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Talking Heads

Formed in the fall of ‘74 in New York City, TALKING HEADS were quick to set out their stall in among the elite brigade on the burgeoning new wave scene. Experimenting with funky dance rhythms and intellectual lyrics, the quirky quartet stamped their own soul and identity within the movement, guitarist David Byrne’s awkward and jerky vocal chords shining through on classic songs such `Psycho Killer’, `Once In A Lifetime’ and `Road To Nowhere’.
Former Rhode Island School of Design graduates, Byrne, Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums), played their first gig in June ’75 supporting the RAMONES at NY’s now famous CBGB’s punk club.
The band were soon spotted by Seymour Stein, who, after edging out the Berserkley independent, duly signed them to his fledgling imprint, Sire. Late ’76, the ‘Heads released their debut 45, `Love Goes To A Building On Fire’. Although the record flopped, the group boosted their ranks by adding part-time tour support and former MODERN LOVERS keyboard player Jerry Harrison; worthy concerts in Europe and Britain exposed them to a wider and emerging punk audience, while the release of their debut LP loomed. In the meantime, Tina and Chris married on June 18, 1977.
Produced by Tony Bongiovi, TALKING HEADS: 77 (1977) {*9} sold well enough to reach the lower regions of the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The record’s centrepiece was the spasmodic, punk-funk of the aforementioned minor hit, `Psycho Killer’, Byrne’s compelling eccentricity making the number a live favourite. Inspired by the likes of 60s soul icons OTIS REDDING and AL GREEN, opening cut `Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town’ was put out as a single, as was the unhinged but delightful `Pulled Up’. Showcasing their staccato rhythms and Byrne’s uplifting, geeky falsettos, songs such as `New Feeling’, `Don’t Worry About The Government’, `No Compassion’ and `Happy Day’ reached out to the more discerning punks.
By this point TALKING HEADS were well established as one of the leading lights in the New York art-punk scene, firing subversively intelligent broadsides at the overblown rock establishment. Roping in house producer BRIAN ENO (whom the band befriended on the British tour), sophomore album, MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD (1978) {*8} was an even bigger success, reaching Top 30 on both sides of the big pond. Sharing ENO’s disregard for the workmanlike, the band were spurred on to new heights, Frantz and Weymouth fashioning intricate but gloriously funky rhythms, Byrne turning around AL GREEN’s `Take Me To The River’ (a smash hit in America) with his wonderfully idiosyncratic vocal style. Competing alongside the angular pop of `Thank You For Sending Me An Angel’ and `The Good Thing’, the harder-tinged `Warning Sign’, `Found A Job’, `With Our Love’ and closing piece `The Big Country’, almost immediately installed as firm favourites among their growing legion of fans.
ENO stuck around for FEAR OF MUSIC (1979) {*8}, a transitional album which saw the ‘Heads experimenting with complex ethnic rhythms and instrumentation, an area that was further explored in ’81 on the ENO/BYRNE collaboration, `My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’. The opening `I Zimbra’ (complete with nonsensical “phonetic poetry” by Dada-ist Hugo Ball) was one such example, while the painfully paranoid, `Mind’, took on an ominous role. With dance and disjointed disco rhythms party to most of their numbers, the adrenaline rush of `Life During Wartime’, `Heaven’ and `Air’ were pitched next to the trippy `Memories Can’t Wait’ and `Drugs’; the latter seeing Byrne at his most discombobulated.
Bolstered by a crew of esteemed session musicians, the band cut REMAIN IN LIGHT (1980) {*8}; Busta Cherry Jones (bass), Adrian Belew (guitar), Bernie Worrell (keyboards), Steven Scales (percussion) and Nona Hendryx (backing vox) giving TALKING HEADS another feather to the boa. Swathed in giddy funk and rooted by African polyrhythms, the Top 30 album spawned the wondrous `Once In A Lifetime’ Brit hit; the equally moving `Houses In Motion’ only managed to scrape a No.50 place. Funky and trance-enhancing, with Byrne taking on the role of an alternative televangelist, the initial triumvirate of `Born Under Punches’, `Crosseyed And Painless’, and `The Great Curve’ engraved throughout by producer/co-songwriter/auxiliary, ENO.
The band had now established themselves as a top live draw and were notching up increasing record sales, although it was to be three years before the next TALKING HEADS studio album as the band divided their time between solo projects and live work. It was inevitable that BYRNE would saddle up with ENO on the aforementioned “Bush Of Ghosts” project/set, and it was equally destined that husband-and-wife team Frantz and Weymouth would join forces, the pair in “Wordy Rappinghood” formation TOM TOM CLUB. 1981 also saw the release of JERRY HARRISON’s underrated solo set, `The Red And The Black’.
