There is more to Talking Heads than “Heaven.”
Talking Heads thrived on radio play as “Psycho Killer” and “Burning Down the House” helped the band stay financially viable, allowing them to explore more risky territory on non-single cuts. Sure, “And She Was” and “Life During Wartime” and many of the other songs have been anthologized on hits collections, but the band’s more darkly experimental music is equally important. If you already familiar with the songs we have selected here, you know that there is more to Talking Heads than “Heaven.” If you don’t, we hope you enjoy these unsung classics.
The second track on Talking Heads’ debut was a strange, pseudo-disco romp with David Byrne’s twitching vocals as always leading the song into deranged territory. The cracked note he squeals when he sings “I hear music and it sounds like bells!” is a particularly jarring and delightful moment. The other star here is that bouncing, shimmering wall of guitars, expertly provided by Jerry Harrison, which goaded Byrne into more delusional waters. It’s good to know that even from the very beginning, Talking Heads had no pretensions towards being normal.
This sub two minute track is the shortest and, perhaps most absurd song on ‘77. Byrne’s lyrics are fantastically simplistic, with his coos demanding the questions “Who is it?/ What is it?” be answered. The chugging guitar has a bit of rockabilly and a Buddy Holly influence. In the song’s beautiful bridge, those spastic guitars calm down long enough to guide Byrne into admitting he’s in love before he leaps back into insanity.
The closing track on ‘77 is one of Talking Heads’ more conventional tracks, and it’s surprising it never became a single like “Psycho Killer.” Byrne addresses his hometown, his parents and maybe his bandmates as he recalls his ascension into the world of rock n’ roll. Even before Talking Heads became one of the most influential bands of their time, Byrne was preparing his “I’d like to thank the academy” speech with this light post-punk nugget.
Remain in Light proved that Talking Heads were a rhythm based band, but even in their early days they knew the importance of a good backbone. The cooing xylophone gives the song a pleasant bounce along with the crackling maracas and bossa nova guitar groove. It’s nearly tropical, and paired with the cheesy sax solo that comes half-way through, “Carefree” lives up to its title, delivering one of the few Talking Heads songs that can be truly thought of as relaxing.
Talking Heads’ second album opens with what sounds like Byrne talking to himself in the mirror to someone who “can walk/ You can talk just like me!” That catchy march beat is a hint: this non-conformist art student is singing about lock-step conformity, a search for connection that only satisfies him when he finds someone exactly like him. In retrospect, this could have been an early sign of Byrne’s reputation for being a control freak. But at this formative stage in the band’s career, this catchy miniature passes for conceptual art, an anthem directed at the self, demanding action: “But first:/ Show me what you can do.”
Its repetitive piano-guitar riff is almost wistful and even recalls Philip Glass, but the lyrics are classic Byrne angst, delivered with a natural agitation that seems quaint now. But at the time, Byrne’s downtown yelps were a startling and thoroughly uncommercial vocal approach. That sing-song music suggests a nursery rhyme, so Byrne’s conflict isn’t about sex but communication, lamenting that “Girls don’t want to/ Play like that/ Just want to talk to the boys.” The instrumental break proves that at least in this mixed-gender band, boys and girls play together just fine.
It can be hard to recall now how unusual this sounded almost 40 years ago, but if you were a pre-teen living through this time it was all too easy to offer a yelping impersonation of this quirky auteur. Talking Heads’ early albums developed, perfected and then transcended a groundbreaking strain of nerd-funk, and Byrne is the ur-funky-nerd, the neurotic artist whose muse spurs strange vocal tics that are like rough vocal brushstrokes. His idiosyncrasies were once daring but have now become a comforting part of the mainstream. The band behind him was no slouch either, laying down oddly danceable music that comes out of equal parts garage rock, no wave and science fiction. These are More Songs About Buildings and Food in the grandest sense: futuristic dance-floor anthems that are about where and how we live.
Opening with funk chords that look forward to the sound they would flesh out over their next two albums, the stop-and-start rhythms take the avant-garde structures of, say, DNA and make something that they could at least pretend would be commercially viable. Byrne puts on airs of resistance: “‘Cause I’m not in love/ What does it take to fall in love?/ Why would I want to fall in love?” But the album’s single, a brilliant reworking of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” proves that they were just looking for another kind of salvation, physical or musical.
