Talking Heads — three conservative-looking refugees from the Rhode Island School of Design — first appeared on the New York Bowery circuit in mid-1975, playing on a CBGB bill headlined by the Ramones. From the outset, it was clear that, although the Heads shared an attitude and commitment to self-expression with the other bands then on the New York scene, they were charting a course all their own. That individuality, coupled with a strong adventurous streak, has resulted in both critical and commercial success for their group albums and some spin-off projects as well.
Led by the impossibly high-strung David Byrne (who has mellowed somewhat over the years), his neurotic but insightful perceptions focus the group’s sensibility. The core of Talking Heads additionally consists of bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz (now her husband) and ex-Modern Lover keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, who joined the trio in time for their first album. Together, and enlarged at times by temporary adjunct members, the Heads have produced intellectual dance music and artistic pop of different sorts, finding numerous rewarding levels on which to function.
Talking Heads: 77 is an astonishing debut with uncomplicated, almost low-key music supporting tense, bizarre lyrics, sung by Byrne in a wavering voice. He sounds downright uncomfortable admitting rather than proclaiming the words, but that only adds to the edgy appeal of such songs as “The Book I Read,” “Psycho Killer” and “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town.”
The Heads began a relationship with Brian Eno on their second album, essentially taking him on as a temporary fifth member. On More Songs About Buildings and Food (and the two succeeding LPs), they worked a sonic overhaul, at first adding elements to the basic framework and then ultimately subsuming the foundation into a wholly new approach. Here, the use of acoustic and electronic percussion fills previous spaces; the inclusion of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” indicated the band’s deep interest in “black music” and provided them with their first glimpse of Top 40 popularity. The material isn’t as startlingly fresh or satisfying as on the first LP, but some of the tracks work fine. (The first two albums were later joined on one cassette.)
The collaboration with Eno shifted into high gear on Fear of Music, moving rhythm to the front on “I Zimbra,” and foreshadowing the band’s new direction. It’s a tentative step — most of the album sounds like a refinement of More Songs — but it draws still further away from their spartan origins.
Remain in Light incorporates various outside players (Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx, a horn section) and makes a fully realized Great Step Forward. Funk and African influences meet electronics and selfconscious intellectual artiness to produce intricate, occasionally stunning tapestries that almost abandon song structure but do make a new kind of sense. “Once in a Lifetime” and “Houses in Motion” are among the group’s finest achievements, and the relationship with Eno seems at its peak. But trouble was apparently brewing, and the Heads spent the next year pursuing solo projects, leaving the band on hold and revoking Eno’s guest membership.
The Name of This Band is a two-record live album which showcases the group’s best material and recapitulates the stages in its development to that point. Sides One (1977) and Two (1979) feature the basic quartet in the early days; Sides Three and Four (1980 and 1981) chronicle the augmented lineup, with Belew, Hendryx, Bernie Worrell, Busta Jones and others adding a brilliant funky flavor. The Heads’ second concert record is Stop Making Sense, the one-disc soundtrack to Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed concert film of the same name. Not only are the performances uniformly excellent, but the selection — from “Psycho Killer” to “Once in a Lifetime” to “Burning Down the House” — again neatly recaps the various periods of their career in a concise, cohesive setting.
Speaking in Tongues, a perfectly realized synthesis of budding pop instincts, powerful atmospherics and solid dance tunes, contains some of the Heads’ best work, exemplified by “Burning Down the House” and “Girlfriend Is Better.” Having experimented with communal music-making, the Heads reclaimed their tight control; while there are numerous guest players, it is the Heads’ album all the way. Uncovering new areas of ambition, the group commissioned noted modern artist Robert Rauschenberg to design a novel plastic package for the record (also issued with a Byrne painting on a more traditional sleeve.)
Nine simple songs played with relative restraint and the fewest sidemen they’ve employed in a long time, Little Creatures is ostensibly the Heads’ back-to-the-minimalist-roots rock’n’roll album, an escape from pan-culturalism and artistic grandiosity. (It’s not.) Byrne’s songs are as straightforward and non-Headsy as he can make them; considerations of mundane topics (sex, babies, television) join his typically oblique character studies and essays on being and nothingness. Were the flimsy songs sturdier, the album might have been more creatively successful; as realized, Little Creatures merely sounds careless and insignificant. “Road to Nowhere” and “Walk It Down” are the winners in a weak crop.
Although released in conjunction with Byrne’s film of the same name, True Stories is not its soundtrack, but rather a new Heads LP. Again artfully exploring the complexities of modern culture in the superficially simple context of unembellished pop music, renaissance genius Byrne selfconsciously masks his awesome sophistication to sing seemingly (or so one is expected to understand) trivial ditties. Some are likable (“Love for Sale” and “Wild Wild Life,” for instance) enough, but the conceptual attitude that attends its creation makes respecting True Stories impossible. Unfortunate though it may be, Talking Heads — with far-flung experimentation and groundbreaking originality under its collective belt — can’t possibly sell conviction when slumming in the mundane world of tunesmiths and working musicians.
After two records of jus’-us-rock-folks, the courageous exploration (or overwhelming pretension, as you will) of Naked, recorded in Paris with Steve Lillywhite, seems reassuringly honest. Each song augments the quartet with numerous classy session players in varying combinations: ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, reggae keyboardist Wally Badarou, Pogues accordionist James Fearnley, saxophonist Lenny Pickett, etc. Horns and mountains of percussion filter a full set of oblique Byrnisms into merrily danceable exotica that’s not as challenging as it is uninvolving. The CD adds “Bill”; three tracks appear in longer versions than on the vinyl LP. What’s more, the CD is “graphics-ready,” meaning that those in possession of the needed equipment — a CD player with a graphics output and a not-then-available decoder ($500 or so) — can watch the lyrics and real-time instrument list on a television screen while listening.
Leave it to Talking Heads to assess their adventures in art-rock on a retrospective as exacting, intricate and ambitious in presentation as their music. Two discs can’t do complete justice to the dormant quartet’s decade-plus catalogue, but Popular Favorites/Sand in the Vaseline is a classy artifact, with rarities, outtakes and voluminous notes.