Fear of Music: A Retrospective of Talking Heads and Beyond
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The late 1970s music scene in New York was remarkable and arguably the locus of the birth of modern rock. One of the most remarkable aspects was the varied types of new music all breaking ground at the same time. Though they would often be lumped into the ‘punk’ genre that label could only be argued by the spirit of the acts more than the music itself. The Bowery club, CBGB, was where most of the best known and most influential of those bands would cut their teeth, and of those the band Talking Heads was a rather unlikely candidate to achieve break though success. Yet, aside from Blondie, no other CBGB act achieved as much chart success and album sales as Talking Heads, and I would argue none equalled their volume of quality albums, singles, and career length.
Song \ Album \ Artist (year)
- Psycho Killer \ Talking Heads: 77 \ Talking Heads (1977)
- Pulled Up \ Talking Heads: 77 \ Talking Heads (1977)
- With Our Love \ More Songs about Buildings and Food \ Talking Heads (1978)
- Take Me to the River \ More Songs about Buildings and Food \ Talking Heads (1978)
- Cities \ Fear of Music \ Talking Heads (1979)
- Life During Wartime \ Fear of Music \ Talking Heads (1979)
- Crosseyed and Painless \ Remain in Light \ Talking Heads (1980)
- Once in A Lifetime \ Remain in Light \ Talking Heads (1980)
- Regiment \ My Life in the Bush of Ghosts \ David Byrne & Brian Eno (1981)
- Genius of Love \ Tom Tom Club \ Tom Tom Club (1981)
- On, On, On, On… \ Tom Tom Club \ Tom Tom Club (1981)
- Slink \ The Red and the Black \ Jerry Harrison (1981)
- My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks) \ Score to The Catherine Wheel \ David Byrne (1981)
- Burning Down the House \ Speaking in Tongues \ Talking Heads (1983)
- This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) \ Speaking in Tongues \ Talking Heads (1983)
- Measure Up \ Close to the Bone \ Tom Tom Club (1983)
- Stay Up Late \ Little Creatures \ Talking Heads (1985)
- Road to Nowhere \ Little Creatures \ Talking Heads (1985)
- Love for Sale \ True Stories \ Talking Heads (1986)
- City of Dreams \ True Stories \ Talking Heads (1986)
- Man with A Gun \ Casual Gods \ Jerry Harrison (1988)
- Mr. Jones \ Naked \ Talking Heads (1988)
- (Nothing But) Flowers \ Naked \ Talking Heads (1988)
- Suboceana \ Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom \ Tom Tom Club (1988)
- Don't Say No \ Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom \ Tom Tom Club (1988)
- Dirty Old Town \ Rei Momo \ David Byrne (1989)
- Kick Start \ Walk on Water \ Jerry Harrison (1990)
- Sax and Violins \ Soundtrack to Until the End of the World \ Talking Heads (1991)
- Sunshine and Ecstasy \ Dark Sneak Love Action \ Tom Tom Club (1992)
- Tiny Town \ Uh-Oh \ David Byrne (1992)
- Angels \ David Byrne \ David Byrne (1994)
- Punk Lolita \ No Talking, Just Head \ The Heads (1996)
- Dance on Vaseline \ Feelings \ David Byrne (1997)
- Love to Love You Baby \ The Good, the Bad, and the Funky \ Tom Tom Club (2000)
- Like Humans Do \ Look Into the Eyeball \ David Byrne (2001)
- Au fond du temple saint \ Grown Backwards \ David Byrne (2001)
- Strange Overtones \ Everything that Happens will Happen Today \ David Byrne and Brian Eno (2008)
- Kissin' Antonio \ Downtown Rockers \ Tom Tom Club (2012)
- Who \ Love this Giant \ David Byrne & St. Vincent (2012)
- Optimist \ Love this Giant \ David Byrne & St. Vincent (2012)
- Strange Weather \ Strange Weather EP \ Anna Calvi featuring David Byrne (2014)
- Gasoline and Dirty Sheets \ American Utopia \ David Byrne (2018)
The Talking Heads was definitely an entity in which the sum was greater than its parts. This playlist will not only cover the band’s career but also explore the side-acts and solo careers of its members, and as you make your way through the playlist it should be evident the superiority of the Talking Heads material over the rest. Part of this was the decision of each member to explore different music, and it could also be the challenge of producing under the shadow of such a legendary band, but really the occasions in which they put out material that garnered comparable critical praise and attention of the parent band are few and far between.
Psycho Killer; Pulled Up \ Talking Heads: 77 \ Talking Heads (1977)
David Byrne and Chris Frantz attended the Rhode Island School of Design and formed a band together, The Artistics, in 1973. Tina Weymouth was Chris’ girlfriend and a fellow student. After The Artistics broke up the three moved to Manhattan together and shared a loft. Frantz convinced Weymouth to learn the bass and the trio emerged as Talking Heads in 1975 – named for the TV lingo of tight shots on interviews to focus on content over action, which seemed to fit their style (it’s also a more general reference for spokespeople that provide commentary on current events and politics). The band started playing at CBGB with their first gig being an opening slot for The Ramones.
