Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Talking Heads entered the ‘80s on an artistic & commercial high. They had survived their underground/punk beginnings, started to expand their sound, and slowly entered the mainstream. Their first album of the new decade was Remain In Light (1980), which had the quartet (David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz) beefed up by additional musicians and vocalists. The most well-known track is “Once In A Lifetime” with its familiar refrain, “same as it ever was” (ironic, since their sound was no longer the same). The first thing I noticed about the album is that it only has 8 songs, with nearly half clocking in at 5 minutes or longer. Instead of the tighter new wave aesthetic of previous releases, the focus seems to be more about the groove this time. There are African rhythms throughout and all kinds of syncopated percussion, but they’re mixed with weird keyboard squiggles, sometimes sounding like an ‘80s video game (cutting edge at the time). They continue to incorporate funk, disco and reggae, creating a new sound that’s still distinctly Talking Heads.
The album opens with two tracks that have great grooves: “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” and “Crosseyed And Painless.” The former owes a lot to the funk of James Brown and George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic, while the latter incorporates an insistent disco/reggae hybrid groove; Tina Weymouth’s bass line & Chris Franz’s non-stop propulsive drumming must have made this a huge hit in dance clubs at the time. I love Adrian Belew’s squealing guitar solo on “The Great Curve,” a song I initially found less catchy than the two preceding tracks, but it eventually won me over. The first half of the album is stronger than the second half, but that doesn’t take away from the power of the album as a whole, which continues their streak of 4 excellent records. “Houses In Motion” reminds me of The Fixx’s “Deeper And Deeper” (a personal favorite, although it was never a big hit). “The Overload” is another dark, moody album closer (following in the footsteps of the previous album’s “Drugs”) that sounds like a very slow homage to The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
It would be 3 years before they released another studio album, so in the interim fans were treated to a double live album, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982). I remember seeing this album in the racks at my local record stores, but never knew if it was a compilation or a live album. Apparently after several years the LP was deleted and didn’t see the light of day again until 2004’s CD reissue, when it was expanded to 2 full-length discs that would most likely have required a 4-record set in the ‘80s (imagine that). Disc 1 covers the tours they did as a quartet in support of the first three albums, and Disc 2 focuses on 1980’s Remain In Light Tour, where the band was augmented by six additional musicians & vocalists. Although the latter performances are more densely arranged, the difference between the two discs isn’t as jarring as one might expect. This is as good a primer on their first four years as any best-of collection, and shows the various facets of the band on stage
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the essential Talking Heads live album is Stop Making Sense (1984), as the band was at a commercial peak, and the album was the soundtrack to a popular concert movie of the same name. While it’s certainly a great representation of the band at that particular stage of their career, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Name Of This Band… is the definitive document of Talking Heads in concert. That being said, the Special New Edition expanded version of Stop Making Sense, released in 1999, is worth checking out. Seven tracks are added to the original LP’s nine tracks, showcasing all of the songs that appeared in the movie, and replicates the sequence of songs performed in concert. The first four songs are mostly acoustic, almost like Talking Heads Unplugged, featuring just the original quartet. The remainder of the CD, with one exception, includes the expanded lineup. The exception I mentioned is “Genius Of Love,” the 1981 Top 40 hit (and #1 song on the U.S. Dance chart) by Tom Tom Club, a side project formed by Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth. I read that Tom Tom Club performed this song here in order to give David Byrne time to change into his famous oversized suit that became the key focal point in the movie. The CD is an excellent document of Talking Heads on tour in 1983, but none of the performances add anything to the original studio versions.
A year before the Stop Making Sense movie & soundtrack were released, the band emerged from hibernation with Speaking In Tongues (1983), their highest charting album that featured the U.S. Top Ten hit “Burning Down The House.” The combination of a tribal beat, pulsing synth bass line, David Byrne’s yelped vocals and the chanted song title were too much for the record-buying public to resist. They were obviously listening to Minneapolis favorites (and Prince protégés) The Time when they wrote & recorded the upbeat and incredibly catchy “Making Flippy Floppy.” No surprise that this is their only album to cross over to the R&B charts in the U.S. An excellent, slightly slower-tempo dance song is “Girlfriend Is Better.” It’s not dissimilar to their earlier song, “Life During Wartime,” and introduced the phrase “stop making sense.” “Swamp” comes out of nowhere, an unexpected surprise, sounding like a 1970’s ZZ Top song (with ‘80s production). The album closes on a mellow but happy note with the sweet sounding, bouncy “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody).” After two consecutive albums ended with brooding, serious songs, I enjoyed the change of pace here. There are 3-4 songs that didn’t make an impression on me, even after numerous listens, so although there are at least 4 songs that I really enjoy here, this is my least favorite of their albums so far. I’d certainly give it thumbs up, but it’s more flawed than any of their previous releases.
The surround sound mixes for Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues are revelations, introducing sounds that had been hidden in the stereo mixes. Unlike the surround sound mixes of the first three albums, which merely beefed up the original mixes & spread them throughout the five speakers, these two were newly created mixes (by Jerry Harrison and E.T. Thorngren) that present the albums in a fresh light.
