Talking Heads

     Talking Heads: 77 (Sire, 1977)
      More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire, 1978)
      Fear of Music (Sire, 1979)
      Remain in Light (Sire, 1980)
      Speaking in Tongues (Sire, 1983)
    Stop Making Sense (Sire, 1984)
   Little Creatures (Sire, 1985)
   True Stories (Sire, 1986)
   Naked (Sire, 1988)
     Sand in the Vaseline: Popular Favorites, 1976-1992 (Sire, 1992)
    Stop Making Sense: Special Edition (Sire, 1999)
   Once in a Lifetime (Sire, 2003)
     The Best of Talking Heads (Rhino, 2004)
      The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads: Deluxe Edition (Rhino, 2004)
   Talking Heads (Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino, 2005)
   Bonus Rarities and Outtakes (Sire, 2006)

The Heads   No Talking, Just Head (Radioactive, 1996)

Talking Heads plowed through art rock, CBGB punk, funk, bubblegum, even African polyrhythms, making beautiful sounds out of frontman David Byrne's malaise about life during Reagantime and the late Seventies. The Heads' paradox was that the harder they tried to imitate music from around the world, the more they sounded exactly like four clean-cut American college kids: eager to please, embarrassed about their privilege, working hard at their chosen career.

Talking Heads: 77 is quirky singer/songwriter pop; while the band plays stiff, clean nerd rock, Byrne squawks one-liners about how it takes a tough man to be a tender chicken. But for More Songs About Buildings and Food, producer Brian Eno opens up the music so that Byrne now has the sonic spritz he needs to hone his comic persona: the company man who learned everything he knows from reading in-flight magazines and the warnings on the back of sugar packets. This was the album that made the band's reputation, except they had even better tricks coming up. For the killer finale, "The Big Country," Byrne warbles over pastoral guitars about looking down from an airplane at ordinary American life ("Look at that kitchen!/All of that food!") and concludes, "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to."

Eno stuck around to produce the band's two finest records, Fear of Music and Remain in Light. Fear of Music is science-fiction comedy arranged for electric guitar, fleshing out Byrne's paranoid vision of an urban world where air can hurt you, animals are setting a bad example, and heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. "Mind" and "Heaven" are beautiful ballads, while the climactic "Drugs" can scare the bejeezus out of you if you're properly sleep-deprived. Remain in Light is an expertly paced, intricately layered album of future-shock Afro-disco polyrhythms, revved up and spliced together with hypnotic melodies, dense electronics, Adrian Belew's crazed guitar shrieks, and echoes of Nigerian highlife. In "Crosseyed and Painless," "Houses in Motion," and "The Great Curve," the Heads found their groove; for all the awe and mystery in the music, Remain in Light rocks like a monster.

The Heads pursued solo projects for the next few years, releasing the excellent live retrospective The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, which improbably turned "Drugs" into an arena anthem. After collaborating with Eno on a diffuse ethno-fusion album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne composed a Twyla Tharp ballet score, The Catherine Wheel. Guitarist Jerry Harrison's solo album The Red and the Black rehashed Remain in Light. Husband/wife team drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth's Tom Tom Club seemed the slightest of the Heads-related projects, but proved the most complex. As the Tom Tom Club's twitchy synth-pop hit "Genius of Love" crossed over to rap radio and got mixed into early Sugar Hill singles, the Heads' fascination with pop became a two-way dialogue for the first time. Speaking in Tongues sounds inspired by "Genius of Love" and by the prospect of a real live audience joining in the fun. The result is the Heads' most festive album, full of big flippy-floppy drums, although Eno's gone and the songwriting's thinned out. The P-Funk-inspired party chant "Burning Down the House" made a great radio hit, while "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" was Byrne's surprisingly pretty attempt at a sincere love song.

The Heads followed their hit concert film Stop Making Sense with a redundant soundtrack that left out the movie's highlight, an acoustic "Heaven" (restored on the 1999 edition). Byrne's next solo project, Music for "The Knee Plays," mixed New Orleans brass bands with clever stand-up. For Little Creatures, Byrne reconvened the Heads to play some foursquare folk-rock ditties he'd written solo, no polyrhythms or funny business; unfortunately, Byrne needs polyrhythms and funny business, because he doesn't have much knack for hooky rock tunes. Little Creatures has some lively moments ("And She Was," "Perfect World"), but the beat is flat and the vocals are too cutesy for words. True Stories collects leftovers from the same session into a dubious soundtrack to Byrne's dubious debut film.

Naked rallied the Heads for one last attempt at African music, this time soukous, with the usual glut of gee-whiz humor and pedigreed guest musicians. Naked was obviously inspired by the success of Paul Simon's Graceland, but times had changed, and the world-music industry had come into its own. Remain in Light fans had little access to Nigerian highlife in 1980, but by 1988, if you wanted to check out soukous, you could just buy a Kanda Bongo Man or Rochereau CD instead of a well-meaning imitation. Rap, freestyle, and house had bum-rushed the airwaves, making the Heads' theoretical approach to polyrhythms sound smug and fussy.

Tasteful as always, the Heads had the good form to quit. Harrison became a prolific producer, while Frantz and Weymouth succumbed to the temptation to keep milking the Tom Tom cash cow. Byrne made pallid solo albums in the Naked mode (1989's Rei Momo, 1992's Uh-Oh). For 1994's David Byrne, he made himself over as a long-haired sensitive folk-singer, with wordy guitar ballads; 1997's Feelings and 2001's Look into the Eyeball reverted to stale Eighties art funk. His label Luaka Bop has given U.S. fans access to Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, and other important global artists. Bonnie Raitt covered "Burning Down the House" on a live album once, and the world will never know why. As Byrne embraced his role as an elder statesman through the 2000s, his solo music grew more complex and compelling; his 2008 tour and Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today found him totally in touch with the wild wild life of Talking Heads.

Sans Byrne, the band regrouped in 1996 as "The Heads" to make No Talking, Just Head with a lineup of guest vocalists that resembled a halfway house for '80s refugees (Michael Hutchence! Maria McKee! Gordon Gano!). You couldn't blame them for trying, and they couldn't blame you for not buying. Once in a Lifetime is a box set flawed by banal liner notes, poor song selection, and unbelievably ugly design: all told, a package that sums up the band's cute side rather than the abrasive intelligence and acerbic wit that made them special. Sand in the Vaseline and The Best of Talking Heads might not be the way to get to know such a concept-album band, but there's no denying that radio shots such as "Once in a Lifetime," "Psycho Killer," and "Wild Wild Life" burn down the house. 2005's Talking Heads (a/k/a the "brick" box) is an annoying doorstop that has all the original albums. But the 2004 Rhino reissue of The Name Of This Band made the album twice as long and twice as stunning, with revelatory live performances from the Remain In Light tour, retooling the studio versions when not just blowing them out of the water. In the eight-minute "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)," from a 1981 Tokyo show, every sound in the mix jumps out as you as a whole different animal, each one speaking in tongues.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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