The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1 of 2)

I will here quote liberally from Wikipedia: “New wave is a genre of rock music popular in the late 1970s and the 1980s with ties to mid-1970s punk rock. New wave moved away from blues and rock and roll sounds to create rock music (early new wave) or pop music (later) that incorporated disco, mod, and electronic music. Although it incorporates much of the original punk rock sound and ethos, new wave exhibits greater complexity in both music and lyrics.

The music had a twitchy, agitated feel to it. New wave musicians often played choppy rhythm guitars with fast tempos, and keyboards were common as were stop-start song structures and melodies. A nervous, nerdy persona was a common characteristic of new wave fans and acts such as Talking Heads, Devo, and Elvis Costello. This took the forms of robotic dancing, jittery high-pitched vocals and clothing fashions such as suits and big glasses that hid the body.”

That sounds about right to me. New Wave’s predecessor, punk, while popular here in the States, was nowhere near as popular or as urgent as in the UK. And I would argue that New Wave was ultimately more popular here, becoming associated with college and “alternative” stations. Many of the bands that were revered the year before were now regarded – at least by some – as stale and as yesterday’s news. Alas, the ephemeral nature of pop culture.

Into this clash of cultures and sounds entered a band known as the Talking Heads who fit into all the quirky, nerdy, big-suited tropes you can think of. Formed in 1975 and active in way or another for the next sixteen years, the Heads – for my money – were one of the best, most innovative bands of their generation. (The band name, of course, is TV-talk for all those pundits you see on the telly.)

While not touted as such, this was a band essentially formed in New England. Three of the members – David Bryne, Chris Frantz and his girlfriend Tina Weymouth met at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI. After moving to NYC and unable to find a bass player, Weymouth took it up in time for their first gig at the now-legendary CBGB in 1975. I find her to be a super-funky bass player. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison from Boston’s Modern Lovers joined them in 1977.

CBGB (which deserves a post of its own) stood for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues, none of which – to my knowledge – was ever played there. Or if it was, let’s say it was not for long. The mind is blown realizing that it soon enough became a hangout and venue for the Ramones, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Television, Patti Smith. And the Talking Heads.

The band managed to get itself signed to a label and released its first album, Talking Heads: 77 in fall of that year. Now you have to realize that this was still very much the heyday of FM radio. Yes, classic rock stations had come into being and there were still viable FM outlets for genres such as jazz-rock and New Wave. (A station here in Boston called WFNX appeared several years later and focused entirely on non-blues, non-traditional rock or “alternative.” Alas, it disappeared five or six years ago.)

My first introduction to this band, who I never saw live, was the ‘romantic ditty’ “Psycho Killer.” “When I started writing this,” says Byrne” (I got help later from Frantz and Weymouth), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad. Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.”

I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

Spotify link

That song got played a lot on the radio and the Talking Heads started to become an established band. In 1978 they followed up with an album called More Songs About Buildings and Food. This was the first of several collaborations with fellow oddball Brian Eno. I’m usually not given to quoting Robert Christgau, a reviewer I’m not particularly fond of. But I think he gets it right here:

“There is so much beautiful music (and so much funky music) on this album that I’ll take no more complaints about David Byrne’s voice. Every one of these eleven songs is a positive pleasure, and on every one, the tension between Byrne’s compulsive flights and the sinuous rock bottom of the music is the focus.” The band would grow even funkier over time. 

Their hit from this album was their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” But I posted on that one a while back so I’ll put that on the Spotify list. Meantime here’s the pulsating, charging, “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel.” It’s as impossible to think of their songs without Byrne’s vocals as it is Steely Dan’s without Donald Fagen’s:

Spotify link

The band’s popularity continued to grow and along with Elvis Costello, The Police, Blondie, were seen as one of the great bands of New Wave. Their third album, 1979’s Fear of Music, was funky and weird all at the same time. I still have the kickoff tune “I Zimbra” on my workout playlist.