After signing with Sire Records and releasing an initial single in early 1977, “Love à Building on Fire,” Talking Heads issued its first album. During then they also added guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, ex of the band The Modern Lovers, and the Head’s core line-up was set (Frantz and Weymouth also married that year and remain together today). As a CBGB band they would be considered part of the punk movement in New York, but from the outset there wasn’t a lot of the typical punk sound in the band’s music. What has always distinguished the Heads from their brethren was an emphasis of rhythm and the employment of intriguing and creative song structures, breaks, and Byrne’s vocal style, all of which drew you in and made you listen. I call it ‘smart punk’ (Wikipedia refers to it as ‘art rock’) but regardless the label, it sounded like nothing else at the time. There were some similarities in the guitar and song stylings with fellow CBGB act Television, but the breadth of styles in the Heads’ music left it uncategorizable.
The first album was probably the closest the band came to punk in their releases and it was a more raw and tension filled album that anything they would release thereafter. Yet, everything we’d come to love about the band was present and the template for their sound was firmly established. Nowhere more so than in the album’s second single, and still the song that defines the band, “Psycho Killer.” Playing off a simple bassline and jangly guitar, the song rides on Byrnes’ taught, repressed vocal that launches in the last third into the unhinged cries that bring the song’s title to life. Few songs match style to lyrics better than this song. It also had the catchy chorus with the “fa-fa-fa-fa…” lyric. The album closed with the duo of “Psycho Killer” and “Pulled Up,” a catchy, riffy, pop-song that provided an offsetting and energetic counterpoint to “Pyscho Killer” and was issued as the third single. These two songs were cut from the same cloth but moved in different and equally thrilling directions.
The rest of the album was also thrilling but only revealed itself through multiple listens which was indicative of the music’s cleverness. The hooks weren’t laid bare to swallow you up, but were buried, flitting, or built on rhythms that didn’t worm into your ear until they’d been played upon it several times. The album included a multitude of styles: there was R&B (“Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”), early new wave (“New Feeling” and “No Compassion”), funk (“Who Is it?”), a hint of salsa (“First Week / Last Week…Carefree”) and moments of classic rock blended with quirky moments and structures that were already The Heads’ signature sound (“The Book I Read,” “Tentative Decisions,” and “Don’t Worry About the Government”).
Talking Heads: 77 is recognized as one of the strongest debuts of any modern rock act and a work of enduring influence. It’s unique place in the 1970s music scene made it not surprising it didn’t catch on and, like the other New York acts, its success was mostly localized to the punk scenes of New York and London. The album did manage to just crack the top 100 in the US and peak at #60 in the UK.
With Our Love; Take Me to The River \ More Songs About Buildings and Food \ Talking Heads (1978)
The band released its second album ten months after the first, and it’s notable as the first collaboration with famed glam artist, electronic music pioneer, and producer Brian Eno, who at that time was two-thirds through producing David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. The album was richer and more ambitious yet firmly rooted in the smart-punk, quirky, and sublimely catchy Talking Heads sound. There were less songs that leapt out demanding to be heard, but a complete run-through of the album was immensely satisfying.
The album built on the band’s audience and success from its debut, reaching #29 in the US and #21 in the UK. Its success was driven by the only single, a cover of Al Green’s 1974 R&B song, “Take Me to the River.” I don’t usually include covers in my playlists but this was everything a good cover should be, staying true to the original yet completely reinvented into the Talking Heads’ style. However, holding onto the song’s essence and melody did result in a more smoothed out, bluesier sound and presented the band in a more accessible manner. The song reached #26 in the UK chart and would be their most successful single until their fifth album.
“With Our Love” was a consummate example of the experimental, rhythm based, and quirky sound of the band on this album. Riding between frenetic verses, a melodious chorus, and a strummed-out middle, it was a song that jumped around yet held you in its grasp, rewarding you for each section in which you paid attention. Like so many of their songs, it was one that could easily be passed over on first listen, until suddenly you realized it was a great and essential song on the album.
The album again moved through many sounds, with a guitar riff in “The Good Thing” evoking their CBGB clubmate, Television. The opening track, “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” was a classic rock tune with a propulsive beat. “Warning Sign” is one of the most sublime tracks on the album, with brilliant interplay between the drums, bass and guitar, and a new wave vocal from Byrne. Funk surfaced again in “Found A Job,” and the jangly punk guitars of the late seventies were riddled through “The Girl wants to be with the Girls.” The second side brought in more keyboards and a fuller band sound that, in retrospect, strongly foretold the sound the band would capture over their next two, landmark albums, including the wonderful ballad, “The Big Country,” which closed the album.