Lyrically, it’s not the album’s best song–lines like “religion won’t change you, drugs won’t change you” are a bit too close to solo-John Lennon territory for comfort. But it’s the instrumental and vocal performances that matter. “Mind” may have the Heads’ best riff, with spider webs of staccato guitar bridging the gaps between tinny piano chords. Byrne’s vocals are at their most unhinged yet melodic; it’s disarming to hear those sexy octave leaps on a song as unsettling as this. “Mind” is a far more promising introduction to Fear Of Music than the faux-African pop colonialism of “I Zimbra”; it’s the perfect mix of mire and pop song.
With its one-word, noun-oriented song titles, Fear of Music plays like a laundry list of things besides music Byrne is scared of. On “Cities,” he’s freaking out just trying to figure out what city to live in. The contenders are London, Birmingham, and Memphis, all of which seem like pretty drab and dark places — Birmingham even has ghosts! Byrne just wants some time to “get some thinking done,” which should suit him well given how overloaded his mind seems. “I smell home cooking!” he shrieks while touring Memphis; it’s only “the river,” which is somehow a relief in Byrne’s world. Maybe a city isn’t the best place for this guy anyway.
“Aaaaaaair,” warns Tina Weymouth, as if predicting the coming of the Wicked Witch; in seconds, David Byrne’s skin is already melting off. Yes, the invisible gas that allows us to live and breathe can hurt us too, and this is one of the cheeriest songs on Fear of Music. It’s a great pure pop song, with a chorus that borders on bubblegum and a beautiful passage that tracks Byrne’s air-related demise from ringing major to worried minor chords. This would have been one of the Heads’ biggest hits in a perfect world. But a casual scan of the lyric sheet reveals why it’s not.
Perhaps the most maligned song on the album, which makes sense as Byrne barely sings and his lyrics make little sense. But its impenetrability makes it thrilling. For years I thought this was an Aesop-type fable explaining how the electric guitar came to be controlled by a human rather than walking around and making noise by itself. But is there a moral? And what’s with the subplot about vinyl? You can try and process the bits and pieces of the song and see what kind of story you can assemble, or you can let it wash over you in all its inexplicability.
After the relative reprieve of “Heaven,” this comes as a shock, the album’s most paranoid track following its most incongruous pop song. Things start out normally enough, but Byrne takes a wrong turn on guitar and soon enough he’s screaming for dear life, surrounded by worrying visions of super-smart animals stalking him and giving him life advice. Soon enough we find out just why Byrne’s pants are in such a bunch: he’s jealous. Animals get to sleep all day, shit on the ground, and eat berries. “They’re setting a bad example,” he screams, presumably surrounded by paperwork and responsibilities.
One of the all-time great album openings, its funky guitar immediately drives Remain in Light into ambitious new territory, and its futuristic keyboard solo keeps it there. Lyrically, the nigh unending “And the heat goes on…” interludes carry the song into a cult-like revelry and support mysterious references to breathing and the “Hands of a government man.” Talking Heads was as enigmatic and subversive as any rock group then making music, and “Born Under Punches” made that obvious from the get-go of their most sophisticated album yet. spectacular album.
The guitar is absolute fire on this wild, high BPM car chase around beautiful women and the power of their control. Overlapping vocals create a frenetic, schizophrenic atmosphere that never stops, driven on by high-energy percussion and a furtive ode to a mystery woman who is “only partly human” and “defines the possibilities.” The guitar solo splits the song into two sections, giving way to as powerful and ecstatic a bridge as Talking Heads ever produced. Listening to David Byrne sing “A world of light/ She’s going to upon our eyes up” is to witness a nearly religious ecstasy, devotion to a beauty and power blinding and ungraspable.
