"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo Ultimate Collectors Edition APRIL 2008 - by David Sheppard
New York's Talking Heads were inspired by cybernetics, urban architecture and French-speaking serial killers. But the strangest thing of all was that they also made you want to dance. David Sheppard gets the funk.
Today, the tables of London eatery the Rock Garden brim with the tourist trade, spilling out onto Covent Garden's Piazza, one of the capital's busiest shopping centres. It wasn't always like this. In the late '70s, much of London WC2 was an anomalous, urban dead zone, in which seedy bars and night-clubs had begun colonising the empty shop fronts and disused basements. By early 1977, Covent Garden housed both the Rock Garden and the Roxy on Neal Street, effectively London's punk rock nexus. On May 14 that year, the Rock Garden's tiny stage would play host to a group fledged in another urban no man's land, The Bowery in Lower Manhattan, also the address of CBGB's. The US quartet traded under the moniker Talking Heads and, though they had just one single to their name, arrived in London preceded by a substantial reputation. The group had recently completed a lengthy European tour opening for fellow CBGB's alumni The Ramones. But Talking Heads had little in common with the headliners' brand of blitzkrieg bop. Instead they proffered clean-toned Fenders, a subtly pliant rhythm section and a mad-eyed front-man who looked like Gregory Peck's under-nourished younger brother and sang, as if enduring a manic episode, about such utilitarian matters as going to work and reading books. Talking Heads' most infamous song was called Psycho Killer, told matter-of-factly from the serial murderer's point-of-view (partly in French to evince schizophrenia), while their idea of a love song was a combustible metaphysical equation titled Love→Building On Fire.
The Rock Garden showcase would be Talking Heads' UK debut, and such was their repute that the tiny subterranean bar was sold out. Among the cognoscenti sweating it out were some notable musical 'faces', among them The Velvet Underground's John Cale. Lately resident in New York where he'd produced the Patti Smith Group, Cale was already familiar with Talking Heads - he'd even jammed on-stage with their panic-voiced singer, David Byrne. Rumour had it that that he would produce the group's debut album. Also skulking in the Rock Garden's dingy basement was one of Cale's sometime collaborators, Brian Eno.
Eno was currently juggling several parallel careers. Already an established Island Records solo artist, he was also a curator-in-chief of his own experimental label, Obscure, and enjoyed a high-profile role as in-studio provocateur for the likes of David Bowie and Ultravox! A publicist called Leigh Blake had persuaded Eno to run the rule over David Byrne and co, correctly believing that Eno might connect with Talking Heads. While he lurked in the shadows, his customary Dictaphone poised at the ready, he was spotted by Linda Stein, formidable wife of Seymour Stein, boss of Sire Records, Talking Heads' New York record label. Stein insisted that instead of bootlegging the band from the back of the club - his preferred method - he ought instead right at the front. Eno obliged.
He was glad he had. Despite the venue's shortcomings, the show was a triumph. Infused with punk's itchy energy, Talking Heads' music also embraced the very un-punk-like virtues of groove, soulfulness and peculiarly infectious melody. Chas de Whalley's review in the following week's Sounds made a case for the band's potentially broad appeal. "If your head is still filled with the Floyd or Little Feat, and the New Wave in all its various hues is passing you by, check out Talking Heads before you finally dig out the carpet slippers and the pipe and settle in for The Generation Game. You see, they know all the old rules, do Talking Heads. But they've invented a couple of new ones, too, and they make the game so much more interesting."
After the set, Cale collared an impressed Eno. "I want them, you bugger," he was heard to half-joke, suspecting that Eno was about to woo the band away. Byrne recalls the backstage encounter: "John Cale introduced us (thank you, John). We had most of Brian's records - so we were aware of his work. We didn't talk much about music. I remember I personally had been reading a lot of cybernetics and systems theory and so Brian introduced me to the work of [English 'cybernetic management' theoretician, Anthony] Stafford Beer. Some of that lingo made its way into the Talking Heads' first record..."