Cities; Life During Wartime \ Fear of Music \ Talking Heads (1979)
The band’s third album was again released a short span after the last and continued the band’s growth and creativity, aided once again by Brian Eno’s production. The opening strains of the first song, “I Zimbra,” introduced fans to the band’s penchant for world music rhythms. But before they likely got to hear that song either via the album or when it was released as the second single, they were as likely to be introduced to the album via the keyboard driven, jazzy rhythms of “Life During Wartime.” The lead single would join “Psycho Killer” and “Take Me to the River” in the growing list of fantastic singles for both Talking Heads and the emerging era of post-punk music. It was the first instance in which Harrison put his stamp on the Heads’ sound (no doubt with Eno’s support) and provided a modern and danceable take on their usual quirk. It also added to the growing list of memorable lyrics, with the chorus, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco / This ain’t no fooling around / This ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB / I ain’t got time for this now.”
Listening to the album was truly a journey through the growing breadth of the modern rock era. There are many standout tracks and great moments throughout the album. I especially love “Cities” (the third single) and “Memories Can’t Wait,” but also groove on the sublime fun of “Air” or “Mind” and the punky quirkiness of “Paper” and “Electric Guitar.” The album also had a wonderful ballad, “Heaven,” that was beautifully covered by Simply Red on their great 1985 debut, Picture Book.
David Byrne’s vocal abilities were also receiving greater appreciation. Like the music, initial listens encouraged a dismissal or downplaying of his voice, given the oft-spoken passages or minimalist singing delivery. Yet suddenly he would burst out with an extended note or passage or unveil a hooky melody from the dominant rhythms, and the songs would suddenly flower and become something other than what was expected. His voice was confident, strong, and full of personality even when stripped down. The band’s unusual and often brilliant rhythms and memorable lyrics also came from his unorthodox style, and it’s not surprising that Talking Heads’ image tended to centre on Byrne. Did he personify the band or was the band an extension of his character? Time would tell.
The album continued Talking Heads’ incremental success, with Fear of Music peaking at #21 in the US, though at #33 didn’t equal the #21 spot achieved by More Songs… in the UK. And yet despite the quality of the singles from the album none made much of a march on the charts, with only “Life During Wartime” charting and only at #80 in the US. At this point no songs had charted in the UK, though the band did well in Commonwealth countries like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Crosseyed and Painless; Once in a Lifetime \ Remain in Light \ Talking Heads (1980)
The march of fantastic albums continued with the fourth release, again one year following, and was the third consecutive album with Brian Eno at the helm. The rhythm dominance continued along with world beats, quirky structures, and inventive turns as the band sought to make their sound less focused on Byrne. Help was brought in via Adrian Belew on guitar, Robert Palmer on percussion, and Nona Hendryx on vocals and inspiration was drawn from African music. The album had less consistency and standout moments as Fear of Music, and lacked the raw energy and charm of Talking Heads: 77, so I’d give those albums the nod over this one, but this was still a great listen. For those who liked experimentation and music that challenged the listener, this album – especially side two – would rank higher while those that loved the great songs and catchy rhythms would have been looking for more in the songs of Remain in Light.
The three final tunes on side two, “Seen and Not Seen,” “Listening Wind,” and “The Overload” had Brian Eno’s influence all over them and moved the band into the more experimental and ambient approaches of their producer. Was this Eno continuing the Berlin explorations of David Bowie? “Born Under Punches” and “Houses in Motion” (the third single) were decent variations on the band’s rhythm focused sound but failed to fully engage. “The Great Curve” however, was an epically great and energetic sound that fused the band’s essential elements and was beefed up with the contributions from Belew, Hendryx, and trumpeter Jon Hassell.
It was the first two singles that made this album something special. The second track and lead single was “Crosseyed and Painless,” which was an incredible single and is my favourite Heads song. Riding a deep and groovy bassline, a hypnotic synth line, and flitting, intriguing, and mesmorizing guitar riffs, Byrne laid his usual frenetic vocals over it including an almost falsetto harmony. The song repeated its rhythm with the band’s usual clockwork precision, and as the listener you were lifted and carried on a cosmic journey into the mystical land of the Talking Heads. Still today I can’t listen to this song at a low volume and it just owns me every time.
My reaction to the second song and possibly Talking Heads’ most iconic, was somewhat different. In the winter of 1980-81 I was ten years old and had received a hand-me-down clock radio for use in my bedroom, giving me access to the radio in my own personal space for the first time. I fell asleep each night listening to CHUM FM in Toronto, which at the time was in the mold of the ‘70s FM, AOR rock station (a far cry from its current incarnation). It seemed every evening, usually as I was drifting to sleep, I would have to contend with this new song, its hypnotic rhythm, and its unsettling lyrics. Just who would find themselves living in a shotgun shack, in another part of the world, behind the wheel of a large automobile, in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife, and questioning it all? And then, “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down / Letting the days go by, water flowing underground / Into the blue again after the money's gone / Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground / Same as it ever was, Same as it ever was.” What was the reality? Having it all, or not? The song seriously freaked out my ten year-old self, conjuring up surreal and unsettling imagery, yet I was strangely entranced by its rhythms.
