Talking Heads, Qu’Est-ce Que C’est?
Take three art school kids, one ivy leaguer, put them all together and throw them into New York City in the 1970’s, and you arrive at the avant-garde, post-punk group the Talking Heads. From 1975 to 1991, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison played together as The Talking Heads, releasing seven chart-topping records and pioneering new wave music.
Byrne, Frantz, and Weymouth met one another when they were classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design. Byrne and Frantz made up two parts of a five piece known as The Artistics, a group that combined conceptual and performance art with popular music, and gave such unconventional performances that they were referred to as The Autistics. Weymouth, Frantz’ girlfriend, was often the transportation for the band, and after graduation, she packed Byrne and Frantz into her car and the three moved to New York City together.
The three lived in a communal loft, and Frantz and Byrne quickly recruited Weymouth to collaborate with them musically. Weymouth didn’t have much instrumental experience, knowing guitar only from the songs she taught herself out of Bob Dylan songbooks. After Byrne and Frantz struggled for some time to find a bassist, however, Frantz was able to convince Weymouth to learn the instrument. She took weekly bass classes at We Buy Guitars, and when she had learned enough, she, Frantz on drums, and Byrne contributing vocals and guitar began playing together to form the Talking Heads. “I did it only to please Chris; I figured I would leave as soon as they found a real bass player,” said Weymouth. She stayed on for the band’s entire career.
The loft the three shared was located on Christy street by the Bowery. Though a hotspot for hipsters and college students today, in 1975, the area was an impoverished hotspot for drugs and crime. “The whole setup was really unsanitary and dangerous and weird… I had to cut off all my hair to avoid being propositioned by pimps on my way to CBGB’s,” remembers Weymouth. “We lived on pasta and cottage cheese. We had no shower and no hot water–just a hot plate and a mini fridge. Our big refrigerator was the window ledge.” Sketchy as it may have been, cheap rent in a non-residential building meant the three could practice their music without noise complaints and still have a place to sleep. It also meant they were constantly together, housed in constant collaboration.
The band gelled quickly. They built their style from foundations of funk, classical minimalism, and African rock. Their songs are catchy, repetitive at times, infusing polyrhythmic grooves with Byrne’s unique high voice, which he used to create eccentric sounds and voices. By June of 1975, they were playing their first ever show opening for The Ramones at CBGB. They began recording demos and in 1976 they were signed to Sire Records, an independent record label specializing in punk rock and new-wave acts that would go on to sign the Pretenders, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and Madonna.
After the release of their first single “Love → Building on Fire,” they were joined by Jerry Harrison, who dropped out from Harvard architecture school to play keyboard for the band. Not long after Harrison came on, they debuted their first album in 1977, appropriately titled Talking Heads: 77. Tucked away on the B-side of the record was “Psycho Killer,” a funked up tune about the mind of a serial killer that became a hit single.
After their first record, the band linked up with Brian Eno, a talented musician and producer who pioneered ambient rock/pop music. Eno had worked previously with artists that no doubt influenced the Talking Heads such as Roxy Music and David Bowie. Together, Talking Heads and Eno made More Songs About Buildings and Food. The album was well received both critically and in the popular charts and included their first Top 30 hit, “Take Me to the River,” a cover of Al Green’s original. Music critic William Ruhlmann wrote “Where Talking Heads had largely been about David Byrne’s voice and words, Eno moved the emphasis to the bass-and-drums team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz; all the songs were danceable, and there were only short breaks between them.” Eno’s production gave the Talking Heads the power to transition into the mainstream while retaining their quirky, unique style.
They continued their collaboration with Eno on Fear of Music, which they released in 1979. On it, Byrne’s lyrics explored the dystopian, fueled by the political climate of the active Cold War. That theme became most powerful in their hit from the album, “Life During Wartime”. On the opening lines Byrne sings “Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons/ Packed up and ready to go/ Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway/ A place where nobody knows”. The song criticizes the Cold War and the fear mongering born out of it, the last lines warning listeners “Try to be careful, don’t take no chances/ You better watch what you say”. The band took Byrne’s satirical lyrics on the road (or rather, in the sky) for their first pacific tour the summer of the album’s release, bringing the band and Byrnes’ wacky performances (jilting, jutting, swaying dancing) to New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii.
Another album came just one year later. Remain In Light showed stronger influences of African music, and the band began touring with an extended group of performers to help the sound. The album included “Once In A Lifetime,” which garnered attention after the release in thanks to its wack music video. The rise of MTV and music videos allowed Talking Heads to bring the performance art that had been with them since The Artistics to a mass audience. After a three year hiatus, the band released Speaking in Tongues in 1983, which featured the hit “This Must be the Place,” a wistful, blissful love song that received backlash from die-hard Talking Heads fans. “In a lot of the songs David’s lyrics didn’t have any personal significance for him. They were from things he heard or read. But in this case it sounded as though he really meant it,” said Frantz. The album also had “Burning Down The House,” another popular favorite in part due to its music video.
The supporting tour was also turned into visual art in Stop Making Sense, a live concert documentary (paired with the subsequent live album) filmed over three days at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. In the film, the Heads’ minimalist style is exemplified, beginning first with Byrne alone with a cassette tape and acoustic guitar, and joined on stage by the other members with each subsequent song. Byrne’s outfit expands, too. Inspired by the theatrics of Japanese Noh and Kabuki style that he observed on tour, Byrne in his minimalist style applies the inspiration in his Stop Making Sense performance by wearing a suit that grows in layers throughout the film until his head appears tiny in comparison with the large costume.
The Stop Making Sense tour was the band’s last. Following Speaking in Tongues, they released Little Creatures in 1985, with notable hits including “Road to Nowhere,” “And She Was” and, because I personally think it exemplifies a silly weirdness the band carries, “Stay Up Late”. They continued with True Stories in 1986 and Naked in 1988 (an appropriately named jam here, “Totally Nude”), which they followed with a “hiatus”.
Though Byrne was undoubtedly the leader, influencer, and primary creator of the style that the Talking Heads had, his attitudes caused tensions in the band. “He’s a very controlling person, and it wasn’t until our third record, Fear of Music, that I just said, “David, leave me alone. Please!” Weymouth said. Byrne has also been criticized for difficulty to connect and understand emotionally with others. The tensions never fully dissipated, and their sixth album “hiatus” became their official breakup in 1991. Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison briefly toured as “The Heads” after a reunion in 1996 that Byrne refused to take part in 1996. Frantz and Weymouth recorded as Tom Tom Club, producing a popular single “Genius of Love”. Harrison works as a producer and has worked on albums with bands like The Violent Femmes and No Doubt. The group reunited to play “Life During Wartime”, “Psycho Killer”, and “Burning Down the House” together on March 18, 2002 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Byrne went on to a solo career and released eight albums, the most recent being Love This Giant in 2012.
It’s hard to put one label on the style of Talking Heads. Wikipedia cites six. “Art pop,” “new wave,” “post-punk,” “avant-funk,” “worldbeat,” and “art punk”. Whatever genre you want to corral them into, the important thing is that the Talking Heads were different. They made eccentric accessible, churning out unconventional songs that spoke to the weirdos of the world. They no doubt inspired current day electronic/ambient pop, and despite any bad blood between the band, their music survives, and the world dances on.