Smash Hits MARCH 5-18, 1981 - by David Hepworth


Talking Heads is TV slang for people whose legs you never see. It's also the name of one of the biggest groups in the world. David Hepworth visits the head Head, David Byrne, at home in New York.

The expression "preppy" is not exactly common in this country. In America, however, it's accepted shorthand employed when describing the privileged sons and daughters of the wealthy and white families of the East. The term is derived from the preparatory schools these young people attend en route to the distinguished universities of Harvard and Yale, a career in Law or Banking and marriage to another (suitably eligible) preppy.

Had David Byrne's head not been turned by music it's likely that he would have gone down that well-trodden route, as would the other members of Talking Heads. (Byrne was actually born in Scotland but his parents emigrated here when he was but a toddler.)

When the Talking Heads rhythm section, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, became married a couple of years ago, their wedding ceremony was a high spot of many an East Coast social calendar, marking as it did the union of two prosperous and respected families. Even Jerry Harrison, the most experienced working musician in the band, a veteran of Jonathan Richman's original trailblazing Modern Lovers, had studied architecture at Harvard.

Even now, five years after their emergence as a force to be reckoned with, they still prefer their shirts plain and well-laundered, their collars buttoned down, their hair neatly trimmed. They project the self-assurance of people who haven't had to seek approval or attention.

That doesn't imply any arrogance. David Byrne, in particular, is anything but. Considering he earns his daily bread in a business that favours the brash and thrusting, he seems ill-equipped for the hurly burly. You can't imagine his surviving being shunted round the world like so much luggage, let alone getting up on stage every night and fronting a band.

He doesn't just look like Anthony Perkins in Psycho; he sounds like him too. Her eyes you sideways like a startled bird, talks in a high-pitched, nervous voice that perpetually sounds to be on the verge of a sob and leaves pauses between his words long enough to take a holiday in.

David's apartment is a vast, airy studio in New York's bohemian quarter, empty except for a fridge, video equipment, cassette player and couch. He moved in two days ago. We huddle in one corner like lost children. A big enough place, I suggest, to rehearse the band, all nine members of the new touring line-up. Oh, he says, but what would the neighbours think? Here is a man who would die rather than vex the neighbours.

Talking Heads sprang from The Artistics, which is going back a bit - 1974 in fact. Byrne and Chris Frantz, fellow students at The Rhode Island School Of Design, became disillusioned with their chosen field of study and began to make music. Later that year Tina Weymouth enlisted.

Before long Talking Heads had moved along the coast to New York City, playing the clubs of the metropolis and slowly gathering a reputation for their refined and nervy brand of modern pop. After cutting their debut single, Love→Building On Fire in 1976, they were joined by guitarist/organist Jerry Harrison to make their first long player, Talking Heads: 77, for the Sire label.

A tour of Britain later that year with The Ramones boosted Talking Heads' confidence and standing and brought them into contact with Brian Eno. The friendship he struck up with Byrne resulted in his being invited to produce their second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food.

Where 77 had been solid and promising, More Songs was brilliant and thoroughly absorbing. It not only announced their mastery of a highly individual brittle funk style, it also served notice that David Byrne had blossomed into one of the most strikingly original songwriters of his generation.

A single peeled off the album, a new version of Al Green's gospel tinged Take Me To The River, went top-thirty in their home country via much disco exposure and from that point on their career has proceeded onward and upward, with sales figures following close on the heels of unanimous critical acclaim.

Last summer they augmented the line-up, bringing in musicians from the Parliament/Funkadelic family as well as former Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew and followed some successful live performances with Remain In Light, their fourth album. This revealed Byrne's increasing absorption in churning, chanting funk and his unfailing ability to fashion dance music that can survive on the radio and all the way home. It's clever, it's haunting and I'll be damned if it'll go away.

There have, however, been rumblings. All songs on Remain In Light are credited to Byrne, Eno and then Talking Heads. It would be understandable if the rest of the band felt themselves being displaced by Eno, who seems the closest and biggest influence on the all-important Byrne.

Tina in particular, during the course of an interview with The Face, depicted the two of them as schoolboys so taken with each other that they almost began to dress alike. Judging by the fact that there have been no changes in the basic line-up, these remarks are best seen as the gentle, affectionate mockery of old friends who know each other too well to be really at odds.