The song was, of course, “Once in A Lifetime,” and along with its memorable video (in a pre-MTV era) featuring Byrne singing and dancing like a cross between Ian Curtis and Elvis Costello and in front of, for the time, pretty funky graphics, the song established Talking Heads as being the vanguard of the modern rock movement. The fact that it was on CHUM FM was evidence of their growing crossover appeal, and “Once in A Lifetime” was the song that did it. Remain in Light established a new highwater mark for the band in the US, as had each album prior, peaking at #19 while hitting #21 in the UK (equalling More Songs…) and cracking the top ten in Canada and New Zealand. “Once in A Lifetime” amazingly did not crack the US top 100 but reached #14 in the UK.
Regiment \ My Life in the Bush of Ghosts \ David Byrne & Brian Eno (1981)
Genius of Love; On, On, On, On… \ Tom Tom Club \ Tom Tom Club (1981)
Slink \ The Red and The Black \ Jerry Harrison (1981)
My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks) \ Musical Score to ‘The Catherine Wheel’ \ David Byrne (1981)
In 1981, Talking Heads would take their first year off since forming, and incredibly all members would issue music on their own. First out of the gate in February would be Byrne and Eno, issued almost simultaneously to Remain in Light since it was recorded prior to that album. This was the duo’s further exploration of the experimental sounds the two had dabbled in on the last Heads’ album, putting out an enigmatic and entrancing album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The album, and in particular the vocals, were almost entirely sampled from other recordings, a process that soon became commonplace but in 1979 was well ahead of its time, especially to be employed so extensively. There were many intriguing moments throughout the album, but the track that best shone through was undoubtedly, “Regiment.” The album was an unlikely (though perhaps not, given the collaborators) success, reaching #44 in the US and #29 in the UK chart, almost equalling Talking Heads’ success.
Frantz and Weymouth formed a side act known as Tom Tom Club, which also included Adrian Belew and three of Tina’s siblings to really make it a family affair. Given Chris and Tina were the Heads’ rhythm section it’s not surprising their album was a fun, rhythm-laced romp. The rhythm based approach and use of world beats and vocals drew much from the Heads’ template, but Tom Tom Club was more disco and fun. The absence of Byrne's vocals – replaced by harmonies from Tina and her sisters – and Eno’s production (replaced by Chris and Tina working with reggae engineer Steven Stanley) further separated the overall sound of the two acts. With songs like “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Lorelai” and a funky cover of the Motown classic, “Under the Boardwalk,” the self-titled album was a gem of the era and contributed to linking dance music to the post-punk sound.
Songs like “On, On, On, On…” nicely reveals the band’s sound and catchy vibe. But it was the song “Genius of Love” that earned Tom Tom Club its own place on the charts regardless of the personnel’s affiliations. Written as a tribute to black artists, with name checks of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, James Brown, and Smokey Robinson (to name just a few), the song’s laid-back groove and distinctive keyboard track made it infectious and it became a hit, surpassing any success the Talking Heads had achieved to date with its singles. The song went on to become one of the most sampled tunes of the following decade with many hip hop artists utilizing its distinctive sounds and beats.
Jerry Harrison released a solo album, The Red and the Black. It was very representative of the new wave influenced pop sound of the time but lacked the song writing polish and character of the better known songs emerging from that genre. Jerry’s voice also lacked charisma and strength, which held the songs back from further potential. It was a rhythm oriented album and songs like "Slink" showed how Harrison drew from the Heads’ vibe. There were a couple nice ballads, understandably some more keyboard driven songs, and several tunes employing some nice, funky elements and experimental approaches, and from today’s perspective the album holds as an interesting, yet dated, sample from the early ‘80s archives.
Finally, as 1981 drew to a close David Byrne released his first solo effort, the score to Twlya Thorpe’s dance project, The Catherine Wheel (they were dating at the time). Given the purpose of the album it’s naturally a collection of short instrumentals and a few songs with vocals. There were many moments that linked to the sound of Talking Heads, such as “My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks).” Although a little more understated and down tempo than a typical Heads song, it was an interesting song that hinted a little at where Byrne was heading with his creative impulse.
Burning Down the House; This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) \ Speaking in Tongues \Talking Heads (1983)
1982 saw the release of a live Talking Heads double album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, which featured the re-release of “Life During Wartime” as a live recording. It failed to chart. Therefore 1983 arrived with expectation of the first new music from the band in over two years, and they delivered. Speaking in Tongues would continue their run of improved results, but this would be the career peak of their chart success with a #15 spot in the US and #21 in the UK (equalling More Songs… and Remain in Light). This success was supported by the achievement of their one and only top ten single, “Burning Down the House.” The album also ended the run of Brian Eno produced releases, with the band self-producing.
As the lead song on the album and the lead single, “Burning Down the House” was a different and more accessible Heads song. Starting with a building acoustic guitar and eerie synth, the song exploded into a percussion driven song marked with Byrne’s angst-filled vocals as well as backing vocals from the band. The song had a drum interlude that offered up Frantz in a rare and memorable spotlight. It was an entrancing song that had a pop sensibility but still held to the Talking Heads quirkiness. The video, with the band’s quirky (of course) performance in white suits and the use of projections was popular and built the band’s audience through extensive MTV and MuchMusic exposure.
