Once In a Lifetime: The Story of Talking Heads

Staff Writer:  Hannah Johnson

Talking Heads were an American rock band formed in 1975 in New York City and active until 1991. The band comprised David Byrne (lead vocals, guitar), Chris Frantz (drums), Tina Weymouth (bass), and Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar). Described by critic Stephen Thomas Erle wine as “one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the ’80s”, the group helped to pioneer new wave music by integrating elements of punk, art rock, funk, and world music with avant-garde sensibilities and an anxious, clean-cut image.

Former art school students who became involved in the 1970s New York punk scene, Talking Heads released their debut Talking Heads: 77 to positive reviews in 1977. They subsequently collaborated with producer Brian Eno on a trio of experimental and critically acclaimed releases: More Songs About Buildings and Food), Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. After a hiatus, the band hit its commercial peak in 1983 with the US Top 10 hit “Burning Down the House” and released the concert film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme. They released several more albums, including their best-selling LP Little Creatures, before disbanding in 1991.  “The Talking Heads has helped me through tons of hard times in my life. Their ironic and comedic lyrics mixed with Byrne’s goofy appearance cheered me up every time I felt down.”- Adrian Parada, KSU student and music lover.

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Remain in Light- Talking Heads 1980 cover art by Tina Weymouth

 

 

In 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four of the band’s albums appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and three of their songs (“Psycho Killer”, “Life During Wartime”, and “Once in a Lifetime”) were included among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Talking Heads were also included at number 64 on VH1’s list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. In the 2011 update of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”, the band was ranked at number 100.

David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. There, Byrne and Frantz formed a band called “The Artistics” in 1973. Weymouth was Frantz’s girlfriend and often provided transportation for the band. The Artistics dissolved the following year, and the three moved to New York, eventually sharing a communal loft.  Unable to find a bass player in New York City, Frantz encouraged Weymouth to learn to play bass by listening to Suzi Quatro albums. They played their first gig as “Talking Heads” opening for the Ramones at CBGB on June 5, 1975.

In a later interview, Weymouth recalled how the group chose the name Talking Heads: “A friend had found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action’. It fit.” Later that year, the trio recorded a series of demos for CBS, but the band was not signed to the label. They quickly drew a following and were signed to Sire Records in November 1976. The group released their first single in February that year, “Love – Building on Fire”. In March 1977, they added Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), formerly of Jonathan Richman’s band The Modern Lovers.

Their first album was released soon afterwards, Talking Heads: 77, which did not contain the earlier single. The album received considerable acclaim and spawned what became the group’s first charted single, “Psycho Killer”. The song was released to the radio just months after the serial killer known as the Son of Sam had been terrorizing New York City, prompting many to assume some eerie connection. However, it was later revealed that Byrne had written the song nearly four years earlier. “David Byrne was really an inspiration to me growing up, I loved the Talking Heads so much and was always picked on for it. I never cared though, I always thought they were cool.”- Tammy Freiberger, 80s new wave enthusiast.

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Guitarist/ vocalist David Byrne putting on quite a show for the enthusiastic audience.

1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food brought about the band’s long-term collaboration with producer Brian Eno, who had previously worked with Roxy Music, David Bowie, John Cale and Robert Fripp; the title of Eno’s 1977 song “King’s Lead Hat” is an anagram of the band’s name. Eno’s unusual style meshed well with the group’s artistic sensibilities, and they began to explore an increasingly diverse range of musical directions, from post-punk to psychedelic funk to African music. This recording also established the band’s long-term recording studio relationship with the famous Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. More Songs… cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” broke Talking Heads into general public consciousness and gave the band their first Billboard Top 30 hit.

The Eno-Talking Heads experimentation continued with 1979’s Fear of Music, which flirted with the darker stylings of post-punk rock, mixed with white funkadelia and subliminal references to the geopolitical instability of the late 1970s. Music journalist Simon Reynolds cited Fear of Music as representing the Eno-Talking Heads collaboration “at its most mutually fruitful and equitable”. The single “Life During Wartime” produced the catchphrase “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.” The song refers to the Mudd Club and CBGB, two popular New York nightclubs of the time.

After releasing four albums in barely four years, the group went into hiatus, and nearly three years passed before their next release, although Frantz and Weymouth continued to record with the Tom Tom Club. In the meantime, Talking Heads released a live album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, toured the United States and Europe as an eight-piece group, and parted ways with Eno, who went on to produce albums with U2. “The Talking Heads were a band unlike no other in the world I believe. Yes, many may be able to copy their style, but one thing they will never have is their quirky, fun taste.”- Anthony Smith, Junior at Etowah high school.

