for disputes over one of the 'found voices' that formed the vocals for the album. As I recall religion – Islam, I think - was involved and in the end the track had to be dumped for the album. Supposedly My Life... is being reissued soon (along with Remain in Light) so who knows if the track will eventually be restored. Seems unlikely but you never know, I suppose. As for the sound of the album, I remember recommending this to a friend and saying that it was funky. Perhaps she was expecting Parliament – in any case she certainly disagreed with my interpretation. But I stand by it. Byrne and Eno's interest in African rhythms is very evident here – there is a huge roll call of percussionists involved on the album – and there is a similar creative process going on that led to the jams of Remain in Light. The album is most notable however (and is still seen as being vastly influential) in its use of the 'found voices', or samples. All the tracks, bar the last one, feature a vocalist of some kind. The voices range from a Lebanese mountain singer to an irate disc jockey and all are used with great skill to create very evocative atmospheres. As with Remain in Light, Byrne and Eno manage to use their interests to create something that sounds unlike anything else, and, as with Remain in Light, the second side of the album slowly fades away.

 

The Catherine Wheel (1981)

The Catherine Wheel was composed by Byrne for a ballet of that name by the choreographer Twyla Tharp. The album contains both songs and instrumental pieces whilst the band includes many of the usual suspects– Brian Eno, Jerry Harrison, Bernie Worrell and Steve Scales. Chris Frantz cropped up on My Life... so Tina's absence from either album is probably a sign of where the real tensions in the band lay. This album rounds off an incredible period of musical creativity for Byrne, one that he wouldn't ever achieve again. Quite how much of this is due to Eno I don't know – but from 79-81 Byrne was involved in creating four brilliant albums, albums that could almost be seen as a suite. The Catherine Wheel is certainly the least commercial of the bunch and it is also the least 'essential' but remember, all this is relative. It's a percussive album again, but it is also far less dense than Remain in Light and My Life In The Bush of Ghosts; the songs have much more space to breathe. Of the instrumental tracks Ade is a highlight whilst Talking Heads fans will immediately recognise the songs Big Business and What a Day That Was from Stop Making Sense. There's much more to the album than just these tracks however and it is well worth tracking down.

 

And there we have it – the years 77 – 82. These were the most fertile years in the Talking Heads story and they are the ones that stand up tomost scrutiny. I may as well state that a music listener would be well advised to purchase My Life In The Bush of Ghosts and The Catherine Wheel over some of the later Talking Heads albums. Whilst this won't go down well with some fans it is, I think, incontrovertible that My Life is of far more interest than True Stories. But never mind – all that is to come in part 2 – 1983 – 1991.