INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo Special Limited Edition JANUARY 2005 - by Tom Doyle
LIFE DURING WARTIME
Precise, distorted, manic, controlled - Talking Heads and Brian Eno was an experimental match made in heaven. Then the power struggles began.
Whether you came to them through the precise art rock of their early records or their later psychedelic funk, there was something odd, even disturbing, about the way Talking Heads carried themselves. And that was before you heard the music.
For starters, there was that perma-twitching frontman singing Psycho killer qu'est-ce que c'est? in an anxious tone. Then there were the rest: the boyish blonde girl on bass pensively staring a hole into the back of the weird singer's head; the guitarist who rarely looked up from his strings, the tight-armed drummer nudging the minimal beat along. Some kids really like the media concept of us as clones, bassist Tina Weymouth said. It's like, Why shit - they have parents?
Little about the way Talking Heads looked or sounded was accidental. Every inch an art school band, drummer Chris Frantz and fiancée Weymouth had convened at Rhode Island School Of Design in 1974 with a specific plan: to invert the look and sound of what a rock band was supposed to be in the pre-punk mid-'70s. I wanted my guitar to sound thin, clean and clanky, Byrne said. Not chunky, distorted and macho. Emerging amid the sartorial hell that was the arse-end of glam rock, Talking Heads wore everyday shirts onstage, appeared purposely uptight and nerdy. We just wanted to be extremely plain, Weymouth said. We were very anti-glitter.
Relocating to New York in 1975, the trio fell in with the cultural misfits at CBGB (Frantz: Like being in a seedy movie.), added Modern Lovers guitarist Jerry Harrison to the line-up and shared bills with The Ramones, Television and Blondie. The nascent Heads were controlled and precise: loping bass to the fore, scratchy guitars topped by Byrne's edgy, melodic presence.
In spite of its uneasy recording (the band clashed with producer Tony Bongiovi after he overdubbed strings on Psycho Killer), their debut album Talking Heads: 77 appeared two years later and sat alongside Patti Smith's Horses and Television's Marquee Moon at the cutting edge of a new, forward-thinking angular rock.
Yet the tipping point in Talking Heads' transformation was to come at their first UK gig at London's Rock Garden. In the audience that night, having been dragged along by John Cale, was Brian Eno, who declared his intention to produce their next record even though Cale had already claimed them for himself. The band met with Eno at his house the next day, making the first move towards forging a musical partnership that created some of the most genre-defying music of the late '70s and early '80s.
What appealed to me about their music was its powerful structural discipline, Eno said at the time. In Talking Heads, the rhythm section is like a ship or 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 made for a sense of genuine disorientation.
Talking Heads and Eno - still guiding Bowie into murky, experimental waters - embarked on three records that redefined what a guitar-based group was capable of in the era of burgeoning digital technology. However, the band's label, Sire, was worried about Eno's overpowering influence.
When Talking Heads arrived at Nassau's Compass Point Studios in 1978 to begin the sessions for what would become their second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, they found their limited knowledge of the recording process being turned inside out.
What Eno taught us, Frantz explained, was that if you don't know how to work something, just play with it and see what happens. Don't believe that a producer has this mysterious talent that you don't have.
The result was an electronically enhanced Talking Heads. Eno fed the guitars through tiny amplifiers, taking Harrison and Byrne's desire for a paper-thin sound to their tinniest conclusion. When stuck for ideas, Eno would turn to his Oblique Strategies, a pack of cards he'd created that bore instructions to Reverse The Tape or retrace Your Steps.
From the opening track it was clear that this was a band bristling with invention and nervous energy. Throughout, Byrne's lyrical concerns were even more wilfully obtuse: the TV-producing couple in Found A Job inventing situations and scouting for locations, the haiku-like self-realisations of The Good Thing, and, with their surprisingly straight reading of Al Green's Take Me To The River, a US Top 30 hit in February 1979.
Later on tour, the band developed a taste for decidedly rock star pleasures. As Byrne revealed in the sleeve-notes for 1992's Sand In The Vaseline compilation: Cocaine didn't do nothing for me the first couple of times. Then I guess it found its brain receptor cells. It made me simultaneously very talkative and secretive. Kinda like matter-meets-anti-matter. A problem waiting to happen.
Byrne hit a creative block when he tried to write a third album. Only when he turned to keyboards as a writing tool did he start to produce the odd, semi-detached tracks - Paper, Air, Cities - that made up Fear Of Music. Ironically, it would end up being a guitar-driven album, albeit guitar parts that sounded as if they'd been dissected and randomly scattered over the grooves.
It was during the recording that Eno's involvement and growing closeness to Byrne created murmurs of dissent. Experiments such as the frontman and producer recording separate bass parts on Electricity without hearing what the other had played were undermining Weymouth as a musician. Frantz and Harrison felt much the same.
Whatever the politics, the creative partnership yielded thrilling results. While the jump-cut paranoia of Drugs presented Byrne at his most manic, Heaven found him singing in the sweetest voice about an afterlife where nothing ever happens. The most startling cut, though was Fear Of Music's opener, I Zimbra. Built on layers of African polyrhythms, it featured a chorus of Heads chanting a nonsense poem written by Dadaist Hugo Ball in the 1920s and marked the band's first foray into world music.
Yet with lyrics such as Animal's opening gambit - I'm mad / And that's a fact! - Byrne began playing up to those who'd bought into his neurotic public persona. Before long, he was being forced to field questions about his mental health. I'm not an entirely comfortable person, he conceded. But I tend to see my own viewpoints and behaviour as sensible reactions to the goofy things around me.
Neurotic or not, Byrne was certainly driven by his work and created a deeper schism between himself and the rest of the band by recording the magnificent found sound album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, released in 1981 with Eno. The album featured undeniably Talking Heads-like tracks backing niftily cut-up vocals of southern preachers and radio exorcists. When Byrne approached the others with a view to using similar techniques for the next Talking Heads record it only made Eno's hand stronger. Remain In Light suggested Talking Heads had achieved their goal of creating music not quite of this earth, but the process came close to splitting them. While it was agreed that Eno and the group would share the writing credits, the album's artwork arrived bearing the words: All Songs by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Talking Heads. The band was incensed.
As Byrne later wrote, Eno was great to work with until the others and I sensed him wanting us to be his back-up band.
Weymouth recalled We just said, Well, you did the three albums with David Bowie and you're doing three with us and that seems a good number to stop."
Eno and Talking Heads were over.
Fuelled by their recent creative highs, Talking Heads took a nine-piece line-up on the road and turned their live shows into an elaborate soul revue, as captured for Stop Making Sense. The Jonathan Demme-directed movie cast the band as idiosyncratic, nuclear-powered funkers and froze an image in stone of Byrne as the man in the big suit that seemed to grow bigger with every song.
However, their subsequent Eno-less albums grew pedestrian. 1983's Speaking In Tongues showcased wigged-out synth-driven space funk and great tracks such as Burning Down The House, but by 86's True Stories the tunes and ideas were thin on the ground.
Thankfully, the four pulled together for their final album, Naked, in 1988, the result of more inspired sessions in Paris with producer Steve Lillywhite. But intra-band grudges began to surface again - most acutely between Byrne (who refused to tour) and Weymouth, who later dismissed much of the former's lyrics as merely cool cues to let me know where I was in the song.
In the end, Talking Heads quietly slipped away and were publicly pronounced dead by Byrne in 1992. Ten years later, to the surprise of all concerned, they bit their lips and reformed for their induction into that straightest of rock institutions, the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. All things considered, not bad for a bunch of one-time weirdo twitcher clones.