The Over/Under: Talking Heads

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Talking Heads positioned themselves in NYC’s mid-’70s downtown arts scene at the most fortunate moment possible. With one ear trained on the punk and new-wave movements and the other cocked toward the art-rock and performance-art explosions that would come in the early ’80s, the Heads—David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and Chris Frantz—undertook projects far beyond the scope and ambition of most of their counterparts, everything from choreographed minimalist live shows to full-length feature films, even as the band amassed a catalog of forward-looking albums, each with a unique mood and aesthetic. As time passes, though, Talking Heads’ legacy in the popular mind is largely limited to a ubiquitous handful of songs, most notably radio staple “Once In A Lifetime,” referenced everywhere from the opening credits for second-rate movies (Nick Nolte, we’re looking in your direction) to a series of Rolling Rock commercials. That’s a shame, since Byrne and Co.’s music bridges the gap between punk’s anything-goes aesthetic and formalist art rock’s high-concept composition. So for this week’s Over/Under, we survey the “Big Country” Byrne once sang about, thereby to take the lay of the land.

:: The Five Most Overrated Talking Heads Songs
1. “Psycho Killer” (1977)

Qu’est que c’est? C’est the song that’s too frequently held up as the high point of the Heads’ twitchy, herky-jerky aesthetic. “Psycho Killer,” the leadoff release from debut album Talking Heads ‘77, was essentially the Heads’ entry into popular culture. Though the single only charted in the ’90s, it’s since become the first reference point in talking about the band’s early development and musical approach, and the sinister cool that separated it from its late-’70s counterparts. It’s the kickoff moment for Jonathan Demme’s phenomenal concert film, Stop Making Sense, and unless anyone can correct me on this, I’m confident suggesting that it’s the Heads’ most covered song as well. There’s nothing wrong with any of that; but like many fans, I’m a little weary of the attention “Psycho Killer” gets, when other, equally strange and upsetting songs in the Heads’ catalog get short shrift.

2. “Wild Wild Life” (1986)
How long has it been since you’ve seen True Stories, Talking Heads’ sweetly charming, if horribly flawed, feature-film project? Parts of the movie hold up—a lovesick John Goodman and a smarmy Spalding Gray turn in especially nice performances—but the soundtrack, unique among the Heads’ albums, tends to the formulaic. Byrne once said the soundtrack overall was a disappointment; he’d wanted the actors themselves to sing the songs, the way their characters do in the movie. But “Wild Wild Life” was released essentially as it appears in the film, so it doesn’t get a revisionist pass. Despite its pop-hit-by-the-numbers feel—or maybe because of it—“Wild Wild Life” has the distinction of being one of the Heads’ highest-charting singles, reaching number 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The snotty video, in which various cast and band members parodied current pop-culture icons and images (Jerry Harrison’s Prince impression is still sort of phenomenal), took MTV’s best-group-video award in 1987. Today, however, it’s hard to hear the song as anything but an aberration, a pop tune that plays like a well-planned single but displays little of the Heads’ wit or complexity.

3. “Stay Up Late” (1985)
“Stay Up Late” is a perverse, forthright little number about a little kid who wants to keep the baby up all night. In 1989, Byrne licensed the lyrics for a children’s book, with images by illustrator Maira Kalman. It works much better in that context. The song sports a few cool moments, like Byrne’s clever lyrical insert from the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and Frantz drums here as well as he ever did on any of the Heads’ poppier songs. But still, taken on its own merits, “Stay Up Late” is rather a one-time joke.

4. “Heaven” (1979)
You know what’s great about “Heaven”? It’s all about how our professed yearning for happiness—and the methods we use to obtain it (romance, faith, finance, etc.)—often masks a deep desire to abdicate responsibility. But you know what few of the filmmakers who’ve used it, or listeners who profess to love it, ever seems to understand about “Heaven”? That it’s all about a deep desire to abdicate responsibility. Demme’s filming of the song’s arresting performance in Stop Making Sense showed he understood how to get out of the way and let Byrne and Weymouth tackle it, when they were standing in front of him. His mawkish use of the song as incidental music in 1993 AIDS drama Philadelphia, by contrast, cut the legs right out from under it. It comes, after all, from Fear Of Music, the Heads’ most paranoid album. Heard in that context, it works perfectly. Removed from that context, as it usually is, it sounds like a solemn, calm plea for respite from pain—something that it is, exactly, not.