Eno and Byrne hit it off immediately. Both art school educated (and fellow Taureans - May 14 happened to be Byrne's twenty-fifth birthday, while the following day Eno would turn twenty-nine), they and the band would dine together and later take tea at the Englishman's Maida Vale flat where reading lists were exchanged and records played. "Our band formed out of shared interests more than musical or technical abilities," Byrne stresses, "so we [and Eno] spent a while getting to know one another before the subject of working together came up." Indeed, anything more than intellectual camaraderie would have to be put on ice while Talking Heads set about their debut album for Sire. As it transpired, neither Brian Eno nor John Cale would be at the helm, mixing desk duties instead being left in the versatile hands of former Gloria Gaynor and Ramones producer (and cousin of Jon Bon Jovi), New Jersey's own Tony Bongiovi.
Such exalted company was all a very long way from Talking Heads' roots. David Byrne, born in Dumbarton, Scotland, but raised in Baltimore, was a chronically shy youth who found a modicum of self-confidence through art. Having gained a place at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, he was quickly consumed by matters conceptual, undertaking provocative performance pieces in which he'd shave off half his beard, eat glass or transform his naked torso into a 'living map' of the United States.
Byrne's lateral dalliances would get him ejected before graduation, but not before he'd befriended a pair of genuine music nuts, California-born Martina Weymouth and her Kentuckian boyfriend Christopher Frantz. Weymouth was the daughter of an admiral and Frantz the son of a general, but neither was much exercised by the family business.
In 1974 drummer Frantz and guitarist Byrne joined a college group who mixed soul covers with loud originals; they were called, naturally enough, The Artistics (later The Autistics after a promoter's mishearing). Curiously influenced by both Smokey Robinson and Alice Cooper, they favoured black leather and high volume, and would mix Al Green covers with terse David Byrne originals such as I'm Not In Love, Warning Sign and the Cooper-inspired Psycho Killer, all of which would later grace Talking Heads' repertoire.
After college, Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth moved together into a cheap manhattan loft and began planning a new band, which better reflected their musical tastes. "Talking Heads' record collection in '74, '75, '76 was equal mixtures of R&B and art rock," Byrne remembers. "Funkadelic and Roxy Music, Fela Kuti and Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground and Hamilton Bohannon." Originally Weymoth, who had co-written Psycho Killer, was to be the singer. They would audition for a bass player. None could be found so Weymouth taught herself the low-end rudiments on a short-scale Fender Mustang instrument for which she happened to have an immediate facility. The cripplingly awkward, herky-jerky-voiced Byrne would become Talking Heads' improbable front-man.
Having stumbled almost by accident on the fledgling CBGB's scene, on June 8, 1975 Talking Heads played their first ever gig at the club, opening for The Ramones. They rapidly established a reputation for the clipped concision of their songs and an equally clean cut, utilitarian image: short hair, tennis shirts and sensible trousers - the gamine Weymouth included. Tom Verlaine, of fellow CBGB's stalwarts Television, dismissed Talking Heads as "collegiate", but while they looked more like vacationing young republicans than Dionysian rock'n'rollers, the image resonated. After only their third show The Village Voice put them on the front cover under the headline "Tired of Glitter? The Conservative Impulse of the New Rock Underground".
Having demoed for, among others, Columbia and, at Lou Reed's suggestion, RCA, the trio eventually signed with Sire in 1976, and by the following year were firmly established as the band most likely to break out of lower Manhattan in the wake of the Patti Smith Group, television and labelmates The Ramones. By early summer the band had acquired a new member, Harvard graduate and former Modern Lover guitarist-cum-keyboardist Jerry Harrison, who had joined up rather than take a place at architecture school. He was just in time to add overdubs to the group's debut album, recorded at New York's tiny, eighth floor Sundragon studios.
The sessions had been nervy affairs, David Byrne recalls. "We were still new t the recording process, which is much different than it is today... it meant going into a fairly strange, sterile studio environment that was also fairly expensive." Byrne felt the pressure most. He was so self-conscious that when it came to overdubbing the vocals Bongiovi had to be banished from the control room altogether. Byrne was also out of his depth instrumentally, especially when it came to completing Psycho Killer, as engineer Ed Stasium later recalled. "Originally, the ending went on and didn't really do anything - there was none of the feedback; it needed more excitement... I remember saying to David, Just do a wild thing, like the solo in I Can See For Miles. And he went, 'Huh? What's that?' He didn't know The Who or Pete Townshend."
