In Ten Tracks: Talking Heads

A selection of Talking Heads songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.

In 10 Tracks: Talking Heads

Uh-Oh, Love Come to Town  By the time that Talking Heads cut their debut album, Talking Heads ’77, the world had already heard from fellow CBGBs bands Television, Patti Smith, and the Ramones; Richard Hell was recording his Sire debut as well. Not surprisingly the record failed to chart at all, although the single “Psycho Killer” did reach #92 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles. But the tunes here bristle with near-bubblegum pop energy and sunshine even while David Byrne’s lyrics undercut them with anxiety and frustration. Byrne had once created a questionnaire aimed at creating the perfect pop song. This one is a goodie–Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz are already a rock-solid rhythm section with Jerry Harrison supplying steel drum-sounding keyboards and David crooning lyrics like “stockbroker make a bad investment/when love has come to town” and making them impossibly romantic and even a little sexy. Critics took notice and so did a dude named Brian Eno.

Thank You For Sending Me An Angel What Eno heard in the band was a certain simpatico with rhythm & blues and funk music, particularly in the choppy guitar work of Byrne and Harrison. When Eno began working with the band on More Songs About Buildings and Food he was also working with David Bowie–Low was released in January of ’77 and Heroes in October of that year, a month after the debut Heads album was issued. On this first album together he didn’t introduce a lot of Eno-esque effects. Instead he helped emphasize the group’s R&B/funk subtext by pushing Tina Weymouth’s bass and Byrne’s Lou Reed-inspired rhythm guitar. This opening track had so much energy it fairly leaped from the turntable, a country western-inspired lark featuring Chris Frantz’s rim shot flecked drumming propelling the band like a freight train while Byrne yodels his way through a typically circuitous lyric with no chorus and, of course, without ever articulating the song’s title. Yee-haw!

Found a Job Also from the second album, this bouncy track tells the story of Bob and Judy, a suburban couple who, bored with the stuff to be found on their television decide to make up their own show. It’s a great song with its thunder stomp chorus–“Judy’s in the bedroom/inventing situations/Bob is on the street today/scouting out locations.” Byrne manages to have outlined the idea that would become reality TV 20 years before ‘Survivor’ debuted on American television screens. “It helped save their relationship/and made it work again” Byrne sang, and you had to marvel at how such a weird plot and music could be turned into such a marvelous pop song.

Memories Can’t Wait Talking Heads’ third album, Fear of Music was a different beast altogether from the band’s first two albums. Byrne wrote songs that were increasingly dystopian and featured narrators that were isolated. Sometimes they were alienated, sometimes fearful, sometimes sinister, sometimes unstable, but always all too human. Tina Weymouth was at first skeptical of the direction the record was taking as the band recorded at Weymouth and Frantz’ loft studio, but Byrne won her and the entire band over and the music became darker as well. For the first time, Brian Eno subjected the finished tracks to electronic studio treatments, resulting in a sound that was brilliantly evocative of the isolation, claustrophobia, and paranoia at the turn of the decade. In a lot of ways, Fear of Music functioned a lot as Radiohead’s OK Computer did in 1997–as both current commentary and future warning. On “Memories Can’t Wait” Eno plays with the tape speed on Byrne’s lyrics at the end of the lines, sometimes speeding the echo of his words up and at other times slowing them down to simulate the narrator’s confused and weary mental state. 

Heaven  This song, also from Fear of Music, may be the most eerily beautiful song Talking Heads ever produced. Written by Byrne and Jerry Harrison, it is a song that describes heaven as a bar or club where everyone wants to be, where everything goes just as expected and wished for (‘the band in heaven plays/my favorite song/play it once again/play it all night long‘) where things are predictably wonderful…and boring. Perfection is dull whether in the afterlife or in our lives here on Earth, which is ultimately the real message. There’s a hint of horror film desperation as Byrne urgently spits out the line ‘heaven is a place/a place where nothing/nothing every happens.’ How horrible to be trapped in such a scenario, he seems to be saying, how can this be what you wish for? But look, our lives are like this right now!

Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) By the time of Remain in Light, Eno had established a working relationship with the band that made him a part of the creative team. He and Byrne were especially deep in a collaborative mode, which led to their exploring Afropop music together as well as sampling of voices from radio, television, and other found sources. They recorded My Life in the Bush of Ghosts together before embarking on Remain in Light. There was some tension as the band found the two subsuming the group aesthetic in some ways but they rose to the occasion as a creative unit to produce an amazing, decade-defining record. The sound the band created was, for the first time, joyously straight-up dance rhythms and the songs were created and written in a more democratic fashion than on previous records. Byrne sings from the persona of ‘a government man/born under punches.’ The chanted chorus of ‘the heat goes on‘ was inspired by a New York Post headline during a NYC heatwave. Nona Hendryx did background vocals and Adrian Belew was brought in to do some guitar solos, marking the first time that the band had brought in outside musicians. Eno continued to provide electronic sounds and again subjected the mixes to various studio effects, though to much different purpose than on Fear of Music. The Talking Heads were moving towards being a more collaborative project.

Related: Talking Heads Remain In Light Full Circle with Angelique Kudjo

Listening Wind  One of Remain in Light‘s concluding trio of ‘downward spiral’ songs, ‘Listening Wind’ is a spooky take on the development of terrorism by marginalized people who hold a grudge toward Western society. The song’s lead character, Mojique, is a lone terrorist, or potential terrorist, who could be Middle Eastern, African, anywhere that America is seen as a controlling imperialist power. ‘Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands/Mojique sends the package to the American man‘, Byrne sings as tribal drumming and Belew’s guitar all subjected to Eno’s electronic effects simmers menacingly in the background. The wind is seen as a supportive character that gains strength and force to ‘drive them away.’ This song doesn’t really even sound like Talking Heads, and that’s just what they intended. 

Slippery People On Speaking In Tongues, the band’s commercial breakthrough and most popular album, the collective came into full force. The band brought in a lot of extra musicians for the recording (which they self-produced) and the subsequent tour that was filmed and released as the documentary Stop Making Sense. ‘Slippery People’ laid bare Byrne’s fascination with gospel music and with Southern Christian sects (as did the album’s title) and featured a preacher-like declamatory style in the verses and a call and response chorus. The vibe was strong enough for the Staple Singers to record the song with Byrne contributing guitar to the record, which became a comeback hit for the venerable gospel/soul vocal group. The band even appeared performing the song on Soul Train, which you can see on the YouTube playlist version of this article. “David’s inspiration was seeing people in church, and that’s what I connected with,” said Mavis Staples. “My head went off into the Bible.”

The Lady Don’t Mind  Little Creatures was a different album for the band, mining a more Americana feel down to its Howard Finster outsider cover artwork. Still inspired by gospel, the group added folk and country music influences to the mix, and Byrne continues the more stream of consciousness lyric style he had used on Speaking In Tongues. This song is much more about a feeling than a definite story or message, and the music, while still mysterious, is much more open and less claustrophobic than the group’s early work. 

People Like Us  David Byrne had always been fascinated by country music and the American west going back to the group’s second album (see “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” above). True Stories was a film that Byrne made which chronicled the fictional inhabitants of Virgil, Texas as they prepared for the city’s sesquicentennial and ‘celebration of special-ness.’ This song, performed at the celebration by actor John Goodman’s lovelorn character, is completely without irony. Whereas once Byrne had looked at this part of the country from an airplane and written ‘I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to‘ he now writes about ordinary people living lives that are both ordinary and somehow transcendent. ‘People like us/who will answer the telephone/people like us/growing big as a house‘ creates common cause between the people of Virgil and the paranoid narrators of Byrne’s early songs. ‘We don’t want freedom/we don’t want justice/we just want someone to love.’ It’s impossible not to marvel at the journey Talking Heads had taken in just under a decade. 

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