Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Since I wasn’t a fan of Talking Heads from the beginning of their career, and I didn’t hear most of their individual albums until 2005 (even though I knew a lot of their songs), I have a different perspective on their output than someone who was a fan in 1977. To my ears, it seems like they came out of nowhere. There were obvious influences, like David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, etc., but right from the start they didn’t sound like anyone other than Talking Heads. As I’ve explored their albums recently, I’ve uncovered some other influences on individual tracks, but more often I’ve noticed how they influenced other artists, which makes their output over a relatively short period of time (just over a decade) that much more impressive.
Their debut album, Talking Heads: 77 (1977), is my favorite re-discovery, and I would now put it on the list of greatest debut albums of all time. Album opener “Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town,” has a loping Stax-like R&B rhythm, yet it’s not a soulful song (surprising, considering how they would embrace many groove-based styles in the future). “New Feeling” follows with its herky-jerky feel and a slightly dissonant guitar melody that clearly influenced future King Crimson member and Talking Heads collaborator, Adrian Belew. “Who Is it?” has a great nervous energy, and it quickly became a new favorite. I love the way the rhythm shifts dramatically a couple of times during “No Compassion,” almost like two different songs were glued together. I know I can’t be the only one who hears how the slower section of this song must have influenced David Bowie a couple of years later on his song “Ashes To Ashes.” The other section has a propulsive pseudo-disco beat that comes as a surprise the first time it’s introduced.
[Talking Heads – “No Compassion”]
The intro guitar figure on “The Book I Read” has an African feel, something they would embrace more regularly a couple of years later. Then they adopt a Latin feel for “First Week/Last Week…Carefree” with the cabasa pushing the groove, but add a twist by introducing vibes and a horn section. “Psycho Killer” is the best-known song here, with the bass guitar intro bearing a similarity to Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug.” It’s hard to tell if lead singer David Byrne is singing in character or about a character, but the lyrics fit the melody perfectly, and it’s not surprising that this might be their most popular song. The album ends with “Pulled Up,” a straight 4/4 dance rhythm mixed with their most rocking, crunchy guitar sound; a perfect way to close out a near-perfect album.
A year later they released More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978). Although they didn’t suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump, it’s doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor. I love the ascending chord sequence and the way they create tension with the guitar (and synth?) working around the steady drum pattern on “With Our Love.” The groove on “The Good Thing” recalls KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” without copying that song’s party vibe. The drum & bass sound on “Warning Sign” owes a debt to dub reggae, but has its own unique vibe. Did Thomas Dolby borrow the verse melody & manic vocal approach from “Artists Only” for the bridge of his 1982 hit, “She Blinded Me With Science”? The guitar intro to “I’m Not In Love” recalls the Van Morrison classic “Domino.” It’s serendipity, as the Talking Heads catalog is the first one I’m revisiting after starting my blog with Van Morrison.
The album closes with two great tracks. “Take Me To The River” is their re-worked version of the Al Green classic. This is the way to cover a song, putting your own stamp on it instead of doing a note-for-note copy. The tempo is completely different from the original, and the feel is heavier, swampier. They follow this with “The Big Country,” where Byrne sings about the places he sees from above during an airplane trip. It’s got a pretty melody, and the strummed acoustic guitar throughout make this sound like nothing else in their catalog. At first he seems to be enjoying the sights, but the choruses end with “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” By the end he makes it clear that he’s “tired of looking out the window of the airplane, I’m tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.” It’s a bittersweet way to end their second album.
I always thought that their third album, Fear Of Music (1979), was where their sound drastically changed, introducing African percussion and additional musicians & backing vocalists, but the change wasn’t as abrupt as that. Perhaps I was fooled by opening track, “I Zimbra,” which is a radical departure from anything they previously recorded. Even the vocals are just chanted gibberish. This change in approach didn’t carry over, as the second song, “Mind,” could’ve easily fit on either previous album. The funky “Cities,” with its dance-y club beat, is like some David Bowie songs of that era. “Life During Wartime” was the minor hit from this album. Its refrain of “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. This ain’t no Mudd Club or C.B.G.B., I ain’t got time for that now” is not only catchy, but also indicates that Talking Heads are moving on from their punk/underground beginnings and into the mainstream (although that transition wouldn’t be completed for another couple of years). “Heaven” is as close as they came to a ballad. It’s a pretty song where Byrne tells us that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” The album ends with “Drugs,” a great dark & moody track that has hints of synth-pop icon Gary Numan’s more atmospheric work.
The surround sound mixes of all three of these albums are superb. Instead of placing various sounds in each speaker, they opted to create fuller mixes that stay true to the original stereo mixes while beefing up the overall sound. There was nothing revelatory, but if you’ve got a surround sound set-up and enjoy these albums, it’s a great way to experience them.
I had originally intended to split their catalog (8 studio albums and 2 live albums) into two posts, but I’ve been enjoying them so much and finding that I had a lot more to say than expected, so I’ll be writing three posts instead. I’ll be back soon to comment on Talking Heads as they enter the ‘80s, the decade that made them stars…and split them up.