After the almost obligatory live double-disc document, THE NAME OF THIS BAND IS TALKING HEADS (1982) {*6}; Byrne also produced albums for The B-52’s (`Mesopotamia’) and FUN BOY THREE (`Waiting’) in the meantime, the ENO-less band resurfaced with studio set number five, SPEAKING IN TONGUES (1983) {*7}. Another near-flawless and funk-driven outing, spawning the jittery US Top 10 smash, `Burning Down The House, the mantra of the gospel-styled `Slippery People’ (a hit a year later in the UK) and the far-away `This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)’, the first half or so of the record was a class act; `Making Flippy Floppy’, `Girlfriend Is Better’ and the bluesy `Swamp’ the other unforgettable tunes.
The subsequent Jonathan Demme-directed group concert movie STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) {*7} contained some of the most innovative live footage ever committed to celluloid and further increased TALKING HEADS’ burgeoning reputation. The record equivalent didn’t have it quite so easy: as well as the obvious weakness of being detached from the action, it consigned many of the tracks to the cutting room floor and also sequenced them differently, an injustice righted with the 1999 CD re-issue. And while this is one case where a copy of the DVD is pretty much an essential primer, the CD imparts at least some sense of the movie’s minimalist largesse. Video or audio, both formats are still remembered primarily for the mesmeric, electro-acoustic `Psycho Killer’ which kicks off the show, an amuse bouche for insomniacs. From there, the performance gathers a slick, gawky momentum, with former PARLIAMENT-ary aide Bernie Worrell firing off ever freakier synth frequencies as Byrne makes like spasmodicus erectus. Highlights include an acoustic `Heaven’ (CD re-issue only), a manic `Burning Down The House’, and a body-popping, almost Harold Faltermeyer-esque `Girlfriend Is Better’.
On another ground-breaking piece of film, came the video for `Road To Nowhere’, the band’s biggest UK chart hit to date. Its parent album, LITTLE CREATURES (1985) {*6}, marked a return to a more basic sound; the off-kilter pop of further Top 20 hit, `And She Was’, the harmony-addled `Give Me Back My Name’ and `Television Man’, other essential listening.
From this point on, the group began to spend an increasing amount of time on solo projects; Jerry produced The VIOLENT FEMMES’ `The Blind Leading The Naked’ set.
TRUE STORIES (1986) {*5} was a patchy TALKING HEADS version of the soundtrack to David’s directorial debut film of the same name. Drawing in the subject matter of consumerism and the dysfunctional, the rather patchy, genre-busting album still had its fair share of great hooks and hits courtesy of `Love For Sale’, `Wild Wild Life’ and `Radio Head’; the latter inspiration for a certain band led by THOM YORKE.
While NAKED (1988) {*5} came across like an ambitious version of their “Worldbeat” set “Remain In Light”, producer Steve Lillywhite (and a guest list including JOHNNY MARR and KIRSTY MacCOLL), and only the opening track `Blind’ found minor success. Environmentally conscious and on the side of the working man, preacher man Byrne trades his lyrical prowess with backing on a mission to deliver syncopated salsa and soulful sauce; `Mr. Jones’ and `(Nothing But) Flowers’ prime examples.
Following the Top 20 album (Top 3 in Britain), the various ‘Heads went on to do their own thing; BYRNE and HARRISON concentrating on their own respective solo careers, while the TOM TOM CLUB emerged from time to time. The band officially split in 1991, although The HEADS (i.e. Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison) made a comeback album of sorts in ‘96 entitled NO TALKING, JUST HEAD {*4}, a record that utilised an array of vocal talent including HAPPY MONDAYS’ Shaun Ryder on minor UK hit single `Don’t Take My Kindness For Weakness’; other star singers to complement the group-penned set were Johnette Napolitano (CONCRETE BLONDE), Michael Hutchence (INXS), DEBBIE HARRY, RICHARD HELL, MARIA McKEE, Malin Anneteg (who?), Ed Kowalczyk (of LIVE), Gordon Gano (VIOLENT FEMMES), Andy Partridge (XTC) and Gavin Friday (VIRGIN PRUNES).
The likelihood of a full TALKING HEADS reunion looks barren by the day, as BYRNE still has his heart and soul in a solo career that has spawned a raft of albums, including some recent offbeat collaborations with FATBOY SLIM and St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark).
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG-MCS // rev-up MCS Aug2012

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