They recorded three more studio albums before calling it quits at the end of the ‘80s. I’ve already spent some quality time with them in the last 7-10 days, but now I want to check out the surround sound mixes. I’ll post my comments on these albums, as well as my final thoughts on Talking Heads, sometime next week.
“This Must be the Place” is another top five for me. Love “Tongues” but agree it’s a tad below their previous output despite the obvious highlights. Also wholeheartedly agree re: the two live albums. “This Name of This Band…” is far better.
Hey Brian. I’m glad we seem to be on the same wavelength with Talking Heads. Let’s see if that continues with their last three albums, which I’ll post about next week. I also listened to the album by The Heads again. I’m going to give it another listen, but I’m not sure it needs to be included in my re-appraisal of the Talking Heads catalog.
A bit of trivia regarding Speaking In Tongues: there were two album covers, the common one pictured and an elaborate, artsy cover made of plastic. Meanwhile, the cassette featured longer versions of some of the songs. I believe both longer and shorter versions have now been on CD.
Enjoying your assessments so far, which I think are pretty spot on.
Hi Glenn. Thanks for letting me know about the alternate Speaking In Tongues LP cover. Even though I was working in a record store when it was released, I don’t recall seeing that. After doing some research, I discovered that it was created by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who specialized in Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art (this LP cover being an example of the latter). I was able to find an image of that LP at http://www.boxvox.net, with a direct link to the image below.
I also didn’t realize that the cassette had longer versions of some of the songs. I always found it strange when record companies would do that, but I guess they figured the fans would buy the LP and cassette and they could make more money. Thanks for the kind words about my assessments. I really appreciate your feedback, and I’m glad we’ve been on the same wavelength so far.
I think that was quite common back in the 80’s and 90’s when the record companies transitioned from lp’s, to cassettes, to cd’s, they would try to boost sales of the outgoing format by releases bonus or extended tracks. Good album too. I miss the days of looking forward to an album being released, not being disappointed when it was and drooling over the artwork on the cover and the media itself, if the label was feeling generous enough. Feel bad for kids these days.. or I’m just getting old 🙂
I couldn’t agree more about that feeling of getting a new album and immersing myself in the artwork, lyrics, liner notes…and the music, of course. I also felt bad for modern-era kids until a few years ago when vinyl started making a comeback. Sure, it’s not a mainstream format, but for people like us who think of music as more than a disposable commodity, the ability to immerse yourself in more than downloaded, compressed MP3s is still available…and there are definitely kids today with that same passion.
By the way, I’ve really been enjoying your blog, checking it out every day. I’m not sure how you come up with so many diverse ideas, but it’s quite impressive. I implore anyone reading this Comment section to click on through to your link. I will also share my appreciation at your blog soon.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.
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Oh well, thanks a lot, I appreciate that. Although I don’t think I go into anything like the effort you do in your work. Now when are you covering Cameo? j/k
Cameo? Very funny. I love a lot of funk and R&B, but I’ve never heard anything from them besides “Word Up.” Maybe one day I’ll do a special post about codpieces in music: Cameo’s Larry Blackmon, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Kiss’ Gene Simmons. There must be others (????)
You’ll probably get 1,000,000 hits if you write that one 🙂
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i remember the first time i saw Stop Making Sense, that didn´t make sense to me, it was completely crazy and unusual, it made me feel a luck man, why? because i had the opportunity to watch the best show in my life! actually the best moment of TR.
congratulations for the article. You are very inteligent
Hi Johnny. Thanks for your comment and kind words. I agree that the first time you see Stop Making Sense it feels like you’re watching something from another planet, yet it also seems completely familiar. Talking Heads were really operating at the peak of their powers at that time.
I’m glad you stopped by because it reminded me about your website, which I’ve bookmarked and will revisit more frequently. When I first saw it last year I was unaware of Google Translator, but now I have the ability to read your posts and I’m really looking forward to that.
thanks my friend!
Hey Rich, just getting caught up on some of your posts. Finished the Bowie essay and on to this wonderful Talking Heads one! Always liked this band, but never delved into them the way you are here. I very well may now, though. My question is not about TH, though, it’s about The Fixx’s “Deeper And Deeper” you mention. Being a pretty big Fixx song back in the day (lucky enough to see them twice, Reach The Beach AND Phantoms tours), but I don’t recall that number. Was it released as a B-Side? You have my curiosity piqued!
Thanks, looking forward to devouring the remainder of your posts!
Hi Ian (er, Uncle E). Happy New Year. Glad you enjoyed the Bowie series. That might be my favorite of all the artists I’ve covered. As for The Fixx’s “Deeper & Deeper,” it was released as a single between the “Reach The Beach” and “Phantoms” albums (I still have my copy). It got a lot of radio play back in ’84 but has been kind of forgotten by radio over the years. It’s still probably my favorite of their songs, and it really should have been included on “Phantoms.” It is on the Greatest Hits CD I own, so the song is readily available, and now that I’ve looked into it a bit, it was also on the soundtrack to the movie “Streets Of Fire.” I hope this info is helpful.
As always, thanks for your feedback. I look forward to another year of your always enjoyable posts. I’ve been quiet recently due to holiday activities & then I got a terrible cold this week. Hoping to be back to normal soon. I miss checking in on my fellow bloggers. Cheers!
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