Uncut FEBRUARY 2006 - by Peter Shapiro


Talking Heads: 77 / More Songs About Buildings And Food / Fear Of Music / Remain In Light / Speaking In Tongues

Byrne and co's first five post-punk classics remastered, with bonus tracks and DVDs

In the recent post-punk gold rush Talking Heads have tended to get overlooked. Sure, the Paradise Garden-worshipping disco revisionists hail Born Under Punches as the great moment of disco-not-disco genius it is. But the blinding glare of Gang Of Four/Fire Engines retreads like Franz Ferdinand and The Futureheads and the record collector fetishisation of the genre has meant Talking Heads have been passed over for obscurities like Maximum Joy, Pylon and Pulsallama. Perhaps this is because Talking Heads were always the most wholesomely American well-adjusted group in the genre. Or that Talking Heads - particularly in the interaction between David Byrne and producer Brian Eno - were simply sui generis and did not leave behind an eminently reproducible blueprint. As the reissue of their back catalogue (complete with additional DVDs of surround sound mixes and video content) begins, though, their first five albums rank right up there with anyone's creative peak.

Unlike many of their fellow new wave travellers, the Heads had so fully absorbed R&B from their earliest days that there was never the straining overreach that characterised so many post-punk funk excursions. The group's concern with pulse (as opposed to beat) and texture created often supple and sensuous music - particularly, but certainly not exclusively, with Eno - that worked as a brilliant foil to Byrne's neurotic preppiness and square salaryman raptures. On the other hand, their unnerving juxtapositions and architectural approach to song-craft reinforced Byrne's fascination with the underbelly of the Protestant work ethic and the brittle psyches of his characters.

This remarkable cohabitation of painterly, arty ambitions and fascination with the lissom qualities of the groove can be seen from their very first single, Love→Building On Fire, which is included here as part of Talking Heads: 77. Admittedly, it is somewhat reminiscent of Dexys Midnight Runners circa Celtic Soul brothers, well before the fact. But the blend of Northern soul, cod-chamber music keyboards, shimmering guitars and Byrne's crumbling facade combines for what is really a rather wonderful pop record, no matter how idiosyncratic the description of love or the delivery.

This is the aspect of their sound that these reissues really highlight. The re-mastering is simply magnificent, especially the stunning surround-mixes by Jerry Harrison and Eric Thorngren. Talking Heads: 77, an LP that always seemed a bit cold and clinical, is revealed as a masterpiece every bit the equal of their albums with Eno. Little nuances that previously got lost - like the marimba in the background of First Week / Last Week Carefree or the ancestral Balearic keyboard ending of Tentative Decisions, which gave Shaun Ryder an idea or thirty - are now vivid and lend a fleshy tangibility to an album that was once creepily clammy. In addition to Love→Building On Fire, there is another very special bonus track: the original B-side of the Psycho Killer single, a mostly acoustic version featuring the great disco maverick Arthur Russell on dramatic cello.

More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), the group's first record produced by Brian Eno, is another album that sneaks up on you. The gazillions of ideas going on in songs like Warning Sign, Stay Hungry, With Our Love (and even seeming pop fodder like The Girls Want To Be With The Girls) are hidden by the remarkable production. It stitches together reggae, proto-math-rock noodling, Devo angularity and funk into a seamless, symmetrical and bizarrely sexy package that can very easily just wash over you without ever revealing its secrets. The album's greatest achievement, though, may be the merger of the signature James Brown and Velvet Underground guitar riffs on Found A Job and The Good Thing.

More Songs About Buildings And Food also included Byrne's first sardonic mock-country song, The Big Country - the aural version of Saul Steinberg's famous cartoon. View Of The World From Ninth Avenue (it ends just past New Jersey) - a direction that would consume the group on Little Creatures and True Stories. Heaven, from 1979's Fear Of Music, might be Byrne's best work in this mini genre, but its utterly generic production (which, granted, does reinforce the lyrics) highlights the problems with the second half of the album: overproduction and a lack of hooks deadening the effect of some of Byrne's best writing, the exception being the itchy and unsettling Drugs. The first half, however, might be the best music the group ever made: the glorious Dada disco nonsense of I Zimbra, the post-Low synth-pop paranoia of Mind, the feverish delirium of Cities and the perversely anthemic Life During Wartime. There's an alternate take of the latter track here, with a band-saw guitar that's pretty nifty.

