INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork OCTOBER 3, 2016 - by Tyler Wilcox
TALKING HEADS' ROAD TO REMAIN IN LIGHT
"We're not the same as we used to be," David Byrne tells the crowd at Ontario, Canada's Heatwave Festival in the summer of 1980. He sounds nervous - but then again, he pretty much always sounds nervous.
This time, though, Byrne has reason to be a little on edge. His band, Talking Heads, is debuting songs from fourth LP Remain In Light, the culmination of five years' worth of extraordinary growth and creativity. To bring the album's deeply layered, polyrhythmic compositions to life onstage, they've ballooned into a ten-piece, adding a percussionist, two backing singers, a hotshot guitar hero, a Funkadelic keyboardist, and an additional bassist. And the Heatwave Festival is the opposite of a soft launch, with attendance reaching seventy-thousand and a bill also featuring the cream of the burgeoning New Wave scene (The B-52's, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, the Pretenders).
Were the expanded Talking Heads ready for their big reveal? Well...
"Minutes before we were set to play I opened the door to our backstage trailer to discover most of the band snorting lines of coke from the backs of guitars," wrote Adrian Belew, the aforementioned guitar hero, in a 2007 blog post. So yeah, they were totally ready.
Released thirty-six years ago this week, Remain In Light is a record that still reverberates today. But how did the defiantly minimalist trio of the mid-'70s morph into the maximalist ten-piece of 1980 (and beyond)? A handful of rarities and live performances offers clues about how Talking Heads got there.
THE ARTISTICS, 1973-1974
Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz first collaborated as students at the Rhode Island School of Design in a band called the Artistics. We don't know what this outfit sounded like, since no recordings have ever circulated. The best we can do is Frantz's enticing recollection in Clinton Heylin's proto-punk history, From Velvets To Voidoids: "The Artistics sounded like Television, only crazier and not as Messianic. We used to play to big crowds, but people would stand fifty feet away to hear us, since we had all the amplifiers we could get turned up as loud as the would go." If time machines existed, we might be able go back to hear blown-out rough drafts of Psycho Killer and Warning Sign, both of which made their way into Talking Heads' early repertoire.
Some of the earliest recorded evidence of Talking Heads (that's public, anyway) is a grainy black-and-white video recorded at CBGB some time in late 1975. For their new venture, Byrne and Frantz had brought the volume way down and recruited bassist Tina Weymouth. Talking Heads had only been gigging for a few months at this point, but they come across as strikingly original, even in a fertile scene that included trailblazers like Blondie, The Ramones, and Television. Byrne's scratchy guitar and high-strung vocals, Weymouth's bouncing bass, and Frantz's dance-inflected beats all coalesce into something weirdly alluring. And their proto-normcore fashion sense sets them even further apart from an underground that was still slightly hungover from the glam-tastic days of the New York Dolls.
CBS DEMOS, 1975
Thanks in no small part to early support from CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, Talking Heads quickly found a following, which naturally made the major labels start sniffing around. So Byrne and co. headed into a studio to cut a forty-five-minute demo for CBS. A handful of these tracks have been officially released, but the entire tape remains the best example of Talking Heads as a relatively unadorned trio, with such future highlights as first single Love→Building On Fire and More Songs About Buildings And Food's Thank You For Sending Me An Angel showing off both the band's quirky approach and - perhaps - commercial potential. Alas, CBS didn't hear a hit and passed.
THE OCEAN CLUB, 1976
From early on, Talking Heads looked to move away from their stark beginnings: Love→Building On Fire features a horn section and twittering birds, and they recorded a version of Psycho Killer with Arthur Russell on cello, very nearly bringing the downtown wunderkind on board as a fourth member. This summer of '76 tape at the short-lived Ocean Club in NYC captures Talking Heads trying out two other possible additions. First up is saxophonist Fletcher Buckley, who adds an interesting, if not entirely successful, element to Talking Heads: 77's I Wish You Wouldn't Say That and More Songs About Buildings And Food's The Girls Want To Be With The Girls. Next, it's former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison chiming in on second guitar, and sounding right at home. As we now know, it was Harrison who became a full-time Head - but Buckley's Funhouse-esque freak-out on I'm Not In Love, which brings the set to a skronking finish, suggests an intriguing path not taken for the group.
ENTER ENO: I ZIMBRA EDIT/REMIX, 1979
Of course, Talking Heads found another key collaborator in Brian Eno, who co-produced their second, third, and fourth albums, and essentially became a fifth member in the studio. Eno's studio-as-compositional-tool approach introduced an array of innovative elements to the band's arsenal, further separating them from their peers. Rhythmic explorations started to come to the forefront, as the band increasingly looked to Africa and the Middle East for inspiration. Check out Eno's edit/remix of Fear Of Music's lead track, I Zimbra, for a foreshadowing of the dense grooves to come - and don't miss the astonishing break that comes towards the end, suggesting that Talking Heads and Eno also had their ears turned toward NYC's burgeoning hip-hop scene.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF REMAIN IN LIGHT: FELA'S RIFF
For Fear Of Music's follow-up, Talking Heads built songs from the ground up in the studio, jamming, vamping, and vibing without worrying too much about where they'd end up. For the 2006 Remain In Light reissue, producer Andy Zax dug up several of these jams, in the process shedding light on how Talking Heads (and guests) developed the album. The best of these outtake is Fela's Riff, a tranced-out instrumental that indeed nods heavily in the direction of AfroBeat master Fela Kuti, with Adrian Belew's treated guitar dancing around the hypnotic rhythm. It'd be great to hear more of this kind of thing - if ever an album deserved a multi-disc Complete Sessions set a la Miles or Dylan, it's Remain In Light. In the meantime, an unofficial "downmix" of the LP offers listeners a different perspective from which to soak in the album's ever-shifting textures.
REMAIN IN LIGHT ONSTAGE: ROME 1980
All of which brings us back to 1980, with the 10-piece Talking Heads taking Remain In Light to the masses. They made it through their coked-up Heatwave Festival set intact, but it was in the following months that the band really hit its stride, blossoming into one of the most powerful live units of the era. Their 1982 live album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, particularly 2004's expanded reissue, captures them at their best, but this video of a late 1980 show in Rome is essential viewing - an hour's worth of ecstatic futurist pop that seems to be as much fun to play as it is to see and hear. Talking Heads certainly weren't the same as they used to be, but their path had taken them to unimaginable heights.