Studio naivety notwithstanding, the album, released in July, minimally packaged and titled, starkly, Talking Heads: 77, would be a substantial critical success and even crept into the Billboard Top 100. Seymour Stein had already smelled commercial crossover potential and had been eager to distance Talking Heads from the divisive punk scene. He took to describing the band as exemplars not of punk, but of 'New Wave' music - an elliptical reference to the nouvelle vague movement in '50s/'60s French cinema. 'New Wave' caught on, particularly among the US musical fraternity, where it would be established as a more acceptably anodyne, Midwest-friendly appellation for the new underground rock.
Talking Heads spent much of 1977 on tour, after which they cooled their heels and contemplated their next move. In December a visiting Brian Eno was entertained at the Queens apartment-cum-rehearsal-studio of the newly married Weymouth and Frantz. There, long gestating plans to work together were finally firmed up.
Eno's enthusiasm for the group was blatant. "I think they're about the nicest four people I could ever hope to meet," he told Melody Maker's Richard Williams. Eno had recently released a single, King's lead Hat - both an anagram of and a bald homage to Talking Heads (his original intention had been to cut it in London with the band). To record a new album, Talking Heads, Eno and his engineer Rhett Davies would congregate in Nassau in the Bahamas, where Island Records' mogul Chris Blackwell had recently opened his state-of-the-art Compass Point studios. Eno and 'Heads manager Gary Kurfirst, who worked out of an Island office in midtown Manhattan, had parlayed a cut price deal for a three-week session which would commence in mid-March, as soon as Eno had finished producing Devo's debut album in Germany.
In balmy Nassau Eno sought to tease out Talking Heads' latent funk. Even back at the Rock Garden he'd recognised that, while they offered a spiky lyrical intelligence and plenty of obtuse musical angles, they also - almost uniquely among their peers - made music you could actually dance, not merely pogo, to. "What appealed to me initially about their music was its powerful structural discipline," Eno recalled. "The rhythm section is like a ship or a train - very forceful and certain of where it's going. On top of that you have this hesitant, doubting quality that dizzily asks, 'Where are we going?' That makes for sense of genuine disorientation, unlike the surface insanity of the more commonplace, expressionist punk bands."
At Compass Point it seemed the best way to capture the group to record almost completely live, even dispensing with headphones. Rehearsed to stiletto sharpness, the band completed all their backing tracks in five days. Recording the recently completed Devo album had been a torture for Eno - the oddball Ohioans had singularly refused to accommodate any of his customarily outré mixing desk experiments.
Talking Heads, as Jerry Harrison would later recall, offered no such resistance. "Eno taught us to use the studio as an instrument - to be fearless. In those days, studio people wore lab coats. It was like getting your blood taken. They're on that side of the glass and you're on this side. Eno broke that down completely."
Simultaneously recording at Compass Point were Jamaican reggae hit-makers Althea And Donna. Eno, whose latest passion was dub, wasted no time in inveigling his way onto their sessions, absorbing the mixing desk trickery of producer Carl Petersen. Inspired, he would route Talking Heads' instruments through his briefcase EMS synthesizer and, as the band played live, add delay and reverb effects to individual instruments, subtly altering the nature of the backing tracks. On a version of Byrne's old song Warning Sign he bathed Chris Frantz's drums in a dub-style repeat echo; on The Girls Want To Be With The Girls he put Jerry Harrison's electric organ through a woozy phasing effect; and he transformed the guitars on the coda of Stay Hungry into shimmering eddies of contrapuntal funk.
Another throwback to The Artistics days was a cover of Al Green's sacred-meets-profane soul classic Take Me To The River. Eno insisted on the band playing single notes and no full chords, punctuating the resulting space with dizzy, reverberant percussion effects and immersing the song in a strange, amniotic aura. Released as a single in early 1979 it would become a substantial American hit (Reverend Green approved too).