The ideas that they started playing with on I Zimbra were writ large on 1980's Remain In Light, perhaps the Big Bang of early-'80s culture clash. With lyric snippets sourced from everywhere, from African art scholar Robert Farris Thompson to Southern Preachers, Byrne and Eno's lyrics explored the acute sense of dislocation at the dawn of the reagan/Thatcher era. The cyclical, interlocking rhythms borrowed from King Sunny Adé and Fela Kuti reinforce the slippery nature of identity that Byrne grapples with. In Byrne's urban jungle, no one knows if they're coming or going. They're always, as the narrator of Born Under Punches says, catching up with myself. Or, as the poor guy in Crosseyed And Painless puts it, Lost my shape trying to act casual / I'm changing my shape, I feel like an accident.

Compared to Remain In Light, 1983's Speaking In Tongues, the group's first self-produced album, is an inevitable retreat. The funk is less surprising, less challenging and more streamlined - not all that dissimilar from Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth's side project, Tom Tom Club, minus the cartoon sensibility and the sprightly feminine energy. Not that this is a bad thing - particularly when their backtrack results in songs and sounds as absorbing as violinist L Shankar slicing and dicing the groove of Making Flippy Floppy, the fierce secular gospel of Slippery People and the delightful This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody). It's just that the polyrhythms and dizzying array of timbres and textures don't turn Byrne's bemusement and wonder at the world into poetry the way they once did.

Q&A: Jerry Harrison

UNCUT: Do you think you would have ended up in the same places without Brian Eno?

HARRISON: No. I think he was instrumental in making us understand that you can treat the studio as an instrument. Brian had an irreverent view of the studio and we were excited by that. We believed in the idea of experimentation. Every record we did, we had a theme that would change how we recorded it. There was the assumption that if you recorded it a different way, you'd get a different sound, a different feeling. Fear Of Music was recorded with the Record Plant mobile truck coming on alternate Sundays, because that was the only time when the traffic noise wasn't too much in Long Island City. For Remain In Light, we deliberately didn't write any songs before we went into the studio. We had this feeling where, certain times, the first time you played a song it sounded the best to you, whether it was an innocence or whatever, something was different. That was something that we wanted to capture.

Eno said that what appealed initially to him about the group was the powerful structural discipline.

I think he was talking about the first record. Talking Heads' song-writing style was very influenced by painting at that point, where one of the things that painters would do was use things of high contrast, not like red against green, but jarring material next to each other. It was about assaulting the eye rather than something that feels smooth and comfortable. So you take a song like Artists Only or The Girls Want To Be With The Girls, which juxtapose musical movements that are radically different. I always tried to enhance what the music was at that point in time rather than trying to take it in some new direction. It also freed David to be a better singer when he had another instrumentalist there. But I think it also connected some of these really discordant and disjointed parts. I often wondered whether that was the right thing to do, or if it was better to keep things jaggedly indifferent to one another. So, what I think Brian was referring to was that we had no fear or no qualms about playing something precisely and then stop on a dime and have it change dramatically.

When you joined, was that the quality that appealed to you?

I just thought it was unique, brilliant song-writing. Also, the sounds I'd developed while being with The Modern Lovers was away from blues or away from Hammond organs at the time, and this sensibility would fit and work with Talking Heads. I think that one of the things that appealed to our initial audience was that we very deliberately took on the uniform of an average day student. It was very much not leather jackets; it was deliberately anti-flamboyant. In fact, some of the merchandising ideas that we had come up with at the time were Talking Heads pocket protectors, and for Fear Of Music, I came up with the idea of Talking Heads hospital bands. This, again, had to do with coming out of pop art - looking at everyday life and seeing artistic meaning and value in it.