Talking Heads – [Discography]

Saturday, 24 July 2010

I can think of no other band which laid out their musical development from album to album so clearly as Talking Heads. Each Talking Heads album built on what came before, while adding some new element into the mix.

Sure, you can watch the Beatles grow from Help to Abbey Road, but that is a much smoother progression, rather than a set of discrete steps. Even David Bowie, that great musical chameleon, is better known for drastic leaps and random detours than any clear progression. The key to Talking Heads' growth was that each album had a unique sound which clearly built on what came before; it was a progression of clear steps.

Although they came out of the CBGB's punk scene, Talking Heads had their own musical agenda. That is not to say David Byrne or anyone else in the band had a clear idea of where they were heading, just that the artistic growth between albums is easy to trace. What is obvious is that, unlike The Ramones for example, they had no interest in creating a sound and sticking with it; they were going to keep moving.
Talking Heads: '77
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1977)

"Presenting the skeleton."

The first Taking Heads album provided the skeleton on which everything to follow was built. Fittingly, it was a sparse album. The songs were minimalist, the instrumentation was basic and the production was fairly thin. Even so, the thinness of the sound disguised how much was really going on in the songs; subtle instrumental touches livened the sound throughout.

The songs were poppy, but they were a very strange breed of pop. The melodies were catchy, especially on “Uh-Oh Love Comes to Town” (the first single off the album) and “Don't Worry About the Government,” but the rhythms had a tendency to start and stop and pulsed just a little offbeat. The thinness of the production worked against the poppiness too; then, as now, one expected pop songs to be lushly produced.

The lyrics on '77 were the most straightforward of any Talking Heads album. In many cases, they were simply about what the title said; “New Feeling,” “Happy Day,” “No Compassion” and “Pulled Up” are all straightforward, but not simple. The lyrics were strong on irony (“Don't Worry About the Government”) and intellectual twists (“Tentative Decisions”), but there was also an overall irony in that often cynical and even angry lyrics were paired with bouncy melodies. From the very first cut, “Uh-Oh Love Comes to Town,” Byrne established a theme which would run through much of their early work –  the idea that love was a bad, or at least unnecessary, thing

The album title could be interpreted as an awareness on their part that they were going to quickly grow. The date-checking almost seems to say, “This is what we sounded like in '77,” realizing they would sound like something else even as early as the following year.

Still, the main elements of the Talking Heads' sound are all here: pop melodies, quirky, jerky rhythms, and cerebral lyrics. There was a lot of space in the songs, but that would be filled on later albums.
More Songs About Buildings and Food
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1978)

"Put some meat on those bones."

The Heads' second album sounded similar to the first, but with a fuller sound. Much of the difference was due to the presence of Brian Eno as producer. At the time, the Heads seemed to be just another New Wave band taken under Eno's wing (he also produced albums by Devo and Ultravox, among others), but this was really the start of an extremely productive collaboration.

Eno's main accomplishment on More Songs… was to thicken the sound, primarily through synthesizers and treatments of the other instruments. The effect was subtle – it just fleshed out what was already there – but it made a huge difference. '77 tended to start and stop; More Songs… flowed.

Byrne's songwriting is bolder here as well. Although most of the songs are still clear in their meaning, some of them (“Warning Sign,” “Stay Hungry”) inspired the “What is he talking about?” debate which would become standard on later albums. Byrne's cynicism was still fresh, his anti-love songs still entertaining.

More Songs… fulfilled the pop potential of the first album. Considering the success of their version of “Take Me to the River” (interestingly, the only cover song of their entire career), they probably could have cruised on this sound for the next ten years. But of course they did not….
Fear of Music
(Sire/Warner Bros.,1979)

"Halfway between distinct sounds."

