Talking Heads – 10 of the best

From post-punk to funk, with an off-kilter view of the world, these songs show why the restless US band remain an influence on successive waves of musicians

1. Love -> Building on Fire

In the beginning, there was just a freaky outsider called David Byrne. Born in Dumbarton in Scotland and raised near Baltimore, Byrne was a wiry misfit with an interest in rock’n’roll and experimental performance art that extended to once shaving off his beard (bloodily) using beer for foam while a friend played Pennies from Heaven on the accordion. He met future Talking Heads husband-wife rhythm section Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth in 1973 while hanging out on the peripheries of the art and music scene at Rhode Island School of Design. They began jamming together, originally as the Artistics (later the Autistics, a sporting appropriation of a campus joke). Drilled into a tight live band after moving to New York, with rehearsals in Weymouth and Frantz’s Lower Manhattan loft apartment and frequent gigging at nearby CBGB, they signed to Sire Records in November 1976, then grew to a quartet after wooing Harvard architecture graduate and former Modern Lovers member Jerry Harrison to join on keyboards and guitar. Love -> Building on Fire (the squiggle in the middle means (“goes to”) became Talking Heads’ first officially released piece of music in February 1977. Recorded before Harrison joined, it’s an illuminating insight into how the band – then still very inexperienced in the studio, and thus inclined to accept some of producer Tony Bongiovi’s more traditionalist rock band impulses (the Stax horns work well, but as time would prove, were distinctly un-Talking Heads) – might have been remembered as little more than a new wave obscurity had they not gone on to rail so firmly against songwriting and recording doctrines of the age. There’s a hint of the wacky novelty about the refrain, presaged by the canned birdy noises in the intro: “I’ve got two loves / And they go tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet / like little birds” But elsewhere more familiar and lasting Talking Heads tropes take root between harpsichord-like phased guitars and foot-stomping drums. Byrne elliptically comparing love to his face, which is a building, which is on fire, prefigures a natural discomfort towards dealing with affairs of the heart as a lyrical subject in anything other than the abstract. A live version documented on the 1982 compilation album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads shows why Love -> Building on Fire quickly became one of Harrison’s favourite songs to play after he joined the band, with its intricate Televisionesque guitar weaves.

2. Psycho Killer

In those early, pre-New York days, the group attracted attention with this twisted, jerky, initially acoustic number (“Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad” as Byrne described it), which quickly became one of their signature playthings. Psycho Killer was eventually toughened up and committed to tape for Talking Heads’ 1977 debut album 77, with Bongiovi’s efforts to slather the song with psychedelic strings wisely resisted. Starting with one of the most instantly identifiable bass riffs in all of rock, supplemented by suitably stabbing guitars and topped with a brilliant half-gibberish gibberish chorus lyric, Psycho Killer scarcely wastes a note. Its spasmic middle eight, sung in French and intended to illustrate the narrator’s split personality, were Weymouth’s contribution.

3. Found a Job

“Damn that television, what a bad picture!” Years before the video for Once in a Lifetime made them early MTV stars, Talking Heads wrote this strange and fascinating number about a couple who freshen up their dull lives and save their flagging relationship by making their own ratings-winning TV show. One of the standouts of the Heads’ second album 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food – their first to be produced by Brian Eno, whom they had met and hit it off with on tour in the UK the year before – Found a Job captures a band on the brink of multifaceted greatness. Under Eno’s tutelage, punk upstarts became funky sophisticates capable of flavouring meta-aware lyrical narratives with danceable beats and esoteric influences. Taking its cues from minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Terry Riley, then hip touchstones on the New York art scene, the instrumental outro of Found a Job is ingenious in its esoteric simplicity: a skipping cyclical pizzicato melody repeated for two full minutes without variation, to hypnotic effect, over scratchy chords and an awkward chord progression, eventually fading out as if it would continue ad infinitum even after the needle has left the groove.

