September 5, 2008
Speaking of: Talking Heads
It is a theory of mine that the vast majority of music fans go through a Talking Heads ‘phase’ at some point in their lives. I have recently entered my second.
The band, formed in 1974 in New York, are a rare anomaly in the history of popular music. They managed to remain incredibly original and refreshing throughout their time together, combining many styles in their approach to song-writing, and effortlessly managed to achieve both critical acclaim and commercial success.
When listening to the Talking Heads, I get the impression that they are a band that would have prevailed during any period of popular music from the last 50 years. The fact that the majority of their success came in an era that does not hold a huge amount of musical interest for me (obviously there are exceptions), the 1980s, the Talking Head’s great song writing abilities were not buried by the slick ’80s production many of the albums received, indeed seeming to benefit greatly from it.
The groups enigmatic front man, David Byrne, provided the necessary mystery and intrigue, both in his lyrics and original performance style and on-stage mannerisms.
I have posted a few of my personal favourite Talking Heads tracks below, attempting to give examples of different stages of the band’s career, including cuts from their time with producer Brian Eno.
I’ve started with two tracks from the 1983 album ‘Speaking in Tongues’. This album yielded the band’s first top ten single, ‘ Burning Down the House’. The second track here, the album’s closer ‘This Must be the Place (Naive Melody)’ is one of my all time favourite songs, and is one of the rare times Byrne has written about love, a subject he tends to avoid because it is “kinda big”. The track features a guitar and bass part that remain playing the same thing for the duration, leading Byrne to add Naive Melody to the title.
The tour that followed ‘Speaking in Tongues’ was to give rise to arguably the best concert film ever, ‘Stop Making Sense’, directed by Jonathan Demme, and filmed over three nights in December 1983. The film begins with just Byrne himself playing a solo version of the hit ‘Psycho Killer’. He is then joined on stage by bass player Tina Weymouth for the above version of ‘Heaven’. It is interesting to hear the music of Talking Heads stripped of its layers of instruments, and it works to beautiful effect with this track.
Taken from the band’s debut album ‘Talking Heads: 77’ released in 1977. The track opens with an insistent guitar riff, before launching in to a jerky rhythmic feel that became an integral part of the Talking Head’s ‘sound’ on subsequent albums.
The second track from the album ‘Remain in Light’, released in 1980. The third album to be made with producer Brian Eno, ‘Remain in Light’ demonstrated the band’s ability to incorporate different styles in to their music while still maintaining unmistakable Talking Heads-ness. Funky afro-centric rhythms are prevalent throughout, with the group adding musicians of the calibre of ex-Funkadelic and Parliament keyboard player Bernie Worrell. Nigerian band leader Fela Kuti was cited by the band as a big influence on their style during this period. The track ‘Crosseyed and Painless’ is rhythmically unrelenting and seemingly bitter in its subject matter, with the closing refrain “still waiting” demonstrating Byrne’s frustrated outlook on certain topics.
Taken from the 1979 album ‘Fear of Music’. The second of the Eno produced albums, ‘Fear of Music’ spawned the hit ‘Life During Wartime’. The track ‘Air’ opens up side two of the original LP, and the listener is immediately introduced to vocal backing group The Sweetbreathes, who accentuate the interesting harmonic features of the track. The lyrical content is either an intentionally ambiguous and misleading metaphor, or a very straight to the point discussion of the state of the air in modern cities. It could perhaps be a mix of the two, a writing technique Byrne has a proven ability for.