Fear of Music was a transitional album – the only one in Talking Heads' catalog – but it was not necessarily apparent on first listen. At first, it sounded like the Heads had solidified the pop sound of More Songs…, and made it harder. The sound was even pushed towards psychedelia; especially in the use of guitar feedback on cuts like “Mind” and “Memories Can't Wait,” would, in fact, become the base of much of their music to come. But on Fear of Music, they were only experimenting with those sounds in places; they were not (yet) the rule.

Fear Of Music was Talking Heads' darkest album, certainly. It was aptly titled; fear and paranoia dominated. You can't get much more paranoid than “Air can hurt you too” (“Air”). The music matched the darkness of the lyrics. The guitars were harder, the beat more solid, the production denser. All of the air had gone out of these songs.

As I said, it was not obvious at the time what direction the Heads were headed in. Instead of following the rhythms of “I Zimbra,” they could have easily gone into psychedelic, prog-rock territory. That would certainly have been interesting. Instead, we got…
Remain in Light
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1980)

"The Heads learn how to dance."

Of course, David Byrne never learned how to dance (for proof, just check out the Stop Making Sense concert film). He remained the epitome of an unfunky white guy but, with Remain In Light, the Heads at least started producing music you could dance to. The irony, perhaps, was that Byrne's herky-jerky dance steps fit perfectly with their old rhythms but, here, the rest of the band left him behind, and got down like never before.

The further irony was that it was Byrne's own musical experiments which lead them to this place – specifically his collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life In the Bush of Ghosts [Although released after Remain in Light, Bush of Ghosts was actually recorded earlier -ed]. On Bush of Ghosts, the duo explored various African rhythms with recorded voices overdubbed on the music and was, in fact, an early experiment in sampling; utilizing vocal snippets from sermons, radio talk shows and even an exorcism.

Anyway, Byrne brought what he'd learned back to the band, and they fulfilled the vision. This was the full flowering of Heads' work with African rhythms, although not, as we shall see, its' culmination. The band is loose throughout, the rhythms rolled, and the listeners' hips started to move.

The other important change was the addition of extra musicians to the line-up. 
Remain in Light basically doubled the number of musicians in the band, especially if you consider that Eno acted as much as a musician here as a producer. More important, they needed a larger band to capture this sound live. Although the actual musicians varied, for the next five years the Heads would, essentially, be an eight- to ten-person band.

Remain In Light contained Byrne's loosest songwriting ever, both lyrically and in terms of song structure (To be completely accurate, all the music on Remain in Light was credited to the band in addition to Byrne and Eno). Whereas on the earlier albums, each song had a single musical idea, and often seemed in a hurry to get that idea down and out, the songs here (especially on Side One) shifted and grew. They moved around and mutated and, yes, at times the band could be said to actually “jam.”

Byrne's lyrics ranged from the absurd (“Once In a Lifetime,” “Seen and Unseen”) to the purely obtuse (everything on Side One). Byrne was playing as much with how the words sounded as what they might mean.

With this album, the Heads created the basic sound they would continue to refine over the rest of their career. Not that they didn't still have some surprises, and some further experimentation, ahead.
The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1982)

"To recap."

The Talking Heads' first live album recapped the story so far. In its' original vinyl incarnation, it presented three distinct stages in the band's career and sound. Side One (recorded in 1977) showcased the quirky, minimalist pop of the band's first album, while Side Two (1979) presented their feedback-infused psychedelic stage and Sides 3 and 4 consisted of their full blown Afro-funk. The second disc captured the full, expanded ten-person version of the Talking Heads which toured in 1980 and 81.

However, rather than the continuity one sees listening to their whole catalog, each stage came off as independent of the others; almost as if this was an album by three different bands. This gave meaning to the album title; it emphasized the fact that each incarnation was, in fact, the same band while also being directly derived from Byrne's habit of introducing every song with the words, “The name of this song is…” at Talking Heads' early shows.

