Talking Heads 'Speaking in Tongues' Tour
It was an image that defined Talking Heads for a generation of music fans – skinny, nervous David Byrne on the Speaking in Tongues tour, struggling to dance in a cartoonishly huge white suit. "What I realized years before," Byrne says, "is I had to find my own way of moving that wasn't a white rock guy trying to imitate black people, or bring some other kind of received visual or choreographic language into pop music … I just thought, 'No, no, you have to invent it from scratch.'"
Since forming in the mid-Seventies, Talking Heads had gone from CBGB New Wavers to one of the biggest bands in America. For the tour to support 1983's Speaking in Tongues, their most popular album to date, they reinvented themselves, growing from a quartet to a nine-piece funk mob that included P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir and vocalist Lynn Mabry. Byrne also took cues from the experimental visual-art world, projecting abstract slides onto a spare backdrop, creating a stark aesthetic to match the band's driving, uncluttered funk. The suit was inspired in part by Japanese Noh theater.
What emerged was arty dance-party transcendence. Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz recall the two-night run at New York's Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August as a highlight. "Madonna had just released her first record; she was walking around barefoot," Frantz says. "I saw Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall off to the side of the stage – she was dancing, Mick wasn't." The Greek Theater in Berkeley the following month was a similar bacchanal. "We'd begun to get the Deadhead crowd," Frantz says, laughing.
In late 1983, the band decided to document the tour with a concert film, and teamed up with director Jonathan Demme (who would later win an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs). "We didn't want any of the bullshit," says Frantz of the band's initial idea for Stop Making Sense. "We didn't want the clichés. We didn't want close-ups of people's fingers while they're doing a guitar solo. We wanted the camera to linger, so you could get to know the musicians a little bit."
Shot over three nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, Stop Making Sense may be the greatest concert movie. It begins with Byrne walking onto a deserted stage with a boombox, setting it down, pressing "play," then reimagining "Psycho Killer" for acoustic guitar and 808 drum-machine beats. His bandmates and backing musicians join him incrementally, song by song. "It's cut down," Byrne notes, comparing the film to the two-hour shows, "but there were no other substantial changes."
The effect was so real, people actually got up and danced in movie theaters. "I'd never seen that before," Frantz says. "Or since." W.H.