Published Jan 01, 2006Psycho killers and creatures of love. Dreams walking in broad daylight, 365 degrees. The man in the big white business suit who learns how to dance and stop making sense. The guitarist/keyboardist who straddled the line between Jonathan Richman and Parliament/Funkadelic. The funkiest rhythm section ever found in a so-called rock band, including one of the first women since the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker whose role in the band was purely instrumental. They pioneered music video and starred in the greatest rock film of all time. Thirty years after they first met, and 15 after they stopped talking, the Talking Heads have released Once in a Lifetime, a three-CD box set that includes a DVD with their best videos. The best American band of the '80s, they made everything flippy floppy.
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, students at the Rhode Island School of Design, start dating. They meet fellow student David Byrne while recording a soundtrack to a student film. David is known as a performance artist who cuts himself while shaving with beer on stage, as well as submitting burnt loaves of bread to sculpture exhibits. He and Chris form a garage band called the Artistics, who were unsympathetically nicknamed the Autistics due to David's stage demeanour.
David moves to New York, around the corner from CBGB. When Chris and Tina join him there, they all move into an unheated loft and Tina, a folk guitarist, learns how to play bass. Their first show is at their loft; the second is at CBGB opening for the Ramones. Talking Heads soon become press darlings, with as much attention paid to Tina's bass playing as David's twitchy stage antics and lyrics. Chris tells Rolling Stone, "We thought it was modern to have a female in the group who wasn't featuring her voice or breasts." After three years playing keyboards with Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers and appearing on their debut album, Jerry Harrison feels burned by the experience, and vows to never join another band; he returns to architecture school at Harvard.
1975 to 1976
Talking Heads ask Jerry Harrison to join them as a keyboardist; he shows up for practice with a guitar and agrees to join the band if they let him finish the semester at Harvard. Andy Warhol and Lou Reed are big fans of the band; Reed feeds them Haagen-Dazs, tells David his arms are too hairy to wear t-shirts, and advises the band to get a lawyer. After pursuing them for a year, Sire Records' Seymour Stein signs the band for a then-whopping $15,000 advance.
Chris and Tina are married shortly after the release of their debut, Talking Heads 77. The album starts off with a wedding song for nerds, set to a Stax beat, with the dorky title "Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town." (How was this ever considered punk?) Their first headlining gig ever is in London, UK. Brian Eno shows up and tries to bootleg the show before getting busted. They hire him to produce their second album in the Bahamas, originally titled Tina and the Typing Pool. Tina hates the idea but doesn't have any better ones. She asks the band, "What are we going to call an album about buildings and food?"
More Songs About Buildings and Food gives the band their first Top 30 single, a cover of Al Green's "Take Me To the River." Seymour Stein is worried that with Brian Eno behind the boards, they would sound weirder than they already were, but other than a few subtle touches, he makes them sound almost normal.
For Fear of Music, David writes most of the songs solo, but two funk numbers evolve out of jams: "Life During Wartime" and "I Zimbra." They both feature anonymous bongo players they find in Washington Square Park, credited only as "Gene Wilder and Ali." Many people misread the lyrics "this ain't no disco" in "Life During Wartime"; at the height of the rock vs. disco wars, several rockist club owners put the phrase on a banner to hang behind the band on tour, when in fact all the Talking Heads love disco. While on tour in Czechoslovakia, a reporter who had just interviewed David solo asks Chris and Tina how they feel about David leaving the band. After the tour, David disappears.