The next song on the album was “Making Flippy Floppy” and it was immediately clear this was still very much the Heads, though with a dancier vibe. “Girlfriend is Better” continued the funky vibe and the first side closed with a couple of world beat, down tempo tunes. The second side delivered another classic Talking Heads song to fit in with the likes of their earlier singles (though this wasn’t released as a single); “Swamp” grooved along leading to Byrne’s distinctive vocal chorus. The second single and one of their most lovely compositions was the closing track, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).” I love the mellow tempo, intriguing keyboards, and Byrne’s relaxed vocals – never had the Heads sounded so relaxed.
My recollection, at least from the perspective of Toronto, was this album was huge and made Talking Heads even more of a giant in the modern rock genre. It was the #3 album for 1983 on local free-form radio station CFNY. The band toured as usual to promote the album, but it would be their last. Fortunately, their show was captured in one of the best live performance documentaries ever produced during this time. Stop Making Sense was directed by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme and filmed over three shows in LA. It featured the infamous ‘big suit’ that Byrne performed in for “Girlfriend is Better” and an interlude featuring Tom Tom Club performing “Genius of Love.” The movie and soundtrack (the band’s second live album release) were issued in 1984 and although it didn’t chart as high as their recent albums, it held onto the charts for two years and became their biggest selling album to date.
Measure Up \ Close to the Bone \ Tom Tom Club (1983)
In the latter half of 1983 the Tom Tom Club released their second album. It was very similar in style to the first album and again included Steven Stanley as a band member and for production. The Weymouth sisters were again on board as well as Rupert Hine on keyboards. The LP lacked a “Genius of Love” and though it cracked the top 100 in the US, it couldn’t equal the success of their debut. “Pleasure of Love” was a decent single though a little dull, “The Man with the 4-Way Hips” was the second single and was an uninspiring synth new wave tune. “Measure Up” captured some of the vibe of their debut and was the catchiest song on the album.
Stay Up Late; Road to Nowhere \ Little Creatures \ Talking Heads (1985)
Talking Heads sixth album came two years after the last (and one year after Stop Making Sense) and was their most pop oriented and accessible album to date. For some, it was a startling arrival and sounded like a whole new band. The album was primarily written by Byrne for the first time, with only two songs credited to the entire band and Frantz garnering a credit on one other. It didn’t chart as high in the US as the prior two albums but was the first to crack the top ten in the UK. Regardless, the sustained success of the album would make it the band’s biggest selling of their career.
The lead song and third single, “And She Was,” was a straight ahead pop-rock song that was catchy as hell but lacked much of the Head’s quirky spirit. The album featured more Americana sounds including country flavours. The fourth track, “The Lady Don’t Mind,” was the lead single but didn’t click. The first side closed with the pop-ballad “Perfect World.”
The second side featured two of the band’s best pop songs. “Stay Up Late” did capture the energy and character of the band, built around a tight piano and drum combo and Byrne’s characteristic taught vocals. “Road to Nowhere” was the second single and despite not catching on in the US it became the band’s first to reach the top ten in the UK. It was also more melodic than most of their songs, and I have a recollection of reading that the song had been written in response to a challenge from Tina to David to write a Heads song that wasn’t focused solely on rhythm. However, the marching beat and bouncing accordion through the song undermines that achievement, though Byrne’s vocals are indeed quite melodic. It also featured a creative video that garnered the band much attention (and included techniques director Stephen Tobolowsky would later use for his video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” which would become an iconic example of the music video artform).
Love for Sale; City of Dreams \ True Stories \ Talking Heads (1986)
The Heads continued apace, releasing their next album the following year (their seventh in nine years). The songs were drawn from David’s movie, True Stories, which was released a month following the album. The versions on the album were studio recordings by Talking Heads, while in the movie the songs were performed by the actors and members of the Heads via cameos. Given the movie was the creative enterprise of Byrne’s, for the first time the entire album was solely written by him.
The album was decent but uneven, though again contributed several strong contributions to the band’s growingly impressive discography of singles, including the song that would be the future namesake of Radiohead. Musically it was consistent with the band’s established sound, though included more country hints than before, likely a result of the movie being set in Texas. There were five singles issued from the album, the first of which was “Wild Wild Life.” It was a catchy song built on the Heads’ usual quirky rhythm structures, with a pop-chorus built on a harmony from the band. It did well for the band reaching #25 in the US, their second best charting single after “Burning Down the House.” None of the other singles would chart and the album would peak at #28 to be the second consecutive drop in chart success after the first five albums had each improved on the last.
The album’s notable songs artistically were “Love for Sale” and “City of Dreams.” “Love for Sale” was the second single and opened the album with a great guitar riff that harkened back to the band’s punkish origins. The song jumps and has a toughness that I wish the band had utilized more often. It had all the quirk of “Wild Wild Life” but hits you in the gut and carried an edge that made it much more interesting to hear. “City of Dreams” closed the album and was a rare, melody-based, straight ahead ballad, beautifully carried on simple piano chords, a solid beat, accented with some country guitar and backing vocals, and led by a great vocal performance from Byrne. When you need a break from the eccentricity of the rest of the band’s work, put this on along with “Heaven” and “This Must Be the Place.”
