The Word MARCH 2006 - by Jim Irvin


Has there ever been a better time to re-enter the world of Talking Heads?

I may be mistaken but, as I recall it, the term New Wave was coined to accommodate Talking Heads. Publicists needed a tag other than punk rock when the Heads first appeared in the UK supporting fellow Sire act, The Ramones. It was clear they weren't punks, nor particularly interested in rock music as a medium for rebellion. While punk was busy being a freak show, looking preppy was a statement: Fuck rock, let's art, said the kids from good homes who knew how to groove. They came on like the sovereigns of that scratchy, skinny-jeans/skinny-noise thing everyone had started doing, the thing that came to define New Wave, and they gave it mystery and fibre.

Talking Heads' first four albums, released between October 1977 and November 1980, bulged at their tight seams with ideas. They sang about a sociopath with a French catch-phrase, they sang about the banality of television, the banality of heaven, about cities and paper and air. They talked about sound. For albums two, three and four they had a pet egghead named Brian Eno. They made sure their records were desirable objects, adorning the sleeves with mosaic photography, industrial camouflage and pioneering computer graphics.

It's hard now to imagine all that as new. In fact, it's hard to recall a time when rock music had somewhere new to go. You could argue that New Wave had clear antecedents in Roxy Music and David Bowie - the coolness, the self-consciousness, the pretence at dispassion and cynicism. Ferry and Bowie were never properly cynical, but some New Wavers were - Elvis Costello, for example. Ferry had managed aloof, but never sounded quite as neurotic and mechanical as, say, Pere Ubu. Talking Heads fell somewhere between the two schools. It worked because groovy navy-brats Chris and Tina were in the boiler room giving chilly Captain Byrne some warmth.

Your relationship with Talking Heads ultimately depends on how much you want to hear David Byrne banging on. Listening to all eight albums in a row - I don't recommend trying that at home, by the way - one's ears become clogged with a kind of grey residue, the result of trying to separate that voice from its colourless husk and get at what's really inside. Though you can detect energy and purpose, one would never call Byrne an emotive performer, never heartbroken or sexy or joyful. He leaves that stuff to other instruments. Byrne's voice describes alternative states: confusion, obsession, distraction. Paranoia, too. Indeed, he once said he agreed with Charles Manson's assertion: Paranoia is the highest state of awareness. It's no coincidence his most famous creations are the jittery Psycho Killer and the declamatory preacher of Once In A Lifetime, characters who resonate exactly with the sound Byrne emits. You wouldn't call it singing as such, more loitering in the same zip code as a melody and keening. Whatever he does to vary it, it remains unnervingly inscrutable. To hear it for extended periods is like going around a gallery where every painting - be it a Constable, a Renoir or a Magritte - has the same lamp post centre front, painted different colours occasionally, but ultimately an unsettling focal point. As the albums become more do-your-contractual-duty than shake-your-brainy-booty, what's going on behind the lamp post becomes less engaging too.

Those early records, though, when Talking Heads were still formatting themselves, sound surprisingly fresh. 77's spiky pop retains its charms, though it's lost the smack of surprise it once packed. I like the disco-ey production, the hints of soul and playful, throwaway episodes like Who It Is - The Magic Band trying to master Merseybeat. And there are big strong songs, Psycho Killer, Don't Worry About The Government and Pulled Up - all smash hits in my universe, if not in the real one. It's a perfect debut.

Things become a shade more oblique on More Songs About Buildings And Food where they occasionally settled for riff over song. But you can't ignore brilliant touches like the meld of stabbing phased organ and guitars on Girls Want To Be With The Girls, or the crashing entrance of Found A Job: Damn that television! What a bad picture! (inspired by an evening with Byrne's Scottish Presbyterian parents).

The real revelation of this whole batch, however, has been Fear Of Music, a brilliant creation; varied, powerful, subtle, and amazingly current - anyone growing up on Franz Ferdinand, The Arcade Fire, The Futureheads or their (Recycled Waver) ilk ought to be thrilled by it. The band balance their flavours absolutely right: there's dance and Dada (I Zimbra, Cities); there's drama (Drugs); there's majesty (Memories Can't Wait) and modesty (Mind) and, in Air and Heaven, even some beauty, of a kind they never returned to. And there's humour too (Animals, Electric Guitar). If I were to name one album that nails what made Talking Heads worth knowing this would be it.

I should add, at this juncture, before we hit the less agreeable albums, that these packages are superb. The remasters are punchy and airy, the 5.1 surround sound remixes by Jerry Harrison and ET Thorngren really open up the music. The added DVDs are full of pleasing surprises - rare live footage, the occasional video and reproduced pages from Byrne's workbooks, showing how lyrics and artwork evolved. Now, where were we?

The knee-jerk reaction to Remain In Light is that it was a ground-breaking synthesis of art-rock and world funk. Be that as it may, it's awfully dull; one-chord songs and ho-hum experiments with loops, a little better when played very loud, but there's ultimately something arch and gloopy, something of the microwaved ready meal about it. It doesn't even groove much. And I found its high Eno quotient irritating. This record changed lives. Funny that. But its moment has passed. (I'd forgotten that it closes with The Overload, a dirge apparently inspired by what Byrne had read about Joy Division, without ever hearing a note. If that's true, he has amazing powers of decoding music criticism, it sounds identical to the Mancunians, though he claimed he was disappointed when he finally heard them.)

Talking Heads became an explosive, polymetric ten-piece band to tour Remain In Light. The crowded stage had the effect of focusing all attention on Byrne. Talking Heads, the solid four-cornered unit, never really recovered its composure. The solo projects, the movies, the production gigs and other distractions began undermining the vibe. There wasn't another studio album for three years.

When it arrived, 1983's Speaking In Tongues was a self-conscious return to modest pop, a party record. (This edition reinstates the cassette version's extended remixes.) Commercially, it worked, it's a strong set featuring their first big American hit (Burning Down The House), but, unlike Fear Of Music, it creaks with age - all that slap bass, gated snare and squoinky synth - though I suppose if we just twiddle our thumbs for a year that'll all come back into vogue again.

Little Creatures (1985) added hints of the ethno-forgery that was creeping into everyone's extracurricular work by this time. It's unpretentious, but lacks a spark, somehow. However, it's miles above True Stories, which - with or without the movie of the same name (not part of the accompanying DVD) - is thin, ugly, uninspired stuff. It's hard to imagine a career recovering from a record as dreary as this. Which may be why no one ever mentions Naked, their 1988 last hurrah, produced by Steve Lillywhite. And that's a shame, because it's not bad at all. Lillywhite pushed Byrne to his best vocals ever and the phat Memphis feel of Blind, Hawaiian drift of Bill and snaky African vibe of Nothing But Flowers are all warm and convincing.

Though a big British hit, Naked proved to be a dead end. The New Wave had long since crested and ebbed away and, with grunge looming, arty-funky-ethno Heads no longer seemed viable. Captain Byrne scuttled the ship.

Perhaps it was that discernible emotional disengagement - or just that they'd missed out on Live Aid - but something stopped Talking Heads ascending into The Police or U2 league, and they always remained outsiders. Though Byrne has dismissed the notion, I wouldn't totally rule out the possibility of a reformation. The time certainly feels right for them to return, triumphant, should they fancy it.

On the other hand: say something once, why say it again?