4. Cities

In their determination not to become just another new wave singles band, by 1979 Talking Heads – egged on by Eno – had begun to entirely rip up the rulebook. Instead of hunkering down in a studio to record the follow-up to More Songs About Buildings and Food, they instead retreated to Weymouth and Frantz’s loft to work up some more tightly wound jams. Running cables out of the window to a van from the Record Plant studio parked outside, over two days that spring the four members laid down all the basic backing tracks for what would become Fear of Music, with Eno weighing in heavily with conceptual codification and electronic treatments. On the surface of it, Cities is a fairly straightforward song about searching for somewhere to live, weighing up various places’ good points and bad points (of Birmingham – England or Alabama, it’s not clear which – Byrne oddly comments: “Look over there, dry ice factory / good place to get some thinking done”) and, it would seem, slowly losing one’s mind in the process (“I’m a little freaked out”). Always one for treating lyrics as servant to a song’s melody and structure, Byrne clearly enjoys himself inserting some goofily witty wordplay (“Did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis, home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks?”). Some of Cities’ most atmospheric tics are in the production – the way the track fades in and fades out for instance, as if we’re privy to just a small part of our flaky narrator’s trip. Frantz’s quicksilver drumbeat and Weymouth’s slinky-melodic bassline are pure cocaine disco, but with a starched stiffness befitting the song’s fussy subject matter.

5. Once in a Lifetime

To fully appreciate the radical and revolutionary transformation to their music making process which Talking Heads – guided by Eno – instituted with Remain in Light, it’s worth referring to Right Start, an early sketch of what would become Once in a Lifetime. A potent but scrappy instrumental, it bares only passing resemblance to probably Talking Heads’ most iconic song. Like all of the backing tracks hastily recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, in a seemingly random discontinuous process in the summer of 1980, these base elements were laid down effectively blind by the band to Eno’s direction. Eno and Byrne subsequently rearranged the constituent parts into glorious new shapes through a process of fading in and out contrasting but complimentary rhythmic and melodic phrases over one another in different combinations, in what was effectively a crude exercise in sampling and looping. Between Weymouth’s spacious yet forceful bassline, Eno’s gurgling synth drones and Harrison’s climactic organ flourish, all pieced together puzzle-like in unusual and disorientating rhythmic intervals, Once in a Lifetime is a thing of dizzying power, beauty and mystery. Over it all lies Byrne’s head-scratching half-spoken half-sung vocal about living in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife, days going by and water flowing underground, written ad-hoc to Eno’s placeholder mumblings and inspired by the call-and-response style rantings of American radio evangelists. You can read Once in a Lifetime as an art-pop rumination on the existential ticking time bomb of unchecked consumerism and advancing age. Or simply as a fierce groove with a clutch of nonsense lyrics dashed on the top. Either way, it sounds like nothing else in the history of pop.

6. Crosseyed and Painless

Another soaring triumph of Remain in Light’s composite cosmopolitan groove-based formula, Crosseyed and Painless might be Talking Heads’ most deliriously danceable song, not to mention the blueprint for a clutch of future New York bands from the Rapture to LCD Soundsystem. Weymouth’s popping bassline, Byrne’s stuttering, disjointed riffs, added “stunt guitar” solos from Adrian Belew and assorted staccato guitar rhythms and keyboard chirps all circle one another over a congas-and-cowbells beat. Like Once in a Lifetime, the song features not a single chord change in all of its four and a bit minutes, but instead simply shifts vocal melody to denote a chorus. Byrne sings a fidgety, paranoid lyric about being driven to the verge of a nervous breakdown in a search of some inscrutable inner truth (“Lost my shape / Trying to act casual / Can’t stop / I might end up in the hospital”). The half-rapped “facts” middle section was a downtown homage to the nascent rap music emanating from the Bronx, specifically Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks (beating Blondie’s Rapture, that other much more famed punk-band appropriation of rap to release by several months).