The CD version, greatly expanded, offered more progression and continuity. By including songs from 1978 as well, you got more of sense of the growth of the band; the difference between the early cuts and the mid career ones wasn't so much of a jump.  Then the second disc included a complete set list from the 80-81 tour. It repeated several songs from the early shows, allowing us to hear both the similarities and the growth of the band.

As is often the case with live albums, The Name of This Band… was also a place holder; a chance for the band to catch their breath before the next version of their sound.
Speaking in Tongues
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1983)

"The synthesis."

Speaking in Tongues fused the Afro-funk of Remain in Light with the pop instincts of the first two albums, producing a synthesis both experimental and catchy. The result gave the Heads their best selling album to date.

Speaking in Tongues was a light sounding album, almost as airy as '77, although there was much more going on musically. Strange sounds percolate throughout the album, although they never sound out of place. Still, the band again left a lot of space in the songs.

Again, the album was heavily influenced by a solo project, in this case the first Tom Tom Club album. The Tom Tom Club was a side project by the Heads' rhythm section, husband and wife Chris Frantz (drums) and Tina Weymouth (bass). They retreated to the Bahamas with a handful of musical friends and recorded a playful album of reggae influenced tunes. They brought back both a lighter musical style and a cheerier attitude.

While preserving the poly-rhythms of Remain in Light, the rhythm tracks on Speaking in Tongues were, simply, bouncier. While the songs on Remain in Light were pushed and pulled by their beats, on Speaking in Tongues, they skimmed along on top of them.

Further, this was the happiest of all the Talking Heads albums. While '77 paid lip service to happiness (notably on “Happy Day” and “New Feeling”), Speaking in Tongues was downright cheerful. It was especially notable on album closer, “This Must  Be the Place,” but all the songs – even the frightening “Swamp” – were sung with a smile and, as indicated by “This Must Be the Place,” Byrne had finally made peace with the concept of love.

That said, Speaking in Tongues did have an inherent problem: it was the peak of their experiments with Afro-funk and, as such, was the end of that road. Where would the ever restless band go next?
Stop Making Sense
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1984)

"A unified sound."

The short answer was another live album, ie: another place holder. However, Stop Making Sense was much different from The Name of This Band…, both in intent and execution. Stop Making Sense was, of course, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, perhaps the greatest rock concert film ever. The original CD included nine songs from the concert; the CD reissue contained the entire set list.

If The Name of This Band Is… presented Talking Heads' career as a series of disconnected steps, Stop Making Sense brought it all together. The show did acknowledge their growth and development as a band, specifically by bringing the band members on one at a time. The opening “Psycho Killer” was Byrne alone with a boombox providing the rhythm. They added Tina Weymouth for “Heaven,” and so on until the full nine-piece band was on stage.

Nonetheless, the emphasis was really on a unity of sound, how songs from all stages of Talking Heads' career could fit together. Of course, the emphasis of the song selection was on the last two (studio) albums, but even such early cuts as “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” and “Found a Job” did not sound out of place. And the ultra-funky workout version of “Take Me To the River” showed how their music was aimed in this direction, before they even realized it themselves.

There are certain live albums which stand as vital contributions to an artist's catalog (such as The Who's Live at Leeds and The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Yas Out). Stop Making Sense is one of those.
Little Creatures
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1985)

"Bringing it all together"

If Speaking in Tongues united Afro-funk with pop music, Little Creatures brought all the disparate threads of the Heads' music together into a unified sound. The funk was still there (especially on cuts like “Perfect World” and “Road to Nowhere”), but it no longer dominated. There was pop, of course, and there was psychedelia like the guitar of “Television Man,” and the sheer trippiness of “And She Was.”

And there was country. It's obvious on “Creatures of Love,” but there was a subtle country touch throughout the album. This may seem surprising, but it shouldn't be. The Heads always dabbled in country. “Heaven” (from Fear of Music) was a straight country song, and the slide guitars on “The Big Country” (More Songs…) and even “No Compassion” ('77) owed their existence to country music.

