Friday, June 11, 2021

n. slang, the image of a person, usually with only the head and upper body visible, talking to the camera, as in a documentary, news show, or similar work

Talking Heads

Early in 1976, RISD students, Talking Heads (David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), made their first demo, recording "Psycho Killer," "First Week, Last Week/Carefree" and "Artists Only" for Beserkeley Records. The result, completed with a live version of "1,2,3 Red Light" (which didn't surface as a bootleg EP until the early eighties), revealed the group to have had a simple, eclectic charm that was vanishing by the time they made their first LP. Later demo sessions followed in the summer of '76, and in November, the group signed with Sire Records - home of the Ramones and the Flamin' Groovies. In December, the three-piece line-up recorded its first single, "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire"/"New Feeling" - issued early in the new year. Neither track has appeared on a Talking Heads LP, although "New Feeling" was re-cut for the debut album, and the A-side was included on Sire's New Wave Sampler. By the time the single was released, Talking Heads had become a four-piece. Jerry Harrison, guitarist in the original Modern Lovers behind Jonathan Richman, had been recommended to the group; after a couple of trial gigs late in 1976, he agreed to join the band as soon as his other commitments were fulfilled.

In April, the foursome began recording their first LP, which was completed in July after a series of gigs in Europe. Talking Heads 77 was issued in September 1977 in the States, a month later in the U.K. The album was a minor triumph. While other New York acts concentrated on getting across their emotions with raw power, Talking Heads made gentle, almost placid music, saving  their killer punch for the lyrics.

For my father, it was one of the simplest billboards he had ever painted; simply a red orange background with yellow letters 4½ feet high that said "Talking Heads 77." As an Angeleno, and just a kid at the time, I had no exposure to the New York Scene at CBGBs – no Blondie, no Ramones, no Talking Heads. L.A. was about jazz and a lighter, more accessible rock (Weather Report, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan, and the myriad of amazing music from an amazing year), and somehow it glossed over the New York scene.  Conversely London's new wave, from Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson to the Clash made it to the clubs. Out of it would come L.A. punk, with New York playing little role in L.A.'s evolution. Talking Heads were the exception.

Talking Heads at the Factory, 1977
Six months later, July 1978, the band released More Songs About Buildings and Food, and struck it big with the hit "Take Me to the River," a cover of the 1974 Al Green tune. Of the album, Salon wrote: "More Songs About Buildings and Food [is] a backwards exorcism of frozen-brittle guitars, smeared textures and super-ecstatic vocals. The record brought forth an essential darkness and didn’t try to extinguish it. These were songs about emotions that lurk, about the secret part of ourselves that knows people can see right through us on buses, planes and subways, all sung by a disjointed, ferocious, manic, shivering guy named David Byrne It was a kind of State of the Union address, examining the nation’s health from a dozen different angles, including the sky." Talking Heads were the art rock to come.

The Heads' sophomore effort saw the first of their production/collaborations with Brian Eno, who adds a smoothness and depth to the angular and jerky-yet-machinistic moves from the Heads' practica, while Byrne's songwriting starts to merge with the growing atmospheric sensibilities that would emerge as this creative partnership evolved. Here Byrne's lyrics enhance their look at a dark world, a pattern that would grow to overwhelming levels on the subsequent two albums. I can't tell you how many times I listened to this album in my youth. Good to the last drop. Their masterpiece? Perhaps. Indispensable? You know it. Another side of the seventies; 40 years ago.

"What are you painting?" I asked him. He never knew.

"It says, 'Talking Heads '77'." He didn't know Elton John, he surely wouldn't have known Talking Heads. Nor did I, but he took me to Tower Records and I bought it with birthday money; a cassette. He took me to Ben Frank's. I had a chili-size and a chocolate Coke. He had breakfast.      - From Jay and the Americans