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Talking Heads in 10 Songs

A crash course as the inimitable New York band's Remain in Light turns 40

Talking Heads
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    Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in 2017. We’re resharing this week as Remain in Light turns 40.

    Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

    In any other band’s history, the 40th anniversary of the release of their debut album would inspire all manner of promotional hullabaloo and creaky onstage reunions. When that band is Talking Heads — the art pop group that released its debut, Talking Heads: 77, exactly four decades go — this kind of milestone is going to slide by with zero fanfare and even less attempts at reconciliation.

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    In part, that’s because they’ve already put the effort forth to release cleaned-up, beefed-up editions of their entire catalog in 2005. And the four original members (singer/guitarist David Byrne, guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth, and drummer Chris Frantz) have done the reunion thing twice: once to finish off a couple of leftovers from the sessions for their 1988 album, Naked, to include in a soundtrack and a best-of comp, and one last time to celebrate their 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    The primary reason, though, is that they were a band that wanted to evolve, that wanted to change their methods of writing and recording with each album. And when they took their songs out on tour, they changed them even more, stretching out parts and locking into grooves for long, intoxicating stretches of time.

    At the time it was happening, their constant adjustments and readjustments could be confounding and a little grating. Looked at with 40 years in the rearview mirror, their eight studio albums and two live albums represent a monumental artistic achievement. They are the product of a band formed from the wet, inviting clay of the downtown New York scene of the ‘70s and, once solidified, went down any and all pathways that their minds and instincts dared.

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    But even as they messed with Afrobeat, experimental electronics, and the supple grooves of funk and early hip-hop, they remained a pop band at its core, making sure each song had a hook and a heart. And at their creative peak, they were also incredibly successful, adored by critics and selling thousands of copies of their LPs. The nostalgia market would surely love to force Talking Heads back into an arena jaunt or to some festivals around the world while the four are still with us. To do so would feel gauche and craven and a slap in the face to what they created. May they continue to resist the temptation.


    Minimalist Post-Punk

    Song: “Psycho Killer” from Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

    New York City in the ‘70s was the perfect breeding ground for musical innovation. A riot of cheap rent, plentiful stage time, and underemployed young people with ample time on their hands kick-started a half-dozen or more genres that would provide the foundation for our modern pop music. Wading into this soup came a trio of design students — Byrne, Weymouth, and Frantz — who had healthy record collections and open minds. Along they way, they picked up Harrison, a scene vet who could gild the edges of their songs just so. They fit in precisely because they didn’t sound like anyone else within what we now refer to as the post-punk scene. Theirs was a jagged, jerky take on guitar pop that valued repetition, the power of a great rhythm section, and lots of empty space. The other New York bands — Television, Suicide, Ramones — filled their songs with guitar tangles or sheets of sound. As bracing as it was, Talking Heads could create even greater levels of tension by what they left out. “Psycho Killer” insinuates, hinting bad stuff in the shadows and amplified by the wailing and yelping of a unhinged person a couple of blocks up. By the time Byrne and Harrison lay into a wiggly guitar duel by the song’s end, it’s too late. You’ve already become his next victim.


    New Wave

    Song: “Life During Wartime” from Fear of Music (1979)

    When Talking Heads released their dark and sinuous third album, Fear of Music, they had, with a lot of help from Seymour Stein of Sire Records, been classified in the music press as a “new wave” band. These days, that conjures up neon-tinged visions of Rio dancing on the sand, but at the time, it was a catch-all for groups that didn’t fit the mold of the radio hits of the time. Still, Talking Heads became exemplars of what we consider the new wave sound when they landed their punchiest hits like this absolute classic that snuck into the bottom rungs of the Billboard Hot 100. Although it carries one of Byrne’s most vibrant lyrical turns, recounting the inner workings of a group of radicals, the key to this song (as with the best new wave tunes) is the incessant 4/4 drive of the drums and the push-pull interplay between the guitars and that almost rude-sounding keyboard countermelody. When they toured, ballooning the band’s membership up to 10 people, “Wartime” became a widescreen panorama that was almost joyous and bouncy. Also great, but missing the cold calculation and liquid resistance of the studio version.


    Sweet Soul Music

    Song: “Take Me to the River” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

    How on Earth does a quartet of skinny, white kids from the East Coast manage to best one of the great soul singer-songwriters of the 20th century at his own game? The first two Talking Heads albums revealed these greasy youngsters to be sharp students of funk and R&B (replace Byrne’s arch vocal turn on “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” with a Hammond B-3 organ, and it could be a lost Meters 45). They knew how to ride a groove and ride it well. They also understood subtext, recognizing in the heated lyrics of Al Green and Teenie Hodges’ original, how they took the iconography of baptism and connected it to the act of losing one’s virginity. Talking Heads homed in on that, removing the Pentecostal spirit and ramping up the seduction. The cover version feels like great sex. The slink of Weymouth’s bass and the phased drums opening the song are the foreplay, each added instrument and melody only adding to the heat and teeth. The last minute as Byrne goes wild with his wordless vocals and the keyboard parts get downright nasty is when the glorious release and the blissful collapse hits and hits hard. Whew.


    Experimental Music

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    Song: “Drugs” from Fear of Music (1979)

    The three albums that Talking Heads recorded with producer/collaborator Brian Eno still represent the creative high-water mark for the quartet. They folded new elements of Fela-inspired polyrhythms and flooded the outer reaches of these records with electronics and playful studio trickery. As well, the group, at Byrne’s urging, strove to make songs that were as far removed from their core sound as possible. That comes clearest on their third and fourth albums where the band tried experiments like reading a review of a Joy Division album and trying to copy the UK group based solely on the critic’s descriptions (“The Overload”). On Fear, the Heads and Eno perfectly captured the woozy, unhinged feeling of being high in musical form on the appropriately titled “Drugs”. It’s not a track free of melodicism, but even the most catchy parts (the whorls of guitar and synth washes) slip right through your grasp. Byrne matches it step for step lyrically, slipping from wonderment at the visions dancing before his eyes and the paranoia of what’s going on around him (“I don’t know what they’re talking about/ The boys are worried, the girls are shocked”). I’ve never taken any hallucinogen in my life, and after hearing this song a few dozen times, I don’t feel like I need to.


    World Music

    Song: “I Zimbra” from Fear of Music (1979)

    Talking Heads spent the better part of their lengthy history (and beyond) exploring sounds from far-flung parts of the globe, particularly on their later albums. Where it began was right from the jump on LP #3. Urged forth by Eno, the kicked off Fear of Music by combining the rhythm chants of a nonsense poem from Dadaist Hugo Ball and an ensemble of African drummers rolling and simmering behind them. One of the great album opening cuts of all time, it provides a stark contrast to, well, all the songs that followed and the foreboding mood set by the spare artwork. Think of it as the jumping-off point that helped them reach the heights that they did on its follow-up, Remain in Light, where their polyrhythms came into clearer focus, and with a lot more definition on tracks like “Once in a Lifetime” and “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”.


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