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