The success of other songs owed less to Eno's technical interjections and more to Byrne's increasingly authoritative song-writing. On The Big Country he mapped everyday Middle American life in a litany of benign, quotidian observations - "I see the school and the houses where the kids are / Places to park by the factories and buildings / Restaurants and bars for later in the evening" - before paying off with the unexpectedly caustic, "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to." It was a note of unapologetic satire which, if nothing else, proved that 'New Wavers' Talking Heads weren't completely immune from the refusenik tenets of punk rock.
Byrne had been inspired to write a song called The Good Thing by Maoist work slogans. To record it, he and Eno recruited Compass Point's entire female secretarial staff to join Tina Weymouth in an ad hoc backing choir dubbed 'Tina and the typing pool'. The latter was even considered for an album title (along with Oh What A Big Country), before Weymouth enquired of husband Frantz who he thought would be interested in buying "another album of songs about buildings and food..."
Released in July 1978, More Songs About Buildings And Food (clad in a distinctive sleeve featuring a band portrait constructed from a mosaic of five hundred and twenty-nine close up Polaroid photographs) would prove another critical cause célèbre, which nudged into the Billboard Top 30 and climbed to 21 in the UK.
By early 1979 the band was ready to cut a follow-up. Eno wouldn't be required this time, or so they thought. Despite the relative success of More Songs, Seymour Stein suspected that Eno's avant-garde predilections might undermine Talking Heads' full commercial potential. He was relieved to learn that the wilful producer, suffering one of his sporadic moments of creative self-doubt, had quit New York for an indefinite sabbatical in Thailand. In his absence Talking Heads attempted a series of Manhattan studio sessions that went pretty much nowhere. They returned to performing live and to square one.
In March the band played a show at the Agora Cleveland. The gig would premier many songs earmarked for the forthcoming studio record. Eno had just returned from his Asian sojourn and he sat in on the mixes, getting a close-up preview of the band's new material. The connubial rhythm section had never sounded tighter and Jerry Harrison's keyboards - now including his own synths - were well to the fore. Byrne's vocals, meanwhile, were off the radar. At times he was almost crooning, at other times he sounded positively demented. Eno was intrigued again.
In April the band repaired to Weymouth and Frantz's Long Island City loft, hiring the Record Plant mobile studio for one day, repeating the exercise in early May. In two sessions a phenomenal dozen backing tracks were laid down, overseen by the reinstalled Eno whose production brief also extended to doing the dishes. The new songs they captured were as muscular as they were eclectic. One song was a surreal peregrination about a blank sheet of paper, called, prosaically, Paper, while Heaven, so Byrne alleged, was inspired by Neil Young, Frank Sinatra and Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana - a documentary in which ordinary German citizens describe their visions of empyrean eternity.
A song called Electricity becomes Drugs when Eno muted half the tracks on the mixing console, leaving just a one-string figure, a wheezing synthesizer, some Australian aviary recordings and Byrne's gasping vocal, warped with phasing and delay effects into a narcotically off-kilter dub trip
There was also a brace of songs that had evolved from heavily grooved ensemble jams. One of them, Life During Wartime, was partly inspired by New York and Byrne's hazardous Alphabet City neighbourhood ("This ain't no Mudd Club / Or CBGB / I ain't got time for that now"). Another was a fat slice of Fela Kuti-inspired funk for which Eno and Byrne envisaged group chanting. Suitable words were proving impossible, however.
"I think I tried some lyrics I'd written, but they took on too much importance when chanted and repeated," Byrne recalls. In the end Eno suggested the 'automatic writing' of Hugo Ball, the German-born author of 1916's Dadaist Manifesto - specifically a piece of nonsense verse called Gadji beri bimba whose oft-repeated phrase "I Zimbra" would become the troublesome song's title. I Zimbra would be the opening track on Talking Heads' third album, Fear Of Music, released in August 1979 to critical encomium and further transatlantic chart success.
The band would subsequently take the road less travelled, ushered by Eno and Byrne's cut'n'paste side project album, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Byrne's Eno-related extracurricular activities would have a deleterious effect on Talking Heads' internal politics; though in time they would recover. The group's four-year ascension from Alice Cooper-inspired covers band to the psychedelic funk motherlode, meanwhile, remains one of rock's most unique odysseys.