I received this email towards the end of last month:-
I've been enjoying the blog a lot lately and, in particular, love the 5 album sides idea. I'd be curious to know which you'd pick for Talking Heads. I know you tend to focus on UK and especially Scottish music but I figure TH are in the wheelhouse, so to speak.
Now in response, I said:-
I dont know if I could include them in the series as I dont actually own all that much of their stuff. I dont mind most of their singles, but I've struggled to really get below the surface and enjoy the LPs.
But......I'd be delighted if you fancied having a go at it and I could then put the posting up on the blog........
And I'm delighted to say dear readers, that courtesy of Jonny East/West, here's today's 5 great album tracks by Talking Heads......
"JC surprised me a bit when he wrote me he didn't have much of their stuff and never got below the surface of their LPs. In my mind, Talking Heads were part of the same scene as their UK contemporaries that feature regularly on TVV. Like The Jam, Joy Division, The Smiths -- Orange Juice -- and other bands making records in the late 70s and early 80s, Talking Heads were smart, critically acclaimed, impressive live, and faithfully followed by college kids. And like those bands, Talking Heads got relatively little play on the radio, at least in the States.
It occurs to me now, though, that Talking Heads didn't actually have that much in common with their contemporaries. To begin with they were a lot older. They went to prestigious universities and featured a woman on bass, which was unusual at the time. Most significantly, they did not write typical pop songs. I'd describe what it was that set Talking Heads apart but instead, let's just have a listen to one track from each of their first five albums. You'll hear how they grew from a sparse, guitar-based outfit to a funky, danceable band with complex rhythms and production in just a few years' time. Through it all, David Byrne's frenetic vocals and quirky lyrics made sure Talking Heads would not be mistaken for anyone else.
mp3 Talking Heads - Don't Worry About the Government
mp3 Talking Heads - Found a Job
mp3 Talking Heads - Memories Can't Wait
mp3 Talking Heads - Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
mp3 Talking Heads - Pull Up the Roots
First up is Don't Worry About the Government from Talking Heads' first LP '77. What was happening in music in 1977? Iggy Pop was out nightclubbing. The Clash were bored with the USA. Thin Lizzy were developing a bad reputation. Johnny Thunders was looking to cop some Chinese rocks. Bryan Ferry wanted just one kiss. In other words, sex, rebellion, drugs and other rock 'n roll staples. And what did David Byrne sing about? The honest efforts of civil servants, making laws for the benefit of society! And he is not a bystander; he's busy playing a part in the world he describes: "I'll be working, working/but if you come visit/I'll put down what I'm doing/my friends are important". In 1977, the world was going to hell in a handbasket. (Not that it isn't now, mind you). New York, where I'm from, was literally bankrupt. To hear someone singing about having a job, working and visiting with friends, content and involved with what was happening -- it all seemed completely alien. No one wrote about being an ordinary guy, just going about his business. Combine the words with an easy melody and a musical style that was miles apart from the overblown productions popular at the time (for example, Going for the One by Yes) and it was the beginning of something completely different.
Found a Job from 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food is my favorite song by Talking Heads. The propulsive bass line, the insistent guitar, the danceability - it's hard to see why this was a b-side to the single The Good Thing. Once again, Byrne's constructive, inclusive optimism is the message: the song is about a couple who are so dissatisfied with television programming that they go out and write and produce their own shows, involving their friends and family along the way. Already on their second album the band is moving in a funkier direction. The first of their albums to be produced by Brian Eno, More Songs built on the basic framework and started their experimentation into more arty -- but fun and listenable -- territory. Bonus points for the album jacket which is a mosaic of over 500 polaroids.
Onto Talking Heads' third LP, 1979's Fear of Music. In a couple of years the band had expanded into many styles. Still 'intellectual but accessible', the album features African rhythms and dialogue (I Zimbra), increasing use of sound manipulation (Drugs), and offers more danceable tunes with unconventional lyrics (e.g. taking an active role in the resistance in Life During Wartime). Apart from Eno, who sang and worked some effects on More Songs, Fear of Music was the first album to feature additional musicians on vocals, percussion and guitar, in this case Robert Fripp. Memories Can't Wait is a good reflection of their sound at the time: strong melody, quirky vocals, a lot happening at once. It was covered nine years later on Living Colour's debut album, Vivid. I hate their version of it, truth be told, but it's an indication of how Talking Heads' songs have influenced a very disparate set of artists that followed them. (Others include Tom Jones, This Mortal Coil, Simply Red, Jimmy Scott, Caetano Veloso, Smashing Pumpkins, Gomez, and Arcade Fire. For some reason, TH are also wildly popular with Jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, etc.)
By 1980's Remain In Light, Talking Heads had really hit their stride. Now a big outfit with multiple backing singers, tons of percussion and layers of guitarists and keyboardists, the sparse pop sound was replaced by something completely new. I've read that the band were listening to a lot of Fela Kuti when this album was recorded and that seems about right. Kicking off with the beat-heavy Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the album had a MASSIVE sound. Paul Simon's Graceland, which was seen as an innovative merging of western pop with South African instrumentation, would not be released for another six years. This album is light years beyond Talking Heads' first album, made just three years earlier. Contributions from Adrian Belew on guitar and prominent sound treatments by Eno help create the unique sound. (Byrne and Eno would collaborate on 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which set similar music to various spoken or sung pre-recordings. It was recently re-released with bonus material and is definitely worth a listen if this song appeals to you.) Thanks largely to the hilarious video for the single Once In A Lifetime, Talking Heads were by now on the musical map. But all the album tracks are great, making Remain in Light the one TH must-have album if you're only shopping for one.
It took another three years for Talking Heads to return with an album, and when they did it featured their only top ten hit: Burning Down the House. For a lot of fans, myself included, Speaking in Tongues was the band's last interesting LP. It was more danceable, still fun, but by 1983 it appeared the band had done everything it needed to do. The lyrics had become more abstract, even silly. Without Eno at the helm the album suffers from predictable beats and unfortunate new wave cliches. There's still a lot to like, especially the beautiful This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody). Pull Up The Roots is a good snapshot of where they were at the time. Floating around the internet is a sweet version of the song by California's Morning Benders - another example of how Talking Heads tunes are solid enough to be interpreted by new artists in different styles.
Those who read down to this point might wonder, 'how can you pick a list of Talking Heads album tracks and omit Radio Head'? The simple answer is that it's a crap song from a crap album, despite it ending up as the moniker for Thom Yorke & co. I really love Talking Heads' first four albums and kind of like the fifth, but I think they lost the plot afterwards. That's what happens when bands make movies, I suppose. There are a handful of quality songs from Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1987) and Naked (1988), but they don't hold together as albums that well (and that's why my five picks were from the first five). Take a look at the great 1984 concert movie Stop Making Sense and you can see the band at the height of their powers, before they released anything dodgy. It's also fun to check out Byrne in that Big Suit. I can't recommend the 1986 concept film True Stories, but I hope this post inspires a few folks to look back to the early material.
David Byrne was born in Dumbarton
Multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison recorded with the original Modern Lovers, playing keyboards on their classic tune Roadrunner
Husband and wife Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth produced the Happy Mondays ' album Yes, Please!
The Brian Eno song King's Lead Hat, later covered by bands including Ultravox and the Dirtbombs, is an anagram of Talking Heads.
Note from JC
A big thanks to Jonny for stepping up to the plate today. Its not easy narrowing down your favourite bands and artists in this way. If anyone else wants to have a go, they're more than welcome.....