But the album mostly just sounded like Talking Heads. Part of this was the fact that they were again a foursome. Although they did use extra musicians on the album, they only appeared on a song or two, for the most part; they were not a part of the band.  This enabled Talking Heads to condense their sound to its' essence. By now they had achieved a pure Talking Heads sound, a musical form which was uniquely the band's own.

The songwriting also helped. Little Creatures had the strongest songwriting of any Heads album. Each song had its own musical identity while,for the most part, avoiding being pegged into any particular genre. The songs were solid and complete, and just the right length; compare these songs to those on '77 – which sounded like snippets or mere ideas for songs by comparison – or the first side of Remain in Light, which were extended jams.

Also, they were, once again, songs about something. While Byrne's lyrics retained their elliptical quality, it was possible to say what (most of) these songs were about; unlike much of Remain in Light or even Speaking in Tongues. Not only that, much of what Byrne was writing about was real life: sex (“Creatures of Love”), babies (“Stay Up Late”), and television (“Television Man”).

Perhaps most surprising about the album was the number of songs which touched on spiritual issues. “Give Me Back My Name,” “Perfect World,” “Walk It Down” and “Road to Nowhere” all described an agnostic reaching towards some sort of spiritual truth, a truth which remained hidden, but it was the questing which mattered anyway.

If the Heads had quit here, their catalogue would have formed a perfect progression. But (perhaps unfortunately) they weren't quite done yet.
True Stories
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1986)

"Searching for a new sound."

There is a type of album I refer to as a “White Album” (after the Beatles' album of that nickname, of course). On a White Album, a band or artist tackles as many different musical styles as they can fit in; as if attempting to prove that they can play anything. True Stories is the Talking Heads' White Album.

On True Stories, the Heads are all over the musical map. There was hard rock (“Love for Sale”), ska (“Puzzlin' Evidence”), country (“People Like Us” and “City of Dreams”), party rock (“Wild Wild Life”), and Latin groove (“Papa Legba”). There was even a kiddie sing-along (“Hey Now”).

Much of this variety was attributable to the genesis of the album. True Stories was a collection of songs from Byrne's movie directing debut. In the movie, the songs were all sung by various characters. Byrne wrote them to fit those characters, and not necessarily as 'Talking Heads' songs. However, when it came time to release an album, Byrne had his band record the various songs themselves rather than issuing a traditional soundtrack.

But the Heads may have had good reason to be exploring different styles at this time. Having reached the apotheosis of their various musical experiments over the past ten years, they were in danger of repeating themselves for the first time. The skimming through the different styles apparent here may well have been them looking for a new sound; a new direction to take the band.

Coincidentally (or, most likely, not), True Stories was their weakest album. The variety of styles prevented it from really cohering as a whole. Also, although it contained a number of fun and clever songs, they were far from the best of their career. It was clear the Heads were running out of steam by this time.
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1988)

"They repeat themselves, sort of."

Apparently, the Heads did not find a new direction through the process of True Stories. The proof of that lack of discovery can be found easily on Naked, and the record could easily be seen as an attempt to capture previous glory – specifically Remain In Light. The similarities were obvious: again with an expanded band, with African rhythms, with songs worked up out of studio jams.

There were differences. The rhythms on Naked were lighter, bouncier than the propulsive beats of Remain in Light. The songs were more straightforward; you could say what most of them were about (although they were not as clear as on Little Creatures).

Naked was a strong album, despite the lack of innovation. It was the subtlest Talking Heads album, with lots of beautiful musical touches underneath the shimmering surface. It was also, perhaps, the most self-confident. Without the tension of experiment, the Heads relaxed into their grooves. The music was solid and assured.

Nonetheless, the spark was gone. They had been here before, and you could feel it. No surprise that this was their final album; their entire career was based on moving music forward. They had now completed their arc across the sky of popular  music.



All of Talking Heads' albums remain in print and are available here on Amazon .

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