Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Talking Heads Can't Stop The Chart Chatter

Talking Heads proved to be one of the most popular and influential acts to emerge from the U.S. East Coast post-punk movement of the mid 70s. Over the decade stretching from the late 70s through late 80s, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison, melded together their individually disparate styles and influences to form an appealingly synergetic whole, that proved consistently difficult to compartmentalise, stylistically at least. But though the band’s individual voices each managed to find their own pathway of expression within the group, as with most vehicles, Talking Heads became identified with a primary driving force, in this case, its enigmatic front man David Byrne. Over time, each of the Talking Heads’ quartet looked to engage in conversation beyond the boundaries of the group, including Byrne himself. 1981 appears to be the year that those extracurricular excursions in musical discourse began to solidify, in the form of recording projects undertaken by the band’s members, which, though distinct from traditional Talking Heads’ discussion, would further inform the band’s rhetoric throughout the remainder of its tenure, and act as a springboard for each member‘s individual career.

By the time its members ventured beyond the four walls of the group, Talking Heads had already notched up a swag of critically lauded, and commercially lucrative records. Their music transcended stylistic boundaries to incorporate, and seamlessly blend, a myriad of styles, from funk, R&B, classical minimalism, rock, dance, and world music elements. Their eccentrically toned debut set ‘Talking Heads ‘77’ (UK#60/US#97), which featured the quirky and punchy ‘Psycho Killer’, announced to the world that here was a band that resided firmly outside the square. 1978’s ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’ (UK#21/US#29/OZ#46) marked the beginning of a four year association with synth-guru producer Brian Eno, one that would see the band further push the frontiers of stylistic experimentalism. Eclectic became a term readily associated with the Talking Heads brand during that period, and a cover of Al Green’s classic ‘Take Me To The River’ (US#26) notched up the ‘post-punk’ quartet’s first hit single. The more darkly toned ‘Fear Of Music’ (UK#33/US#21/OZ#35) followed in ‘79, but the album also introduced a rich, intricately woven tapestry of African and Arabian music styles into the formula. But it was Talking Heads’ fourth album, ‘Remain In Light’ (UK#21/US#19/OZ#25), which was released in October of 1980, that elevated the band’s profile into a wider sphere of public consciousness. The album spawned the mercurial single ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (UK#14/OZ#23), which was the first song from Talking Heads that really grabbed my attention. Yet another world tour followed over the course of late ‘80/early ‘81, featuring a newly expanded live line-up of the band, including keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Busta Cherry Jones, percussionist Steven Scales, and backing vocalists Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald. Talking Heads had firmly established themselves as one of the biggest live drawcards on the planet, and their popularity as a recording act had ascended to new heights. But after five years on the road, and in studio together, the quartet decided it was time for an extended break.

Singer/guitarist David Byrne, he of the awkwardly tailored attire, had been the first to take several tentative steps into solo project terrain. Byrne was impassioned to explore further the areas of electronica, and world music influences. He continued to collaborate with Brian Eno to extend the work already begun via the ‘Fear Of Music’ album. The result surfaced in 1981 as ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’, a musical collage of electronica and world music styles, acknowledged as a groundbreaking foray into marrying the worlds of Western popular music and traditional ‘third world’ styles. He followed this project up with a soundtrack score for the Broadway production, ‘The Catherine Wheel’. He also found time during his short sabbatical from the band, to produce the EP ‘Mesopotamia’ for the B-52s.

Keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison launched himself into recording his debut solo album, released in October of ‘81 as ‘The Red And The Black’. Neither album, nor the associated single, ‘Things Fall Apart’, struck gold, but the album (recorded with several touring Talking Heads) revealed the consummate writer/performer who had perhaps been overshadowed somewhat by David Byrnes’ monolithic musical persona. There were echoes of the Talking Heads sound, but Harrison established his own distinct brew of lyrical/musical eclecticism.

Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth joined her partner, and Talking Heads’ drummer, Chris Frantz, in kick starting their own studio project under the moniker of Tom Tom Club. The ‘band’ was a lighter, breezier, more sunny-side up approach to music than had been the case on most of the Talking Heads work. Like Harrison, the couple recruited the studio assistance of a number of regular touring Talking Heads to round out the in-studio ensemble. The resultant album was the highly danceable and feel good self titled set ‘Tom Tom Club’ (US#23/OZ#51/UK#78), which achieved platinum status in the U.S. (something Talking Heads as a collective had yet to accomplish at that point). Elements of reggae, dance, funk, even formative hip-hop, were added to the melting pot, and resulted in an engaging and electrifying mix. The singles ‘Genius Of Love’ (US#31), ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ (all hail the typewriter - UK#7/OZ#44), and ‘Under The Boardwalk’ (UK#22), provided a stylistic template for many artists to follow, and of the extracurricular projects undertaken by the Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club incited the most conversation.