The secretive David starts working on an album with Brian Eno, which infuriates the rest of the band and kick-starts their own solo projects. The whole band convene in the Bahamas to write new material through jamming. Brian Eno shows up three weeks later to start recording. Most of the songs are one chord, which allows them to layer different sessions over each other poly-rhythmically. Fela Kuti is a huge influence on the whole band, and David takes some lyrical tips from fundamentalist radio ("Once in a Lifetime") and hip-hop. Tina is livid when the credits on Remain in Light's vinyl read: "all selections by David Byrne and Brian Eno unless otherwise indicated," while the album artwork gave credit to Byrne, Eno and Talking Heads. Either way, she feels all four members, and not latecomer Eno, deserve equal credit for the songs. When it comes time to tour, they realise there's no way they can play this material with just four people. Just before a gig at Toronto's Heatwave Festival, Jerry assembles an extra six players: Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, bassist Busta Jones, vocalist Dolette McDonald, and Remain in Light contributors Nona Hendryx (vocals) and Adrian Belew (guitar). Tina is not happy at having to share bass duties with Jones. Rumour has it that Tina asks Belew not only to join the band, but to replace David. Belew opts to join King Crimson instead.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, credited to Brian Eno and David Byrne, finally comes out. The title of the album refers to the disembodied voices the duo sampled from the radio, often religious figures, hence "ghosts." In the same year MTV goes on the air, David Byrne learns how to dance. L.A. choreographer Toni Basil ("Mickey") directs him in the band's first video, "Once in a Lifetime." They also have an affair. Back in New York, David is dating Twyla Tharp, another renowned choreographer. He scores her piece The Catherine Wheel, and The New Yorker calls it "the meeting of two of America's most original minds." Jerry works on an interesting solo album, The Red and the Black, while Tina and Chris form the Tom Tom Club with Belew and Tina's sisters. Belew would later allege that he wrote much of the Tom Tom Club album, including contributing to the smash hit single "Genius of Love," a song that would go on to be sampled by Grandmaster Flash, Mariah Carey, Tupac, the X-ecutioners and 40 others. Belew doesn't get a royalty cheque for the song until Carey's hit in 1995.
The double live album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads traces the evolution of the band from a four-piece in 1977 to the big band of 1980-'81; it has never been reissued on CD. Following all the solo projects, it comes off like a contractual obligation and fans question the future of the band. But they hit the road again, with Alex Weir of funk band the Brothers Johnson replacing Adrian Belew. Pregnant Tina performs double duty with Tom Tom Club opening the tour. Everyone agrees to return to the Bahamas and make a self-produced album, with no Eno. The fact that the Tom Tom Club album goes gold something the Talking Heads had not yet done increases a competitive spirit in the band. Jerry is quoted as saying this kept the band together, even though Tina's antagonism towards David is growing.
Speaking in Tongues spawns their one and only top 10 hit, "Burning Down the House." David gets the title from a chant he hears at a Parliament/Funkadelic show. Tom Tom Club's Close to the Bone is released a couple of months later, but is overshadowed by Talking Heads' new success. Inspired by New York director Robert Wilson, as well as Japanese theatrical traditions of "noh" and "kabuki," Byrne designs an elaborate stage show for their tour, which includes his trademark Big Suit. The stage is completely black except for the drum set and the guitars; David doesn't allow water or towels on stage because it will be a visual distraction. The expensive and cumbersome tour burns through several production managers. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme convinces Byrne that the stage show will work as a movie, and the show is filmed over three nights in L.A. The day before the shoot, Bernie Worrell threatens to walk out unless he gets a royalty instead of the flat fee offered to the extended band. Also that day, backing singer Ednah Holt shows up with a short haircut, which is not part of the show; she's ordered to spend the next 12 hours getting a hair weave. Chris and Tina are encouraged to perform "Genius of Love" near the end of the set, so that David has time to change into the Big Suit and, allegedly, to do coke. Tina wants to keep her solo project separate from the Talking Heads, but is assured it won't be in the final film. Two of David's solo songs ("What a Day That Was," "Big Business") make it into the set.