David plays me the video for Once In A Lifetime, in which he appears solo, and when I ask him if this means that he's The Boss, able to tell the rest of the band when and where to get off, he seems genuinely surprised.

No, he says, he doesn't like to think of it that way at all. He just hopes he can guide things in certain directions. But who has the final say? I enquire.

"Well, I guess I do," he admits, though unwillingly.

When I ask what he himself likes to listen to, he produces a box of cassettes. There's Islamic drummers, Balinese Gong Orchestras and Modern Jazz. But mainly it's Diana Ross, Kool & The Gang, The Jackson 5 who provide his domestic soundtrack.

In this era, as in so many others, it's black music that calls the pop tune. Scan the chart. Take the current singles from Blondie, Spandau Ballet, Adam & The Ants. Take Once In A Lifetime. Take note of those elastic rhythms, those glistening keyboards, that slicing backbeat. Ninety percent of the tools in that armoury of sound came directly from that most despised, most spat-upon music: disco. Byrne, for one, doesn't shrink from admitting his debt.

"A lot of the techniques that we use may seem radical and far out when we're doing them, but they're actually used an awful lot.

"I mean, Motown did a lot of really strange things - they'd use the same rhythm track for a number of songs and record different melodies over it. If someone did things like that today and made it known, it would seem avant garde. But then it was just their way of trying to continue their commercial success.

"I think in a way that the production on disco records and the whole sensibility behind it was in a way much more radical than the punk and new wave area. The record was about the sound and the rhythm."

The new Talking Heads line-up still presents an odd spectacle on stage. Watching those hesitant, pale white musicians surrounded by high kicking, easy-grinning funkateers like Busta Cherry Jones serves to underline the basic tension between Africa and Europe which gives Talking Heads music its lasting fascination.

Although Byrne still dances like a man who forgot to remove the coat-hanger from his jacket, some of this carefree flamboyance has undoubtedly rubbed off on him. The music they're playing right now "inspires a different kind of feeling in me".

I enquire whether he also feels that it is less knotty and disturbed. Time was when his songs seemed to be infested by two types of character: those who had committed acts of violence and those who were just thinking about it.

Because his songwriting technique involves his getting inside the skin of a personality and using their voice as a vantage point, people have made the mistake of assuming that david Byrne is as deranged as the guy who plays the title role in Psycho Killer or any of the fractured personalities depicted on Fear Of Music.

"It's natural," he says, "for people to identify the message with the messenger. But there's nothing to be done about that."

But where do these kooks and weirdos come from?

"Most of them come from elements of my own character - maybe some small elements that I've exaggerated, or maybe it's a part of me that can be sympathetic with a character that's quite different from me."

David admits that often his songs don't really add up until months later, when he catches them in a certain light and suddenly understands why we wrote them that way. The ideas just slip into his head. Once In A Lifetime is an instance. There he was playing the backing track at home, pacing round the room, when suddenly he began to sing, "And you may find yourself... living in a shotgun shack." And so on.

"That gave me the direction for the verse, but I still had no chorus. Then somehow I came up with the water theme and that seemed to have something to do with the subject in the verse and I really liked the way they had something to do with each other and yet contrasted."

Like Bowie, Byrne is a great one for collecting groups of words or phrases that somehow seem to belong together.

"Eventually I do have to sit down and pull the thing together, but a lot of time the initial inspiration seems to come from who-knows-where. It doesn't really seem to make sense but I think somehow, in the choosing, there's something guiding me, telling me this phrase fits with this one and this one belongs in the song and this one doesn't. And I don't exactly know what it is that tells me that."

Whether his songs are the product of intuition or some weirder magic doesn't really matter. The songs are superb. Even more so in these days when so many bands offer their pre-digested observations as profundity, when so many wear alienation and misery like a new costume, when so many claim to have suddenly unlocked the secrets of human society.

Byrne would never claim to do anything of the kind. he's a pop singer. A pop singer capable of making you feel as if you've suddenly been aroused from a long sleep into a world that's strange and different, where people do the oddest things for no reason at all. It is, of course, the same world you went to sleep in.

Returning to the hotel, I turn on the TV news. Someone has set fire to a hotel in Las Vegas. Someone else shot a store keeper for fifty dollars. The President Of The United States and all his ministers munch jellybeans. And people will tell you they don't understand the Talking Heads.