Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#12)


Time for #12. Check 'em out after the break.

talkingheads1Talking Heads’ route to becoming one of New York City’s ultimate artists is strange enough for refusal. Their members come from diverse, geographically scattered places such as Kentucky, Milwaukee, California and Scotland. Three of the members came together while attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Coming from such a place made them art school alumni, nowhere near the “gritty streets” atmosphere that thrust most other New York quick draws into the limelight. And their sound during the group’s peak incorporated lots of world music influence (especially Afrobeat). Clearly, this was not an ensemble that scenesters from Brooklyn and the Bronx were crying out for. But then again, if they did echo of location and hard-fought debt and specificity, they wouldn’t have been Talking Heads.

One of the most acclaimed and perhaps the best-known progenitors of the modern “art rock” style, Talking Heads was a largesse of competing, even contradictory factors. If their diverse assimilation of funk, post-punk, pop, world music, and experimental rock isn’t unusual enough, couple that with frontman David Byrne’s lyrics and delivery—usually either capricious or abstruse, but sputtered in the sort of agitation that only arises either out of intense distress or from a Philip J. Fry-type trying to down a hundred cups of coffee. And though they could frequently be herky-jerky and fragmented, they took an approach to songwriting that has been favorably compared to painting on a canvas: every piece makes sense from afar, and in addition to being “arty,” it was also alarmingly scenic and pleasant. Most “fusion” ventures lead to a dense, busy sound, but while Talking Heads talkingheads4were certainly detailed, and during their commercial peak, would incorporate numerous additional musicians for building their sound, they were also students of the school of minimalism—a liberation from visceral nonsense that buries the listener in a flood of noise.

Bringing accessibility to the avant-garde is one of their greatest triumphs. Taken apart piece by piece, “I Zimbra” should be considered too abstract for admittance. The beats frantically gallop out of standard rock meter, the staccato, wiry guitar figures simply add to its Afro jive, and the lyrics are adapted from a Dadaist poem featuring chanted lines like “Gadji beri bimba glandridi” and “E glassala tuffm I zimbra.” But it was released as the second single off of their masterpiece Fear of Music. No, it didn’t chart, but aside from their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” the public hadn’t completely caught up with them yet. Yet within a few seconds of the tune’s introductory tumble and funkily sinuous bassline, it’s really hard not to be practically spellbound—the power of its beats and groove is undeniable.

But they didn’t start out hypnotizing the creative kids into frantically busting a move. They advocated the now commonplace feature of art rockers the world around to dig into genuine, passionate emotion and then detach themselves from it as if they’re too cool and intellectual to be talkingheads2swept away by such illogical, flighty things. As if audiences might not have figured out where they were coming from, Byrne and Chris Frantz originally formed a band aptly called the Artistics. Tina Weymouth was just Frantz’s girlfriend who had a car to drive them around—in and out of college, dating someone with a car is always a bonus. The band didn’t work out and the three moved to NYC; somehow unable to find a bassist in a city with a dozen aspiring bassists on every block, they recruited Weymouth and had her learn the instrument in a hurry—it’s hard to believe that someone could just “pick it up” and soon after become one of rock’s great bassists. Within no time, they were opening for a scrappy little punk band from Queens called the Ramones at New York’s historic CBGB’s club.

Agile and loopy as they were at the outset, they were based on more rigid repetition than funk stylists tend to be. Jerry Harrison (formerly of the Modern Lovers) joined the group just before recording their debut album, who offered a jagged screech here and there to emphasize the tension in their backbeat (showier than the scratchy jangle role he typically filled). They scored a minor hit at the end of 1977 with “Psycho Killer” thanks in large part to Weymouth’s unrelenting bassline and Byrne’s memorable “fa fa fa” and “run run run” lines. His strained falsetto would become as signature to their music as the elastic gurgle of their experimental beats, but it wouldn’t be until they began a long-standing collaboration with Brian Eno that the fruits of their labor would really come to life (and make people take notice).

talkingheads3Eno was already impressed with the band in their early years, even using an anagram of the band’s name as the title of his 1977 song “King’s Lead Hat.” He would co-produce the group’s next three LPs and introduced Byrne and the rest to worldbeat, especially the music of Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti. His influence would turn More Songs About Buildings and Food into something almost resembling a hectic, inventive dance record, one trembling with the noise of disco and, in their reading of Green’s “River,” soul music. It became an instant classic in the burgeoning new wave scene and rose into the Top 40 in both the US and UK. Perhaps cognizant of fears from their early fans that the group was bidding farewell to their inimitably playful, minimal early days, rather than take the excitable party vibe to greater pop extremes, they went darker and harsher for their next album, Fear of Music.