By early ‘83, Talking Heads were ready to resume talking, and work on their next album marked the beginning of the band’s post-Eno period. A live album, ‘The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads’ (UK#22/US#31/OZ#41), had provided a necessary stop gap, but fans eagerly awaited some new studio fare. The dialogue resumed in earnest via 1983’s ‘Speaking In Tongues’ (US#15/UK#21/OZ#15), an album that still boasted invigorating rhythmic nuances, but contained within a tighter, more engaging melodic structure. The energy of tracks such as the classic ‘Burning Down The House’ (US#9/OZ#94), and the lyrically mischievous ‘Girlfriend Is Better’ burst forth into every fibre of your being. Whilst ‘Speaking In Tongues’ was still talking up a storm on the charts, Weymouth and Frantz decided to sneak away and record another Tom Tom Club album. Released in August ‘83, ‘Close To The Bone’ (US#73) didn’t break much new ground in relation to its predecessor, but then again it didn’t give any ground either, serving up another appetizing banquet of vibrant music.

On the back of their biggest selling album to date, Talking Heads embarked on a mammoth world tour, dubbed ‘Stop Making Sense’, and captured on film by director Jonathan Demme. The resultant concert film hit mainstream cinemas in late ‘84 (a rare feat in any day and age), and quickly assumed cult status among fans of the band, and general music fans alike. The sight of the bespectacled David Byrne's jittery, convulsing dance style on stage, in a bizarrely oversized suit, became one of the iconic images of the 80s. Whilst the film proved popular in cinemas, the associated live soundtrack album, ‘Stop Making Sense’ (US#41/UK#37/OZ#9), spent a marathon stint on pop charts (including 77 weeks on the Australian charts) - it was also the first Talking Heads CD that I purchased. The band was about to reach its commercial peak via the release of the 1985 album, ‘Little Creatures’ (UK#10/US#20/OZ#2). The album was Talking Heads’ most stripped down, straight forward pop offering to date. Though more accessible on the surface, ‘Little Creatures’ still offered a generous dose of quirky lyrical fare from Byrne. Some observed that it was a more mature, even coming of age album, for a quartet all now well into their 30s. A track such as ‘Stay Up Late’, offered an acerbic lyrical commentary on parenting, something the newly married Weymouth and Frantz could relate to themselves. Though more overtly pop in nature, there was no dearth in quality of song writing and delivery - these were accomplished and highly savvy pop performers. The singles ‘The Lady Don’t Mind’ (OZ#24), ‘And She Was’ (OZ#10/UK#17), and ‘Road To Nowhere’ (UK#6/OZ#16), ensured Talking Heads were a constant in chart chatter throughout 1985. The Cajun-flavoured ‘Road To Nowhere’ was backed by a brilliantly innovative video clip - it was a golden age for the medium - and a golden age for Talking Heads, but like all great historical ages, it couldn’t last forever.

During the period ‘85 through ‘86, David Byrne was a high revving creative machine, with involvement across both music and cinematic spectrums. In 1985 he wrote the score and recorded an accompanying soundtrack album for ‘Music For The Knee Plays’. In 1986 he wrote, directed, and starred in the motion picture ‘True Stories’, a comically quirky insight into the curious, sometimes eccentric, underbelly of small-town American life. An accompanying soundtrack album was released, on which Byrne contributed two songs, augmented by other artists. The release of the official ‘True Stories’ soundtrack album actually followed a few months after the release of the next Talking Heads album, also titled ‘True Stories’. It’s arguable that by the time the album was recorded, the band were already beginning to splinter, and it’s also possible part of the reason was Byrne’s burgeoning profile apart from the band. Although he incurred his fair share of detractors (who often levelled charges of colonial misappropriation against him), in 1986 the cover of Time Magazine hailed David Byrne as ‘Rock’s Renaissance Man’. The ‘True Stories’ album was well received by fans (US#17/OZ#2/UK#7), and spawned the catchy single ‘Wild Wild Life’ (OZ#13/UK#43/US#25), which was backed by yet another inventive promo video.

Byrne wasn’t the only Talking Head to engage in dialogue beyond the band, with Jerry Harrison embarking on production duties with artists such as the Bodeans and Violent Femmes. Harrison also began work on writing, and recording his own album, as had Frantz and Weymouth under the Tom Tom Club banner. But the quartet assembled in the studio during late ‘87 to break the silence one last time for Talking Heads. The resultant album, ‘Naked’ (OZ#2/UK#3/US#19), hit stores in early ‘88, and marked a reengagement with some of the polyrhythmic territory explored on ‘Remain In Light’. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the album infused a multitude of ‘world music’ styles, most notably Latin rhythms and instrumentation (which Byrne in particular had become enamoured with). Whilst most ‘swansong’ albums reflect a tired, bitter environment most oft associated with a band’s disintegration, ‘Naked’ retained a tone of freshness and vitality that prompts the question “what if” in respect of the post ‘Naked’ possibilities for Talking Heads. In late ‘91, David Byrne stated in an interview with the L.A. Times, that Talking Heads were no more, something he hadn’t bothered to tell the other three at the time. A month later, Frantz, Weymouth, and Harrison, released their own statement expressing their disappointment at the band’s demise - but no one was really surprised.

1 comment:

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

As the Talking Heads and outside of the band, those four have certainly amassed an impressive body of work.