Man with a Gun \ Casual Gods \ Jerry Harrison (1988)
Mr. Jones; (Nothing but) Flowers \ Naked \ Talking Heads (1988)
Suboceana; Don’t Say No \ Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom \ Tom Tom Club (1988)
1987 saw a rare quiet year from the band, the reason for which became clear when 1988 rolled around with music issued by every variation of the band members. First out in February was Harrison’s second solo album, a long eight years after his first one. The album included musicians that had contributed to Heads and Tom Tom Club music, such as Alex Weir on guitar and Bernie Worrell (Parliament/Funkadelic) on keyboards, and notable journeyman guitarist Chris Spedding. Like his first album, the songs were ok and very much in the ‘80s mold of keyboards and new wave-pop music. There were definitely some good moments on the album, drawing some blues and guitar energy into a few songs. The moody and subtly gripping standout track was “Man with a Gun,” which got some attention through its inclusion in a couple of movies, Something Wild (1986, in which the instrumental of the song was included in the film) and Two Moon Junction (1988).
In March the next and final Talking Heads album was released, though it wasn’t known at the time. It returned to songs with the full band’s contribution, though it appeared more and more to be Byrne’s act. The album departed sharply into the jazz and African sounds dabbled in the past and therefore, aside from Byrne’s voice, sounded much less like a Talking Heads album. It was produced by Steve Lillywhite, a legend of ‘80s modern rock music.
The opening track and lead single was “Blind,” easily the band’s most annoying song. Full of horns and percussion, it lacked both rhythm and harmony and is a mess to listen to, and aside from reaching #59 in the UK charts, was rightly ignored most everywhere else. The second song, “Mr. Jones,” was a much stronger entry and employed the kora harp from Guinean artist Mory Kanté along with samba horns. The rest of the album featured a more traditional and edgier Heads song, “The Democratic Circus” and a bluesy, harmonica filled “Big Daddy,” and several other songs that failed to engage in the way we’d come to expect from Talking Heads.
The second single and one of the most creative of their career was “(Nothing but) Flowers,” which included other ‘80s legends guitarist Johnny Marr and singer Kirsty MacColl (who was also Steve Lillywhite’s wife). Marr’s distinctive strumming is evident along with lively bassline and percussion. Byrne’s lyrics describe a modern world reverting to nature and I always interpreted the song, not so much as a response to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”), but as playing in the same spirit but using irony (the Heads song includes the lyrics, “Once there were parking lots / Now it's a peaceful oasis” and “If this is paradise / I wish I had a lawnmower”). There’s no evidence from Byrne that the song is related or inspired to Mitchell’s song, though there’s plenty of online debate about how the two songs relate.
Naked reversed the declining trend by reaching #19 in the US, to equal Remain in Light for their second-best charting LP, but it reached #3 in the UK to establish the best chart finish of any of their albums in the two countries (their best finish anywhere were a couple of #2’s in Australia for Little Creatures and True Stories). Overall sales though were consistent with past albums and less than their two best, Speaking in Tongues and Little Creatures.
1988’s contributions from the world of Talking Heads continued with the May release of Tom Tom Club’s third LP, named for the vocal refrain in the album’s funky single, “Suboceana.” The other single was “Don’t Say No,” a new wave-synth dance song. Led once again by Frantz and Weymouth, and this time joined by only one of Tina’s sisters, Laura, the album did feature guest appearances from Lou Reed and David Byrne on a cover of Reed’s Velvet Underground era song, “Femme Fatale.” Generally the album linked well to the band’s prior albums and continued the dance/funk groove with an 80’s new wave slant. One wonders how Talking Heads may have evolved if the rhythm section had been allowed to employ more of this dance style to Byrne’s compositions.
Dirty Old Town \ Rei Momo \ David Byrne (1989)
Kick Start \ Walk on Water \ Jerry Harrison (1990)
Sax and Violins \ Until the End of the World Soundtrack \ Talking Heads (1991)
The decade closed out with modern rock acts like Talking Heads struggling to stay afloat as R&B and stadium rock took the limelight (not that modern rock had ever held the limelight, but collectively had asserted its presence on the music universe). The status of the band wasn’t in question but the solo output of members like Byrne and Harrison over the next couple of years made it evident Talking Heads were not active.
Byrne issued what was essentially his first solo studio album, given My Life in the Bush of Ghosts had been with Eno and all his other non-Heads work had been for stage and film (he’d contributed music to, aside from the Catherine Wheel project, a Philip Glass play, the movie The Last Emperor, and had contributed and compiled an album of background music from his film, True Stories). The music on the album, Rei Momo, sounded very much like a continuation of the African-Samba music from the Naked album. “Dirty Old Town” was one of two singles from the album, which reached a respectable #71 in the US and #52 in the UK.