If their first two records were great indicators of the band’s vibe on stage, then Fear was a major step in studio production. Eno’s innovative techniques brought about echo effects, processed guitars, vaporous back-ups, and electronic treatments scattered across the album, creating an ominous, paranoid vibe. It was simultaneously the group’s most challenging and rewarding album to date (and remains so, though many would argue for the likewise excellent Remain in Light). But the band’s minor fractures began to open up like old, oozing wounds around the same time, especially as battle lines were getting drawn for band control, with Byrne and Eno on one side and Frantz and Weymouth on the other (and poor Harrison in the middle, like another famous fella with the same last name). They may have continued as a functional band for more than a decade as the 70s melted into the 80s, but the growing hostility was readily apparent.

The ambitious Remain in Light saw Talking Heads pushing even further from their roots. Even before the years with Eno, the group had incorporated touches of world music (especially talkingheads5Caribbean sounds), but now the polyrhythmic expressions of Afrobeat were dominating. Eno arranged the vocals and much of the percussion and keyboards, and several outside musicians made appearances (including Adrian Belew). For live performances, the quartet expanded to a roster nine deep or more, and Byrne and Eno were leading both the band direction and songwriting. Increasing the tension, Byrne would collaborate with Eno as a “side project” for the 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Meanwhile, Frantz and Weymouth would found Tom Tom Club, a synth-pop/new wave act that scored a bigger hit song (“Genius of Love”) than anything that the Heads had yet released.

Talking Heads would finally release their first and only Top 10 single in 1983, “Burning Down the House,” participate in one of the most famous and acclaimed concert film/soundtracks of all time (Stop Making Sense), and then release their biggest-selling album in 1985, Little Creatures, a double platinum smash with a trio of low-charting hits. It would not be unnatural for a group at their most fractious and dysfunctional to produce their best material through the anxiety, but it is more surprising that they would be at the peak of their popularity during the ugliest behind-the-scene days. Both Creatures and Speaking in Tongues are undervalued by both critics and the fanbase, but even “merely decent” efforts like True Stories and Naked were greeted warm enough to reach gold status. Naked would be the final full-length they’d release together and after being placed on hiatus in 1988, they would disband officially three years later near the same time that they reconvened to record a track to appear on the soundtrack for the German film Bis ans Ende der talkingheads6Welt (Until the End of the World). Their only reunion to date was a performance when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

I admit that their induction was a bit of a surprise to me. At the time, artists who had been eligible for years like Black Sabbath, the Stooges, Alice Cooper and Lynyrd Skynyrd had thus far been ignored, so I assumed that Talking Heads, with their relatively few widely-recognizable songs, would never have a shot. But they got in on their first year of eligibility; I didn’t think of them as being “legendary” enough. The only recycled airplay they ever received in my neck of the woods was the occasional dusting-off of “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House” and “Wild, Wild Life.” And their influence never really seized the mainstream—their fondness for Afrobeat predated its usage from big-time stars like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but their more tactful pop integration sounded more like “accidental suggestion” than legitimate inspiration (and Eno started that business before ever teaming with the Heads anyway). And no major commercial player in the many years since their ascension sounded explicitly like them.

Most were probably too terrified to approach, let alone touch, such an adventurous and intrinsically identifiable aesthetic. Byrne’s easily recognized vocals (discomfort and release in ruptured yelps and sighs) may be the closest relative through all phases of their career, but whether dealing with talkingheads7their minimalist funky side, art-school punk style, worldbeat experiments, or straight up melodious pop efforts, there was consistency in the balance between the desperate physical demand and the archly clever intellectualism that synchronistically fueled their ambitious songwriting and productions. Whether you consider Eno to be an honorary fifth member or not, it’s not easy for me to admit that his time with the band produced a terse musical collection that exceeds even his time with early Roxy Music and with David Bowie for the Berlin Trilogy, but it did. There will never be another band like Talking Heads, and for their precision masking spontaneity, body music pretending it wasn’t academic, and their adventures in the sphere of pop-poly that can’t ever be touched, they are the finest and most important band to emerge from New York in at least thirty years.

Love -> Building on Fire
Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town
No Compassion
Psycho Killer
Thank You for Sending Me an Angel
The Good Thing
The Girls Want to Be With the Girls
Found a Job
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Crosseyed and Painless
Once in a Lifetime
Burning Down the House
This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)
And She Was
Stay Up Late
Wild, Wild Life
(Nothing But) Flowers
Sax and Violins
…and the album Fear of Music

Also endorsed: Tom Tom Club, Devo, Fela Kuti

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


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