Talking Heads were a band of smart, self-conscious white musicians intrigued by the rhythms and spirit of black music. They drew on funk, classical minimalism, and African rock to create some of the most adventurous, original, and danceable music to emerge from new wave — a movement Talking Heads outlasted and transcended in their accomplishment and influence.
David Byrne and Chris Frantz met at the Rhode Island School of Design, where they were part of a quintet called, variously, the Artistics and the Autistics. With Tina Weymouth, Frantz's girlfriend, they shared an apartment in New York and formed Talking Heads as a trio in 1975; they played their first shows at CBGB that June. Their music was never conventional punk rock; it was more delicate and contrapuntal, and their early sets included covers of the Sixties bubblegum group the 1910 Fruitgum Company. Jerry Harrison, a Harvard alumnus who had been a Modern Lover with Jonathan Richman until 1974 and had also backed singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy, completed the band in 1977.
Talking Heads toured Europe with the Ramones before recording their first album, which included "Psycho Killer," a tightly wound curiosity (and killer song) that Byrne delivered in wild-eyed yelp. The album reached the Top 100, and every subsequent album reached the U.S. Top 40.
With More Songs About Buildings and Food, Talking Heads began a four-year relationship with producer Brian Eno, an experimentalist who toyed with electronically altered sounds and shared their growing interest in Arabian and African music. More Songs included a cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," which was the band's first hit (Number 26, 1978). Fear of Music (Number 21, 1979) was a denser, more ominous record.
Remain in Light (Number 19, 1980) was the Heads' breakthrough. Eno and the band improvised its tracks in the studio, peppering them with overlapping vocals, touches of Nigerian highlife, brooding keyboards, and dense polyrhythms. It's one of the most distinct albums of all time, a mix of African communalism and Western technology, an atmospheric record that rocks, and a groove record with great tunes — including the classic "Once in a Lifetime."
After Remain in Light, Talking Heads toured the world with an expanded band: keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic, guitarist Adrian Belew (who had played with Frank Zappa and David Bowie), bassist Busta Cherry Jones, percussionist Steven Scales, and singers Nona Hendryx (formerly of Labelle) and Dollette McDonald.
Band members then turned to solo projects. Byrne has explored electronics, performance art, and world music, and scored music for films and the stage. Harrison made The Red and the Black; and Frantz and Weymouth recorded as the Tom Tom Club, scoring a major disco hit with "Genius of Love," which made the album go platinum. In 1982 the Heads ended their association with Eno; they released a compilation of live performances by all versions of the band and toured the U.S. and Europe as an eight-piece group.
The Heads released Speaking in Tongues, the first album of new material in three years, in 1983. (A limited edition release of 50,000 copies featured a complex cover designed by artist Robert Rauschenberg. Subsequent copies boasted a simpler design by Byrne.) It was their highest-charting album ever (Number 15, 1983) and yielded their biggest hit single, "Burning Down the House" (Number Nine, 1983), which was also featured in an eye-catching video that MTV had in heavy rotation. They toured with an expanded band including Alex Weir, a guitarist with the Brothers Johnson. The tour was documented in the acclaimed movie Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme. The soundtrack (Number 41, 1984) spent nearly two years on the pop albums chart.
The Heads returned to their core lineup, and simpler song forms, on Little Creatures (Number 20, 1985), which included the Cajun-flavored single "Road to Nowhere" and "Stay Up Late," a sardonic commentary on parenting (which Frantz and Weymouth, by then married, were doing). That album, like its predecessor, went platinum (the only two to do so). In 1986 Byrne directed the feature film True Stories (Number 17), a seemingly sincere look at small-town American eccentrics; the soundtrack album, on which Talking Heads performed straightforward versions of songs sung by various characters in the film, yielded a hit single in "Wild Wild Life" (Number 25, 1986).
Naked (Number 19, 1988), produced in Paris by Steve Lillywhite (U2, Simple Minds) and reggae/world-beat keyboardist/producer Wally Badarou, featured guest performances by assorted African and Caribbean musicians living in Paris. After producing the hit album Conscious Party for Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Weymouth and Frantz got Byrne, Harrison, and Lou Reed to guest on Tom Tom Club's Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, for a version of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale." In 1990 Tom Tom Club and Harrison's band Casual Gods (which included Alex Weir) toured the U.S. with the Ramones and Blondie singer Deborah Harry.
The long-rumored dissolution of Talking Heads was made official, sort of, in December 1991, when Byrne told the Los Angeles Times the band was finished. A month later Harrison, Weymouth, and Frantz issued a statement of their disappointment, adding that "Talking Heads was a great band." The band's final four new tracks were released as part of the Popular Favorites box-set retrospective.
In 1996 Byrne, citing "wrongful use," filed a lawsuit against the members of his former band and Radioactive Records head and former Talking Heads manager Gary Kurfirst to halt the release of a new, Byrne-less album, No Talking Just Head, and to prevent the musicians' use of the name "Heads" for a tour. The suit was settled out of court, and plans for both album — with a variety of guest vocalists including XTC's Andy Partridge and former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee — and tour proceeded. All four original members did manage to reteam in 1999 for the release of a 15th-anniversary edition of Stop Making Sense (which coincided with the film's release on DVD and a brief theatrical run). And in 2000 the Tom Tom Club was back with a new album, The Good the Bad and the Funky, which featured covers of tunes by Lee "Scratch" Perry and Donna Summer.
In 2002, the Talking Heads reunited to perform "Life During Wartime," "Pyscho Killer" and "Burning Down the House" at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The performance, however, was not a harbinger of things to come: Byrne remained adamant that the group would not reunite. In post-breakup interviews, Weymouth has referred to Byrne as remote and emotionally distant, telling the Sunday Herald, "Cutting off attachments when a person has…served its purpose…is a lifelong pattern of his relations." In an interview in the Australian newspaper the Age, Byrne acknowledges that, in 2004, he rebuffed Frantz's inquiries about a possible reunion. "The only reason to get back together would be to do one of those 'sound how you used to sound' tours. And who wants to do that?"
After the band's break-up, Byrne made solo albums in the Naked mode (1989's Rei Momo, 1992's Uh-¬Oh). His label Luaka Bop has given U.S. fans access to Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, and other important global artists.
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. Byrne was cited as an influence by a number of indie bands — chief among them, Arcade Fire, with whom he has appeared onstage to perform the Talking Heads song "Heaven."
In addition to recording music with Frantz as Tom Tom Club, Weymouth contributed backing vocals to the Gorillaz song "19-2000."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). J. Edward Keyes contributed to this article.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
CULTURE 14 Gonzo Masterpieces
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus