INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sydney Morning Herald MAY 20, 2006 - by Bernard Zuel
Talking Heads... sounds that soar.
Pop music does not usually do paranoia, fear and a slowly descending claustrophobia. Certainly not all at once. Only a fool would add jerky, angular nervousness to this, even if it was leavened with bubble-gum pop. And you can forget about having it played by a group who look as neat as a pin and about as threatening. That's just getting silly.
What then of these white-as-white New York underground figures soon adding propulsive, compulsive dance grooves - initially from a clumsy, dorky outsider's love of disco but later from a growing understanding of both funk and West African rhythms? This stuff isn't going to work.
Yet Talking Heads did work. And looking at their first four albums, between 1977 and 1980, they often worked spectacularly.
Now, with their remastered albums sounding thrillingly full - not pumped up but freshened up - re-evaluation is overdue.
It's easy to see now that they were not just a very good band, they were an important band: a link between the avant garde and the charts; between the new world and the old, old world. They made rock fans dance and as one of those who succumbed at a time when it was still uncool to dance to anything that wasn't grim and at least partially political, the discovery was revelatory.
Inexplicably, Warner Music in Australia is releasing only the third and fourth Talking Heads albums (Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, with extra tracks and a DVD extra disc) and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, the album made in between by main Head David Byrne with the band's producer, Brian Eno. However, it's easy enough to buy the rest online and wise heads will do so because those first four Heads albums tell a compelling story.
The central elements were delineated by 77 and 1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food. The rhythm section of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz paired an obvious love of R&B with a coolly examined artiness: danceable but also nervous, loping but occasionally revealing a twitch.
It was a combination mirrored by the sweet and sour guitars of David Byrne and former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison. And over the top was Byrne singing melodies that could be as attractive as the simplest sunny pop but were delivered with herky-jerky exclamations that suggested a man regularly looking over his shoulder.
1979's Fear Of Music built on Byrne's insecurity, turning it into full-blown (and often deliberately funny) paranoia about the government, the air, the animals, the neighbours - everything, really. Around this the band and Brian Eno (an early fan, now into his second album as their producer) built keyboard-layered, dark-ringed but deeply funky grooves. Cities was George Clinton's Funkadelic filtered through a downtown bar; Life During Wartime was Chic in bad times; Heaven took David Bowie into matins.
Inspired by John Cage, who had been working with tape loops for a decade, and feasting on rare recordings of African bands, Byrne and Eno put the ideas together in My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. It may not seem so startling these days to hear the found voices, from the escalating hysteria of an exorcism to the chatter of television hosts, which provided the vocals for the album; sampling technology, hip-hop and the ubiquitousness of encroaching sound in everyday life have seen to that.
But there is no escaping the sometimes disturbing, sometimes beautifully apt combination of these voices with the percussion-enhanced polyrhythms, the way the hustle and the clamour of the city - any city, anywhere - and something more basic, more primal, merge into one.
Ghosts is the bridge, the missing piece that enabled Byrne and Eno to loosen the pent-up drive of Fear Of Music and allow the sonic and, importantly, rhythmic expansiveness of Remain In Light to soar.