Rip It Up FEBRUARY 1979 - by Mike Wilson


David Byrne, lead-singer and songwriter for the New York group Talking Heads has said, "It sounds old-fashioned but we're trying to be a force for good, to reaffirm values".

While on the group's new album he sings

"As we economise, efficiency is multiplied,
To the extent that the result is the Good Thing.
So I say... watch me work!"

Is Byrne really saying that the Protestant ethic is alive and well in New York? Surprisingly, the answer is a predominant 'Yes', although the more you focus on the group the more you find that the inherent contradiction of Talking Heads make capitalism seem like a safe bet.

To provide some background, Talking Heads is a four piece group consisting of David Byrne, 26, leading Head and late of the Rhode Island School of Design; Chris Frantz, 27, drums, Martina Weymouth, 27, bass - a husband and wife team also from the Rhode Island School of Design and Jerry Harrison, 29, guitar and keyboards, a Harvard graduate and founder member of the Modern Lovers.

With those qualifications, one would imagine the group playing cold, clever art rock music for university pointy heads. But not only does the group sound funky on record, but according to reliable reports from overseas, this is one of the funkiest live groups around - and that is despite all the tertiary education, minimalism and conceptual art they have indulged in.

Byrne and Frantz first played together at college in 1974 in a group called The Artistics. Bored with the art scene, the two of them moved to New York, recruited Martina and formed Talking Heads. By mid-1975 the group was playing at CBGBs, New York's punk haven, where they quickly attracted a cult following. This association with CBGBs has for some time seen them lumbered with the punk label despite having as much in common with punk as Doris Day.

In late 1976, Harrison joined what was still just another New York group, until signed up by Sire Records they released the single Love→Building On Fire. The praise this single earned sufficient impetus to tour Europe in early 1977. The tour generated much euphoria as did their first album, Talking Heads: 77, released late that year. The New York Times for example called it "one of the most amusing serious rock albums ever".

Attempting to define Talking Heads' music and influences is extremely hard. As Chris Frantz has said, "Our influences are whatever we've heard and liked". It is possible to point to individual songs and say that sounds like Television or Bryan Ferry or 10cc. But the music is too eclectic to pinpoint any major influences.

On first hearing, what is most striking about the music is its disturbing, jerky tone. The Talking Heads devotee should never force potential converts to listen and enjoy. They will invariably say in all politeness, "What unusual music", and hotfoot it back to their Rod Stewart and Little River Band.

It takes time for the insidious rhythm and melodies to take hold. Martina and Chris Frantz lay down a wall of hypnotic funk music - a blending of disco, reggae and jazz rhythms. And then, shrieking high and wild above the mesmeric beat, is the voice of that Anthony Perkins lookalike, David Byrne.

Byrne's distinctiveness lies in his screams and yelps. Normally, his vocal range has something in common with Tom verlaine or a more nasal Bryan Ferry. But his trademark is the scream - ranging from a full-blooded primal wail of pain to a childlike cry of joy.

The first few lines of the song Psycho Killer could almost be a description of Byrne.

I can't seem to face up to facts,
I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax,
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me, I'm a real live wire

There is a manic, pent-up energy in his voice. His live performances are apparently extraordinary for the nervous intensity he exudes.

The sentiments he expresses are essentially those of the common man - surprising when you consider he has been embraced by those who are the antithesis of the people he is singing about.

Byrne is interested "in normal day-to-day conversations and dialogues... strip away all the phoney embellishments and posturing right down to essentials without having to throw in all the 'Oh yeag baby' or 'Hey bitch I'm coming to get you right now'."

His is the voice of the computer programmer, checkout operator, accountant or bank clerk. He is the guy who is trying to cope with the problems of modern living whiule trying to maintain his sanity and morality. (The great irony in all this is that this everyday person has probably never heard of Talking Heads.) Naturally, this is difficult to do, particularly in New York. Tensaion and nervousness build up. Moods vacillate. So altogether now - Scream!

On the first album the songs display wild swings in emotion. Even within songs one can never be sure which is the triumphant mood. In Don't Worry About The Government, Byrne sings about government buildings, his gard-working civil servant friends and of his own building with all its conveniences. Everything seems rosy. He te;;s his friends to come up and see him but not to go out of their way - "Don't you worry about me". At the end of the song, the "Don't you worry about me" becomes positively scary especially as the song ends with a prolonged screaming of the word "ME!" He really does want us to worry about him. And he probably wants us to worry about the Government, too.

In No Compassion he sings coldly, "compassion is a virtue but I just don't have the time". Yet, the next song on the album is the bright and breezy The Book I Read with its mood of celebration

Feel my fingers as they touch your arms
I'm spinning around and I feel alive.

This mood does not last long as the tense feeling of Psycho Killer takes Byrne right to the edge if not beyond.

The new album, More Songs About Buildings And Food, as the title suggests, continues the themes of the first. The major difference between the two lies in Brian Eno's production efforts. Talking Heads welcomed his influence, but it is an influence which has its pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, Eno does give a depth and fluidity to the songs. On Talking Heads: 77, songs such as Happy Day and Tentative Decisions are very thin and brittle, and would benefit from the Eno treatment. Unfortunately, though, some of Byrne's eccentricity gets lost in the production work pf the second album, so mthat songs like Artists Only and Thank You For Sending Me An Angel come over as clever sounds rather than as comprehensible songs.

There is, however, the same startling diversity as on the first album. The group further expands its influences with a superb version of Al Green's R&B song Take Me To The River. Found A Job and The Girls Want To Be With The Girls show how witty and spooky Byrne can be while Stay Hungry and Warning Sign implant their funky rhythms into your brain with a fiendish ease.

The pick of the songs is The Big Country. While flying over America, Byrne looks down at the land and relates in a folksy way the lives people are leading.

I see the school, and the houses where the kids are / Places to park by the factories and buildings / I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean / I guess those people have fun with their neighbours and friends.

The song builds like Bryan Ferry's Prairie Rose. You expect Byrne to conclude with a smile, "Gee, what a swell place". But instead he slaps you with, "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to." Although, in the same song, he has said, "I'm tired of travelling... I want to be somewhere!" But where, for Christ's sake? New Zealand?

These two very original albums are going to be hard acts to follow. Byrne believes Talking heads "will fluctuate between a large cult audience and possible fluke mass success". If the inherent contradictions don't get them first then, barring a "fluke mass success" on the single's chart, I sense the impetus Talking Heads have generated so far will be awfully difficult to maintain.