Talking Heads and David Byrne
Talking Heads (illustration by Andy Friedman)
In June 2016, Tame Impala played one of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival's benefit concerts. Hanging out in the rear row of a fleet of folding chairs, watching the show, was former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. As unmistakable a New York landmark as the Chrysler Building, with his exclamatory shock of white hair (and, improbably, sporting tube socks and deck shoes), Byrne's presence was a happy reminder that as maddening as this city might be, the chance of spotting a rock 'n' roll icon is still pretty good.
Over the last couple of years, the city has lost a lot of its most beloved music ambassadors of the '70s and '80s—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Alan Vega, and all of the original Ramones—but knowing that members of Talking Heads still roam the streets (and parks) is an urban perk, a sentimental reminder of New York's former ineffable coolness.
Just over forty years ago, Talking Heads first opened for the Ramones at CBGB on June 5, 1975, a motley group of mostly Rhode Island School of Design grads—Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth—and Harvard-educated Modern Lovers' alumnus Jerry Harrison. They couldn't have imagined the long-lived impact of their quirky band. Nascent bands don't often think in terms of their legacy forty years down the line, especially when dragging their gear down the pre-gentrified, inebriated Bowery of the mid-Seventies—at the time, a dirty, dank strip of an apocalyptic avenue. But artists could easily thrive and live cheaply in the walkups and lofts of the East Village, Soho, and the Lower East Side back then: it was a galvanizing period of New York's cultural history. And one which Byrne, as he wrote in a 2013 essay in the Guardian, fears might be lost in this "gilded age" of gentrification and glass towers.
Although Talking Heads introduced a refined, conceptually arty, intellectual perspective to the punk sphere, they also brought along a broad swath of the American suburbs to the scene. As Frantz says in a 1979 "American Bandstand" interview with Dick Clark (which featured a hilariously awkward exchange with, as Weymouth quips, an "organically shy" Byrne), the group's members hailed from all parts of the United States: Coronado, California (bassist Weymouth); Milwaukee, Wisconsin (guitarist and keyboardist Harrison); Baltimore, Maryland (the Scottish-born guitarist and singer Byrne); and Lexington, Kentucky (drummer Frantz). Talking Heads were fueled by the buzz of quasi-dystopian '70s New York, but the edgy, raw nerve of their songs slyly reflected the suburban angst of the era too; still recovering from Watergate and the Vietnam War and not easily soothed by the vapidity of mainstream pop culture. The band's debut, Talking Heads: 77, offered up "Psycho Killer," "No Compassion" and "Don't Worry About the Government"—three songs that examined dissociative modern life with chilly reserve, but in a strangely relatable way.
"We wanted to avoid the image that a rock star was better than anyone else," recalled Frantz in a 1979 episode of ITV's "South Bank Show." Their subsequent pursuit of enhanced normalcy (or as Harrison described it in the same documentary, an "ordinary demeanor") became a secret weapon of Talking Heads' arsenal. No leather jackets or bare-chested, Robert Plant swagger. Just regular clothes, a low-key presence, and an ungainly frontman who exulted in vocal tics, a staccato delivery, and jagged guitar riffs. There were no epic guitar solos; instead Talking Heads experimented far beyond rock boundaries, veering towards R&B, funk, pop, and West African polyrhythms, spurred on by the influence of Fela Kuti and others. New York was also abundant with clubs at the time—from the Mudd Club to Danceteria to Hurrah—and the music of Talking Heads eased its way into every DJ's set.
The jittery post-modern unease of More Songs About Building and Food, released in 1978, matched Talking Heads with co-producer Brian Eno and the partnership that followed—through 1979's Fear of Music and 1980's Remain in Light—solidified the band's expressive and expansive aesthetic. Talking Heads' first four albums are still touchstones for contemporary artists: Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, tUnE-yArds, and LCD Soundsystem are all progeny. The freaked out, existential queries of the band's astonishing single "Once in a Lifetime," from Remain in Light, are permanently embedded in the American psyche even 36 years down the line, as the ultimate suburban meltdown:
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
By the '80s, when MTV came along, Talking Heads' visual artistry served them well. The video for "Once in a Lifetime," which seemed to run constantly on MTV in its early days, introduced the rest of America to Byrne's physical paroxysms. The clip for the band's only bonifide Top 10 hit in the States, "Burning Down the House" from 1983's Speaking in Tongues, would eventually land in heavy rotation too and segued the band to the big screen. A subsequent tour supporting Speaking in Tongues was documented by director Jonathan Demme as "Stop Making Sense" and also released as a live album.
The final song on Speaking in Tongues, "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," became the album's second single and is arguably the band's most popular tune today: on the DVD of "Stop Making Sense," Byrne described it as a love song of non sequiturs (it was inspired by his relationship with his then-future-now-ex wife Adelle Lutz). The song was also an anomaly, sounding unlike anything Talking Heads had ever recorded before. In a 2012 New Yorker article, James Verini muses upon its "dreadful longing and anticipatory regret."
Talking Heads' tender streak continued with 1985's Little Creatures—a technicolor pop album stirred by lullabies ("Stay Up Late") and libido ("Creatures of Love"). True Stories, released in 1986, served concurrently as a soundtrack to a film that Byrne directed: "Wild Wild Life" became a mainstay on MTV. In 1988, the band released its final album, Naked, which featured former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr on four tracks.
Strangely, not unlike the Smiths, Talking Heads' split, officially announced in 1991, was far from amicable—it was bitterly acrimonious. Over the years, both within and beyond Talking Heads, all four band members have focused on their own projects and they all continue to work in those in those realms.
Frantz and Weymouth formed as Tom Tom Club in 1981, releasing six studio albums and unleashing club staples like "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love." Jerry Harrison has released three solo albums, has composed for film, and as a producer, has worked with the likes of Violent Femmes, No Doubt, the String Cheese Incident, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Byrne's long string of solo releases have included collaborations with Brian Eno (1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and 2008's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today) and St. Vincent (2012's Love This Giant). He's scored movies, like 1987's The Last Emperor, and collaborated on a 2013 off-Broadway musical with Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim), the Imelda Marcos-inspired Here Lies Love. In August of 2016, he debuted a new song, called "Send Her to Heaven," from a forthcoming musical, Saint Joan, about Joan of Arc.
In novelist Jonathan Lethem's impassioned assessment of Fear of Music, part of Continuum's "33 1/3" series of monographs, he wrote of these “four musicians using their instruments like an erector set to construct a skyline that won’t fall down before they’re finished.” New York still stands, although it's a different city: the circumstances that allowed the Talking Heads to flourish as struggling musicians with real artistic freedom (and manageable finances) no longer exist. The band has been gone for over 25 years, but its legacy remains.
As fans, we get a big kick out of randomly spotting David Byrne at a concert or seeing Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth wandering down the hallways of FUV for a chat with Rita Houston. Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison will always be New York's envoys of its golden age of art punk, no wave, new wave and post punk, while concurrently laying the foundations for the future. And over this long "life during wartime," Talking Heads will always be FUV Essentials.
More on Talking Heads:
#FUVEssentials: Talking Heads and David Byrne (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Paul Cavalconte (Talking Heads) and Kara Manning (David Byrne))