Jerry Harrison issued his third and final album before turning to producing for the remainder of his career. “Kick Start” had an INXS feel to it and the album continued in Harrison’s usual, electro-pop ‘80s sound. I can’t warm up to his albums due to their penchant to employ that shallow, uninspiring sound so many 1980s pop music had, relying too much on electric piano and drum machines that sounded hollow. His melodies were generally uninspiring, and his voice added little help.
In 1991 Byrne contributed a song, “Sax and Violins,” to the Wim Wenders film, Until the End of World (I recall seeing it in theatre, seeking it out entirely because of its soundtrack of original songs from an impressive list of modern rock artists). Using the music for a track left over from the Naked recording, he added lyrics to fit with the film and the song was issued as a Talking Heads single as well as a song on the movie soundtrack. The song’s title was as good an example as you’d find for Byrne’s playful lyrical style. It was a nice little song, a bit understated, and in some ways drew on both the band’s modern rock edge with their more recent world music flavour.
As the soundtrack carrying their last song was being released at the end of 1991, Talking Heads made it known that the band had broken up. Reasons weren’t given, but it seemed Byrne was keen to pursue his own musical avenues and the other three weren’t interested in being his backing band (David seemed to also like drawing on the creativity and variety of using a wide array of musicians from differing musical backgrounds, so I’m guessing was also less interested in keeping a stable band together). Over the years Byrne had also developed a reputation of being difficult or controlling within the band, so that may have been a factor, but I’m also inclined to think that issue would have been worked around if Byrne had wholeheartedly wanted to keep Talking Heads together. To this day, it seems he’s content doing his own thing and I wouldn’t expect a reunion anytime soon – but of course, you can never say never with these things.
Sunshine and Ecstasy \ Dark Sneak Love Action \ Tom Tom Club (1992)
Tiny Town \ Uh-Oh \ David Byrne (1992)
Angels \ David Byrne \ David Byrne (1994)
With Talking Heads out of the way and Jerry turning to producing, Chris and Tina continued with Tom Tom Club and issued their fourth album. Modern Rock of the early ‘90s embraced edgier dance music more than ever before as the seeds of acid house and trip hop blossomed. Tom Tom Club found an audience for their pop-dance music and the singles “Sunshine and Ecstasy” and “You Sexy Thing” (yes, a cover of the Hot Chocolate song) received some attention, though didn’t reach the charts. Musically the album was weaker and less interesting than their past efforts, reverting to a very pop sound, and leaving Tina and her sister’s harmonies sounding less dreamy and artsy and more like a top 40 girl-band.
Byrne set about in earnest on his solo career, issuing his second and third albums. They charted better in the UK than in the US and it became evident that outside of the Heads, the band members were not going to translate their profiles and individual talents into the same success they had achieved collectively. Byrne’s third album, Uh-Oh, continued to explore a variety of musical styles, continuing to lean to the horn and percussion filled sounds of Africa, Cuba and Brazil and employed a ridiculous list of guest musicians. “She’s Mad” and “Girls on My Mind” were issued as singles and were lively songs. I’m more drawn to “Tiny Town,” perhaps because it’s the only song on the album that employed some sense of melody on top of Byrnes’ rhythms.
David’s self-titled album in 1994, maybe inspired by the grunge, shoegaze, and rock renaissance that had occurred, abandoned the horns and world rhythms and reverted to a rock format. “Angels” opens with a guitar riff that sounds like it was lifted directly off a Ride album until a Talking Heads vocal and rhythm dynamic comes in on top of it (the guitar also reminds me of Coldplay’s 2008 album, Viva la Vida… which makes me wonder if there was a direct influence from this song). All in all, it was a pretty good album that, for David Byrne, was far more listenable for me than most else he would issue during his solo career.
Punk Lolita \ No Talking, Just Head \ The Heads (1996)
The genesis of this album seems murky, and reviews I’ve read seemed to widely pan the effort, but what’s clear is that in 1996 Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison reunited to make an album without David Byrne, who evidently had no interest in participating in another Talking Heads project. Playing on the fact that this was Talking Heads without the singer, the act was coyly named The Heads and the album even more cheekily, No Talking, Just Head. Rather than drawing from their own ranks, they enlisted an impressive list of guest singers to provide vocals on the tracks.
The popular opinion notwithstanding, I love this album. The personalities of the various singers provided an interesting variety and the band seemed unencumbered by their musical past, embracing the industrial-electro vibe of the mid-90s for many of the songs. Yes, the results were a bit inconsistent, but there were so many catchy and fun moments it won me over, and when these songs appear randomly in my streams they always catch my attention.
The album opened with a nice, dark, mid-tempo groove and was carried by Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, with the song catching some edge with a mid-‘90’s electro-industrial chorus as she screamed the lyric, “How can I undo the damage that I’ve done?” Admittedly, this sounded more like a Concrete Blonde song, which was fine for me as I was a fan. Next was an ok but mostly forgettable tune featuring INXS’ Michael Hutchence on the mic. But it was followed by the title track sung by Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and you had to love hearing her belt out, “No talking, just head” which elicited all the connotations it should and that had nothing to do with a play on the Talking Heads.