Jerry Harrison finds a tape of Ronald Reagan testing a microphone by saying, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Harrison samples, slices and dices the quote over a funk track with Bootsy Collins and releases it as a single under the pseudonym Bonzo Goes to Washington. David feels that the Big Suit tour was the pinnacle of what the Talking Heads could achieve on stage. For an Australian tour, they revert to a normal stage show, still with the expanded band. The last Talking Heads show ever is at a rainy New Zealand festival. Frustrated, David storms off stage several times. Chris talks him back on stage repeatedly, but eventually gives up and the rest of the band jam on stage for the rest of the set. Stop Making Sense debuts in April at the San Francisco film festival in a vintage theatre; the dancing audience literally shakes the foundations of the venue. The theatre manager tries to stop the film to calm them down, and a scuffle with Demme breaks out in the projection booth. Tina is furious that "Genius of Love" is left in the movie; so are many Talking Heads fans who find it totally embarrassing. The Stop Making Sense soundtrack becomes the Talking Heads' biggest selling album.
While David develops a movie script, True Stories, the band learns some fun pop songs he wrote on the piano and record Little Creatures in a month. While they're mixing the album, they start learning songs for the movie. His brass-based compositions for Robert Wilson's Civil Wars theatrical production are released as the solo album Music for the Knee Plays. He also appears on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with the headline: "Thinking Man's Rock Star." The rest of the band, expecting an article on the whole band, is not happy. Talking Heads pass up a chance to be at Live Aid to finish True Stories.
At the last minute, it's decided that the True Stories soundtrack will be a proper Talking Heads album with David singing, instead of the movie's actors. When the movie opens, David is not only on the cover of Time but he gets to design the cover, too. David is hired by Bernardo Bertolucci to score The Last Emperor with Ryuichi Sakamoto, for which he will win an Oscar. Jerry produces the Violent Femmes' The Blind Leading the Naked.
Despite musing about a tour of abandoned drive-in theatres, David refuses to play live unless they can top Stop Making Sense, much to the chagrin of the restless band. Talking Heads spend springtime in Paris with producer Steve Lillywhite recording what will be their final album. Sessions go surprisingly smoothly, with few overdubs and the band playing in one room.
In a post-Paul Simon climate when (mostly white) critics are tired of white people making "world music," Naked is greeted with an unfairly blasé reaction. Chris and Tina produce Ziggy Marley's Conscious Party, the first reggae album to sell a million copies, as well as its follow-up a year later. They release Tom Tom Club's Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom; Jerry and David sing backup vocals on their version of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," perhaps the worst VU cover ever. Jerry releases his second solo album, Casual Gods, and scores a minor hit with "Rev It Up."
David signs a solo deal with Warner that also involves starting his own label, Luaka Bop, which he uses to release unheralded music, mostly from Cuba and Brazil. His solo album Rei Momo finds him in full Latin American mode, with an ace band and solid songs. The four Talking Heads appear on stage together at a Tom Tom Club gig encore, performing "Under the Boardwalk." David forgets the words and stands silent on stage while Tina takes over.
1990 to 1991
Both Jerry and the Tom Tom Club release their third albums, Walk on Water and Dark Sneak Love Action respectively. They also tour together, alongside Blondie's Debbie Harry and the Ramones, on a tour called "Escape From New York." David's score for the Robert Wilson piece The Forest is released with an advisory sticker: "Warner wants you to know that this album contains orchestral music." David tries to call a Talking Heads meeting in the fall, but Chris tells him they don't want to meet unless it's good news. In December '91, the band reads in the L.A. Times that the Talking Heads have split.
Having signed a five-album deal after Naked, the band is pressured by their record company to release a greatest hits. The two-CD Sand in the Vaseline features four songs pre-77, and four "new" songs that are either Naked outtakes or reconstructions of unfinished work from '81 to 83. David releases Uh-Oh, and includes some Talking Heads material in his live show, which he also films for a full-length video. Chris and Tina have the unenviable task of babysitting/producing the Happy Mondays' drug-riddled, five-car-pileup album Yes Please.