5. “Swamp” (1983)
I never understood the fascination with “Swamp,” from Speaking In Tongues, though I’m perfectly willing to concede I might be missing something. It sure sounds like a great Talking Heads song—deep, funky bass lines, a growly vocal from Byrne, jittery lyrics about Satan and muck and explosions, and somehow threatening nonsense images—and yet it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. There are so many other songs on the album that mine similar upsetting territory in much deeper ways—the excellent “Slippery People” and “Making Flippy Floppy,” for instance—that “Swamp” always seemed more a groove exercise than a fully fleshed out piece of music.

:: The Five Most Underrated Talking Heads Songs
1. “The Great Curve” (1980)

Remain In Light, Talking Heads’ collaboration with producer Brian Eno, yielded two classics in “Once In A Lifetime” and “Crosseyed And Painless.” Balanced against the weight of those towering songs, this one doesn’t get a lot of play, but sewn into “The Great Curve” is everything that’s remarkable about that album. Adrian Belew’s angular guitar runs are synth-processed into long howls with the grace and fluidity of a sine curve; the lyrics are densely layered, the melodic lines tightly knotted, giving the impression of about a dozen musical patterns flashing by at once; and the percussive work is simply the best and the tightest on the record. Thirty years on, what’s most remarkable about Remain In Light is how such an aggressively techno-forward album manages to sound so human; as evidenced in the lyric “the world moves on a woman’s hips,” the band here managed to find the sexual through-line common to American rock, African rhythm and even computer programming. Not bad for a bunch of highbrow art geeks.

2. “Love → Building On Fire” (1977)
This was Talking Heads’ first single, released in advance of Talking Heads 77. Despite its historical importance, “Love → Building On Fire” didn’t get compilation treatment in the U.S. until 1992’s Sand In The Vaseline collection, though a live version, heard here, appeared on The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads in 1982. In any version, though, it’s a winner—one of the band’s freest, most good-natured moments—and for all the giddy clucking and chirping Byrne does throughout the song, it’s also a little wistful: “I can’t define love/When it’s not love /It’s not love /Which is my face /Which is a building /Which is on fire.” A lot of punk and new-wave bands refused to buy into singing about love at all; the Heads sang about it but refused to use the received language of pop romance. Here’s a love song for the modern age: urban, urbane and contentedly pessimistic.

3. “Don’t Worry About The Government” (1977)
“I wouldn’t live there/If you paid me to,” sang Byrne on anti-heartland rant “The Big Country.” “Don’t Worry About The Government,” to which it’s a kind little companion piece, is all about the joys of civil servitude and city living. Here’s a guy who’s so giddy about his new mod-con living space that he wants all of his pals to come by and relax in his hermitically sealed, climate-controlled rooms: “I’ll be working, working/But if you come visit, I’ll put down what I’m doing/My friends are important.” Among the most Warholian of the Heads’ songs, “Don’t Worry” doesn’t just accept the anonymity of city living as a cultural inevitability, but it embraces it as a happy alternative to the great big scary outdoors.

4. “(Nothing But) Flowers” (1988)
Naked, Talking Heads’ final studio album, is deeply uneven. But there are a few standout moments on it, and “(Nothing But) Flowers” is the best of these, a bouncy vision of the collapse of civilization and the retaking of the world by natural growth. In the middle of a long, slow fragmenting, the band sounds tighter here than it has since Speaking In Tongues, which is strange, given that so much of “Flowers” is about everything crumbling to earth: “And as things fell apart,” sings Byrne gleefully, “nobody paid much attention.” And I’ll put the second verse of the song (“Years ago/I was an angry young man”) up against anything else Byrne ever wrote, lyrically speaking. A billboard in love with a highway seems to me the perfect artistic summation of late-’80s advertising saturation and nowhere-fast upward mobility. “If this is paradise/I wish I had a lawnmower”: Back-to-the-land hippies and almighty-dollar capitalists alike, please take note.

5. “Sax & Violins” (1991)
First heard on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Until The End Of The World, the music for “Sax & Violins” dates from the Naked sessions, but it’s far bleaker and darker than anything on that album, and it ranks with the Heads’ starkest visions of the modern world, in which no one’s safe from damage even at the hands of those closest to them: “Mom and pop/They will fuck you up/For sure/Love so deep/Kill you in your sleep/It’s true.” By the time they’d recorded this cut, Talking Heads had progressed from art-school pickup band to one of the most eclectic groups in avant rock. “Sax & Violins” is a somber note to clock out on, but in many ways it does what the Heads did best, marrying throbbing, danceable rhythms to an aggressively modern view of the changing world. Or the end of that world, as the case may be.

—Eric Waggoner

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