“Never Mind” featured CBGB alumna Richard Hell and was a nice Tom Tom Club styled song, but with Hell’s vocals gave it the punky edge for a more ‘90’s style. “No Big Band” was a dance song surprisingly sung by Maria McKee (ex of Lone Justice), and while the music wasn’t much, the nifty guitar riff and her amazing voice made it a winner. The next song with Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder was a miss and was surprisingly chosen as single, but it led to a great, understated little alt-electro-funk tune with a nice new wave vocal from Malin Anneteg (not sure who she was). “Indie Hair” was sung by Edward Kowalczyk from the band Live and was a fun pop-rock tune that sounded a lot like a Live song. “Only the Lonely” with Gordon Gano from Violent Femmes was a solid alt-rock song that didn’t fall into the feel of being another Femmes song. I loved his shaky voice over the standard rock composition. Andy Partridge provided a very XTC-like tune and then Irish singer Gavin Friday mumbled through a moody closing tune that perhaps would have been better left off the album.
The highlight of the album was “Punk Lolita,” the one song that best drew from the Tom Tom Club groove and brought together the all-star female trio of Johnette Napolitano, Debbie Harry and Tina Weymouth. It was a simple song riding a break beat, a catchy little guitar riff, and the fun interplay of the ladies’ vocals. It was a groovy tune.
David Byrne, among many others, wasn’t impressed and sued his former bandmates for playing things a little too close to the Talking Heads image and legacy. His action put an end to the project and stopped a tour by the band that was being fronted by Napolitano. Certainly, if anyone had been looking for something akin to another Talking Heads album, this was not it. But if you took it as an experiment from a lot of talented people, it was a fun album to rip through and was thoroughly enjoyable. The album however, despite the release of a couple singles, flew under the radar and, likely sunk by the poor reviews, didn’t fare well.
Dance on Vaseline \ Feelings \ David Byrne (1997)
Love to Love You Baby \ The Good, the Bad, and the Funky \ Tom Tom Club (2000)
Like Humans Do \ Look Into the Eyeball \ David Byrne (2001)
Au fond du temple saint \ Grown Backwards \ David Byrne (2004)
Strange Overtones (live) \ Everything that Happens Will Happen Today \ David Byrne & Brian Eno (2008)
Kissin' Antonio \ Downtown Rockers \ Tom Tom Club (2012)
Who; Optimist \ Love This Giant \ David Byrne & St. Vincent (2012)
Strange Weather \ Strange Weather EP \ Anna Calvi with David Byrne (2014)
Gasoline and Dirty Sheets \ American Utopia \ David Byrne (2018)
The past twenty years has seen a more gradual but generally consistent releasing of music from mostly David Byrne. Frantz, Weymouth and Tom Tom Club issued two more albums. The first was eight years after the prior album and then the last was twelve years after that. It’s now been six years and counting since we’ve received any new music from them. The two albums, The Good, The Bad, and the Funky and Downtown Rockers continued to explore their funk-dance style and included a cover of the ‘70s disco-new wave classic, “Love to Love You Baby” (I couldn’t avoid this cover tune since it’s all that’s available to stream from the album). Beyond that, there hasn’t been a lot to report from their corner of the music world.
David Byrne continues to enthrall and feed his and Talking Heads fans alike. He has released six albums over the past twenty years including another collaboration with Brian Eno and one with contemporary artist, St. Vincent. His music has remained in the rock, salsa, R&B, and jazz sounds with a rhythm focus. The songs are generally less quirky, though there’s always some of that lurking nearby and appear in all the albums in one way or another. The album with St. Vincent is the strongest album in the bunch, but exploring all of them will unveil a healthy list of good songs – this playlist is but a sample. One good example of the kind of diversions that can be found on a Byrne album is on the 2004 LP, Grown Backwards, which includes the song, “Au fond du temple saint,” which is an excerpt from the Bizet opera, Les pêcheurs de perles, and features a duet with Canadian singer Rufus Wainwright.
David Byrne has also been active in live productions, providing music for eleven different plays, dance performances, movies and TV shows. He has also guested or contributed to many others’ projects – a list which is far more extensive than his solo output. One of my favourites was his duet with British singer and guitarist Anna Calvi on the title track to her 2014 EP of cover songs, Strange Weather, as well as the track, “I’m the Man that Will Find You.” Byrne has also been an outspoken advocate for urban cycling and released a book in 2009, Bicycle Diaries, that chronicled his cycling experiences in cities around the world on his folding bike.
Talking Heads and the work of its members are a distinctive and highly influential legacy of work in modern rock. In an era of melody-driven new wave music, angry punk, and guitar-heavy rock Talking Heads managed to establish a presence running contrary to all those trends. Rhythm based, quirky, pop-oriented music with clever arrangements, unique vocals and lyrics, and wide-arranging musical styles made them to difficult for a mass audience and hindered them from topping the charts, but was perfect for building a sizeable and deeply appreciative fan base and widespread critical acclaim. The four band members’ work outside the Heads has been good but rarely equal to their work together. Regardless, their cumulative output has been an invaluable and sizable contribution and places them among the top ranks of modern rock artists.