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Jerry Harrison giving the camera an edgy glance. This really shows the epitome of cool that the band had.

 

 

1983 saw the release of Speaking in Tongues, a commercial breakthrough that produced the band’s only American Top 10 hit,Burning Down the House”. Once again, a striking video was inescapable owing to its heavy rotation on MTV. The following tour was documented in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which generated another live album of the same name. The tour in support of Speaking in Tongues was their last.

Three more albums followed: 1985’s Little Creatures (which featured the hit singles “And She Was” and “Road to Nowhere”), 1986’s True Stories (Talking Heads covering all the soundtrack songs of Byrne’s musical comedy film, in which the band also appeared), and 1988’s Naked. Little Creatures offered a much more American pop-rock sound as opposed to previous efforts. Similar in genre, True Stories hatched one of the group’s most successful hits, “Wild Wild Life”, and the accordion-driven track “Radio Head”, which became the etymon of the band of the same name. Naked explored politics, sex, and death, and showed heavy African influence with polyrhythmic styles like those seen on Remain in Light. During that time, the group was falling increasingly under David Byrne’s control and, after Naked, the band went on “hiatus”.

It took until December 1991 for an official announcement to be made that Talking Heads had broken up. Their final release was “Sax and Violins”, an original song that had appeared earlier that year on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. During this breakup period, Byrne continued his solo career, releasing Rei Momo in 1989 and The Forest in 1991. This period also saw a revived flourish from both Tom Tom Club (Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom and Dark Sneak Love Action and Harrison Gods and Walk on Water, who toured together in the summer of 1990. “I never knew much about the band until my dad had showed me “psycho Killer”. At that moment however, I knew I was listening to legends.”- Miles Chambers, Junior at Woodstock high school.

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Bassist Tina Weymouth showing us that woman can be just as cool and creative!

 

Despite David Byrne’s lack of interest in another album, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison reunited for a one-off album called No Talking, Just Head under the name The Heads in 1996. The album featured a number of vocalists, including Debbie Harry of Blondie, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, Andy Partridge of XTC, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Ed Kowalczyk of Live, Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays, Richard Hell, and Maria McKee. The album was accompanied by a tour, which featured Johnette Napolitano as the vocalist. Byrne took legal action against the rest of the band to prevent them using the name “Talking Heads”, something he saw as “a pretty obvious attempt to cash in on the Talking Heads name”. They opted to record and tour as “The Heads”. Likewise, Byrne continues his solo career. All Music stated that Talking Heads, one of the most celebrated bands of the 1970s and 1980s, by their breakup “had recorded everything from art-funk to polyrhythmic world beat explorations and simple, melodic guitar pop”. Talking Heads’ art pop innovations have had a long-lasting impact. Along with other groups such as Devo, the Ramones and Blondie, they helped define the new wave genre in the United States.  Meanwhile, the more worldly popularities like 1980’s Remain in Light helped bring African rock to the western world.

Talking Heads have been cited as an influence by many artists, including Eddie Vedder, R.E.M., The Weeknd, Vampire Weekend, Primus, Bell X1, The 1975, The Ting Tings, Nelly Furtado, Kesha,  St. Vincent and Radiohead, who took their name from the Talking Heads song “Radio Head” from the 1986 album True Stories. The Italian filmmaker and director Paolo Sorrentino, in receiving the Oscar for his film La Grande Bellezza in 2014, thanked Talking Heads among others as his sources of inspiration. ” I can see why a lot of artists have taken inspiration from the “Heads”. They were truly original and very talented.” – Alex Hanson, KSU student.

All photos are from Creative Commons and compiled by Peyton Waller

 

 

Comments

  1. Rob Jones says:

    I saw the Heads in Cleveland circa 1979 — in a dive bar, seated on the floor, mostly — best rock cool memory was some yahoo throwing a beer bottle at David’s guitar, and David ever so slightly shifting his hips to let the bottle sail past with no damage. Tina was a total bass powerhouse.

    As a fan, one of my cherished cuts is on some compilation cassette, with an early version of Drugs. Another fave was their cover of 1-2-3 Red Light.

    Everything after Fear of Music sucked.

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