If you think, like I did, that the lyrics are some African dialect, forget it. They are an “adaptation of Dadaist Hugo Ball’s poem “Gadji beri bimba.”” The music draws heavily on the African popular music Byrne was listening to at the time. This was no I-love-you-love-me band. (For the most part.)

Spotify link

“LIfe During Wartime” is one of the Talking Heads’ most popular, most played songs to this day. The song describes a “post-apocalyptic landscape where a revolutionary hides out in a deserted cemetery, surviving on peanut butter. “I wrote this in my loft on Seventh and Avenue A,” David later said, “I was thinking about Baader-Meinhof. Patty Hearst. Tompkins Square. (near his loft in Manhattan.)

This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. No time for foolin’ around!

Spotify link

Source: Wikipedia

Coming up in part 2 – Even more songs about buildings, food and paranoia.

 

13 thoughts on “The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1 of 2)

  1. Wow, Jim, I have to admit that reading a post from you about a new wave band came as a bit of a surprise to me. I simply didn’t think you’d dig this kind of music.

    Talking Heads were also quite popular in Germany. I still remember hearing tunes like “Psycho Killer”, “Burning Down The House”, “Road To Nowhere” and “And She Was”fairly frequently on FM radio there.

    While I enjoyed listening to the aforementioned songs at the time and still think they are okay, they didn’t grab me enough to explore the band in greater depth. That being said, I’m looking forward to your second installment!

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    1. Oh, yeah. I dug New Wave way more than its near predecessor, punk.. Similar energy but a higher level of musicianship. I’m an even bigger fan of Elvis Costello and wrote a series on him a couple of years ago. But yeah, I heard “Psycho Killer” and I was hooked right away.

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  2. Always liked bands that could take big swings musically and back it up with their playing. I came on board with ‘Take me To the River’ and stayed around to listen to their progress. There was so much music that came out at this time (some that just wasn’t my bag). Always like to hear a Heads tune.

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  3. Thanks Jim. T-Heads one of my fav bands (live) which I saw at CBGB’s, EnterMedia Theatre (on Second Ave) where they premiered TAKE ME TO THE RIVER, a few times in Central Park’s Wollman Rink (where they debuted with Buster Cherry Jones and a few additional band members). Looking forward to your Part 2.Bravo.
    PS: the OMFUG in CBGB’s was where the non bluegrass, etc comes in Other MUSIC For Uplifting Gourmandizers…and that’s us I guess.

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    1. When I lived in NYC, Wollman Rink (Schaefer Festival) was one of my main go-to places. But I moved away in 1974 and have rarely seen shows there again. (Allmans at Beacon, a few clubs in the Village.) My guess is had I lived there I might not have gone anyway. I wasn’t very attracted to the punk scene. Maybe if I’d heard of the Heads through the grapevine. BTW, the last time I was in NY I wound up in the Bowery. It’s not often mentioned when talking about CBGB but what a shitty neighborhood.

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  4. I jumped on board with “More Songs About Buildings and Food,” which I reviewed for my college newspaper and called it the best album of the year (bold stuff for an avowed psych and prog-rock fan). Also, I was in NYC in ’79 and visited infamous CBGB. Was hoping maybe Lou Reed or David Byrne might show up. Instead, I got a punk-new wave band called “The Shrugs.” At that time, it was fashionable to not know how to play your instrument. The Shrugs were real knowledgeable about not knowing how to play!

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    1. Never made it to CBGB. As I mentioned to another commenter, I’d moved out of NYC by that time and rarely made it back for shows. My version of the Shrugs was an infamous band called The Plasmatics that you may remember. I saw them at the Paradise club in Boston. Led by the sexually provocative Wendy O. Williams, they were super-loud and used to chainsaw guitars. Many people left flashing the band the finger. Somehow we stuck it out. Horrid noise but not without its rock and roll passion. Alas she committed suicide some years later.

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