The second album Jerry Harrison produces for Live is a multi-million selling smash, as is his work with Crash Test Dummies, despite both acts' complicity in crimes against music. On David's self-titled solo album, he ditches most of his world music tendencies and becomes a boring and confusing middle-aged rocker ripping off himself: new song "Angel" is suspiciously similar to "Once in a Lifetime."
David says Tina writes him letters detailing how much she hates him, what an asshole he had been, and then concludes by asking him why he doesn't want to work with the rest of the band again. Tina says he hasn't returned any of their phone calls for the past eight years. David tells one reporter, "I did call them up, and every time I did and said, I want to talk to you about this,' they'd say, David, we don't want to talk to you unless you want to talk about getting back together.' So there was no way to say anything." The other three go ahead with a new album featuring guest singers including Live's Ed Kowalczyk, INXS's Michael Hutchence, Debbie Harry, XTC's Andy Partridge, Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, and Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder, all of whom are responsible for the biggest stain imaginable on the legacy of the Talking Heads. The group call themselves the Heads; the unforgivably abominable album is No Talking Just Head. The chorus of the single asks, "how do I undo the damage I've done?" Even worse, they go on tour, with Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano handling lead vocals on all "Heads" material old and new. Inside artwork features a voodoo doll impaled on a heart most likely references to the heart logo of Luaka Bop and David's interest in voodoo with words pinned on the doll like "arrogance," "meanness," "egotism," "theft" and "betrayal." David files suit against his former band-mates, claiming that even the abbreviated name will misrepresent his own work.
1997 to 2000
The Heads make plans for a second album until "corporate restructuring" leaves them without a label. David doesn't mince words with the media, saying, "I have no reason or need to talk to those people for the rest of my life." David's records his revitalising 1997 album Feelings with Morcheeba, Devo, and others. Luaka Bop lands its first big pop hit with Cornershop. In 1999, all four members participate in the DVD reissue of Stop Making Sense. Tina refuses to shake David's hand at the press conference. In 2000, Tom Tom Club reform for The Good, the Bad, and the Funky, and both Chris and Tina contribute to the Gorillaz' song "19-2000."
This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century, by David Bowman, is a flawed yet definitively dishy biography detailing much of the David/Tina hostility and backstage juice. A gracefully greying David releases Look Into the Eyeball, a pop record featuring collaborations with several string arrangers and his strongest solo album since Rei Momo.
2002 to 2003
David releases his score to the Scottish film Young Adam; the soundtrack is called Lead Us Not Into Temptation, recorded with members of Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian and the Delgados. Out on Thrill Jockey, it's his first album on an independent label since Sire was absorbed into Warner. Hatchets are buried in 2002 when Talking Heads are inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, where they perform a brief set, joined by Bernie Worrell and Steve Scales. In their acceptance speech, Chris says, "I want to thank the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for giving this band a happy ending!" This month, all four band members contribute essays and reminiscences to the elaborate and beautiful three-CD, one DVD box set Once In A Lifetime. The long, thin hardcover book, designed by the whole band, may seem incongruous but is an appropriate epilogue to the band's artistic vision.
The Essential Talking Heads
Fear of Music (1979)
The bridge between their quirky youth and their African conversion, this is when the band really hits their stride. Features classics "Life During Wartime," "I Zimbra," "Cities," and "Heaven."
Stop Making Sense (1984/1999)
Beyond a doubt the greatest concert film ever made, the soundtrack is just as thrilling on its own, even surpassing their studio work on 1980's Remain in Light and 1982's Speaking in Tongues. The crucial 1999 reissue includes the entire 16 song set in order, as opposed to the original nine.
Little Creatures (1985)
Their last three albums get unfairly slagged as a "Road to Nowhere." The band obviously took a few steps backwards after Stop Making Sense, but this is a giddy pop album that distils their many charms into the simplest of pleasures. Rev. Howard Finster's cover art is gorgeous; the ridiculous band photo is not.