Essential New Music: Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense”

The movie Stop Making Sense constitutes an undeniable high for Talking Heads. The Jonathan Demme-directed documentary of the band’s 1983 stage show, with its stark lighting, energetic staging and hyper-focused portrayal of a band at work, won justified acclaim as one of the best concert movies of all time. Even seen in YouTube-sized fragments, it has sustained the band’s popularity across four decades, even though Talking Heads played exactly one three-song performance since the end of that tour. 

The album of the same name, however, is more problematic. Since they’d already released a double live record in 1982, they chose not to represent the entire show on wax or tape. The songs they selected stuck to hits and recent stuff, and they were ruthlessly edited. Most unfortunately, the LP took the song order—a carefully drawn arc of the original concert that built from a solitary representation of awkward alienation to a grand celebration of community, joyously dancing—and tossed it out the window. So, while the original album did well commercially, it was hardly an artistic success. In 1999, a 15th anniversary reissue restored some of the missing material by providing a track list that corresponds to what was in the movie’s DVD edition. Still, if you caught the band on that tour, as I did, you knew that there was still something missing: the “Big Business/I Zimbra” medley, which was one of the concert’s highlights. 

Speaking of big business, 2023 marks 40 years since the tour that yielded Stop Making Sense, and a significant anniversary is always an obvious time to stir the commercial pot. So, this fall, the film is going to be re-released in theaters, and the album has been redone as a double LP. The medley and another missing song, “Cities,” have been restored so that the song sequence finally corresponds to the 1983 tour’s set list. And the edits have been undone, which unintentionally demonstrates that some of the cuts were actually pretty canny; keyboardist Bernie Worrell’s quotes from “The Star-Spangled Banner” on “Making Flippy Floppy” and “The Little Drummer Boy” on “I Zimbra” could have stayed on the cutting room floor. But those moments are over in a flash.

Taken as a whole, this new edition of Stop Making Sense finally does justice to the tour’s still-startling sequencing and captures the band at a commercial and performative peak. While later records had their moments, Talking Heads would never be this good again.

—Bill Meyer