7. Life During Wartime (live)

How do you pick 10 of the best Talking Heads songs without it substantially resembling the setlist to Stop Making Sense – the greatest concert movie ever made, capturing the New York post-punk band at their peak in the winter of 1983? You can’t. By the time the film was made, long-simmering inter-band tensions had already begun to boil over towards an ultimately litigious endgame. Stop Making Sense, shot by Jonathan Demme across three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater on what would prove to be Talking Heads’ final major tour is the definitive document of one of America’s greatest bands. Some of the tracks featured in what are arguably their definitive versions, a practically aerobic performance of apocalyptic dance band jam Life During Wartime for one. Originally featured on the 1979 album Fear of Music in more sterile form, its driving disco beat, chewy keyboard riff and sharp angles were perfect fodder for the expanded live Heads line-up, which added a crack squad of American funk musicians in Parliament-Funkadelic founding member and synthesiser guru Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir and backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. Byrne’s twitchy lyric, inspired by Patty Hearst and the Baader-Meinhof gang, imagines a kind of hipster revolutionary surveying a postapocalyptic landscape, with lines like “this ain’t the Mudd Club / or CBGB / I ain’t got time for that now” wiring it into the downtown New York alternative scene in which the band had been forged.

8. This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) (live)

“I have written a love song, in this film I sing it to a lamp,” Byrne said of the closest thing you’ll find to a Talking Heads ballad, as he interviewed himself in a video promo for Stop Making Sense. Meeting his new girlfriend and future wife Adelle Lutz in 1982 presumably encouraged him to give writing love songs a go, with the knock-you-sideways pretty and since widely covered and sampled This Must Be The Place – albeit in his own off-kilter kind of way, by piecing together a bunch of affectionate sounding non sequiturs each romantic in their own ambiguous fashion (“The less we say about it the better / We’ll make it up as we go along”, “love me ’til my heart stops / Love me ’til I’m dead”) but wholly unrelated as a narrative. The music, aptly characterised by the band themselves in the parenthetical subtitle Naïve Melody, is almost laughably spare and simple: a guitar and a bass synth repeating a single four-bar figure in steady unison, an unshowy 4/4 drumbeat, a playfully pitch modulation wheel fiddling lead keyboard melody. Little else. Magical as the studio original may be, it’s trumped by the Stop Making Sense version, thanks to added luscious harmonies by Mabry and Holt and Weir’s slippery guitar ornamentation. Paying homage to Fred Astaire, Byrne does sing and indeed dance This Must Be The Place to a tacky-looking chain-store floor lamp, which apparently had to be frequently replaced on the tour after falling victim to some of Byrne’s more adventurous moves.

9. And She Was

Mastery of the four-minute verse-chorus pop song was always well within Talking Heads’ powers, and they proved it with 1985’s Little Creatures, their most successful album, which sold more than 2m copies in the US alone. Or more specifically Byrne did – he’s listed as the sole author of Little Creatures’ nine songs, with the band credited only with arrangements. The album closes with one of Talking Heads most successful singles, the drive-time radio ubiquitous Road to Nowhere. It opens with this deceptively clean-cut major-key jangler which, in the grand tradition of smuggling references to illegal drugs into chart hits, tells the story of “a blissed-out hippie-chick in Baltimore” whoused to drop acid in a field by the Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory and fly high out of her mind above the city. There’s something sweetly innocent and transcendent about her trip, “a pleasant elevation” that becomes an out-of-body experience a she watches herself below “like a movie”. Just because Talking Heads made writing songs like this sound easy doesn’t mean it was.

10. (Nothing But) Flowers

“And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.” When this line was quoted at the start of the film of American Psycho in 1991, Talking Heads practically came full circle. The lyric could have applied to the ultimate fate of the band itself: by the release of Naked, their final album, in 1988, relationships between Byrne and the other three had long since wilted, with major touring firmly a thing of the past, though it would take until 1991 before Talking Heads’ split was officially announced. But they did at least leave a last few fragrant moments to savour, (Nothing But) Flowers – a standout from the largely underwhelming Naked – for one. Something of a collectors’ item for featuring Johnny Marr on trademark chiming guitar and Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals, it’s a shimmering, upbeat Afropop dance song bearing one of Byrne’s most laugh-out-loud, funny-acerbic lyrics. As if a direct inversion of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, Byrne sings from the standpoint of a man embittered by society’s regression from first world technological luxuries, commercialism, consumerism and globalisation into a landscape reclaimed by greenery, as he pines for the Pizza Huts, 7-Elevens and electric labour-savers of the past (“If this is paradise / I wish I had a lawnmower”). Imagined in the context of 1988, it reads like he could be throwing sarcastic shade on some of the more sanctimonious save-the-world rock stars of the era.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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