This insane, high-octane album ends with one of its slowest, most eerie songs, yet one no less enigmatic than the rest of the album. “A terrible signal,” the song begins, perhaps referring to its own tremulous, high-pitched siren-scored opener, “too weak to even recognize.” The guitar drones on a song that’s hypnotic yet not lifeless, kept afloat by Byrne’s almost monotone, yet somehow irresistible murmur, his lyrics just left of structured nonsense. Floating through the song’s mesmerizing duration, it’s easy to forget the energy that defined the preceding songs, as Byrne lulls the listener into what is an altogether false sense of security. “The Overload” is not the high heat of the explosion; it’s the deafening silence of its aftermath, a world ravaged and wrecked by destruction, a dystopian chant at the end of a spellbinding album.
Sandwiched between a pair of hits in “Burning Down the House” and “Girlfriend is Better,” this tends to get ignored on an album full of radio staples. But it has some of Byrne’s best lyrics, and the subtle guitar play that enters in the background of the second verse amidst afro-percussive rhythms and a groovy bassline, along with a strange, almost out of place bridge at the halfway point, make it one of the more idiosyncratic offerings on an album by a band that thrives on idiosyncrasy.
Like “Making Flippy Floppy,” this deep cut is sandwiched between better-known songs, though it lacks the upbeat, danceable bursts of the former. What it does, have is impressive gospel vocals. Perhaps because the band is so good at blending African rhythms and the avant-garde into pop music, you expect Talking Heads to find a groove quickly. But the synth beat here is a constant that stabilizes a typically smooth bassline by Tina Weymouth. Still, this doesn’t prepare the listener for a spacey bridge (a favorite technique on the album) that goes through a number of phases before returning to the gospel refrain. Suddenly, it all makes sense: there was a great tune there the whole time.
Staccato bursts of one guitar slightly echo in another as Byrne says something about flying saucers and levitation. It may not sound like it on first listen, but this is among the stranger offerings in Talking Heads’ catalogue. Distorted vocals do nothing to change that, but when Byrne suddenly starts to emote around the three-minute mark and claims to feel numb, the music seems to replicate that feeling. It comes back just as it was, and Byrne’s claim to be a moon rock underscores the weirdness of the whole thing.
As the song begins, bassist Tina Weymouth seems poised to take the lead, but her vamp suddenly gets crowded out by odds bursts of sound from deeper within the mix until it suddenly all comes together for a chorus. Rather than settling into that structure, the song keeps building; the second chorus changes lyrically and musically, and then the vamp jazzes itself up and the music refuses to conform to a major key. The band seems content to keep pulling up, finding new musical treasures each step of the way, making this one of the most fascinating tracks on the album.
Little Creatures represents a tonal shift in the Talking Heads’ canon. Gone are the more experimental flourishes in favor of coherent songs based largely in recognizable, established genres. On this track, Byrne explores the wonders of reproduction backed by a straight-ahead country feel. It’s an odd juxtaposition, stylistically and thematically, but still manages to work thanks largely in part to Byrne’s childlike wonder at the appearance of “little creatures” following a couple laying together. Sure it’s a bit overly simplistic, but the imagery and accompanying music make it one of the more charming entries in their catalog.
One of several funk-tinged workouts on the album, this is perhaps the most Talking Heads-like song on the album. Jittery rhythms and cartoonish vocals wrapped in a vaguely Afro-centric melody draw the logical through line from their early albums, and prove that the band had not gone completely pop. As always, Byrne’s slightly skewed take on the world around him is the lyrical centerpiece. Full of first-person pronouns and a wide array of additional instrumental backing, it shows off a more mature, focused Byrne without sacrificing the basic musical ideas on which the band was founded.
Perhaps more than any other track on the album, this sounds like the production of its time. Relying more on synths and sparse, almost mechanized drumming from Chris Franz, it sounds like 1985. But, unlike the other ephemeral, throwaway songs produced that same year, “Perfect World” possesses one of the loveliest chorus melodies Byrne ever came up with. Exploring the upper reaches of his range without falling back on bug-eyed straining, he posits himself as a legitimate pop singer. That you can dance to it as well is an added bonus.
As a band, Talking Heads always had a love/hate relationship with modern technology. In his inimitable way, Byrne explores our relationship with that most potent of technologies, the television. “Television made me what I am,” he sings as images from the world outside come crashing into his home. Over an driving beat that eventually breaks down to a straight percussion break replete with wordless call-and-response, Byrne assures us that he and his television are “just good friends.” Yet another critical assessment of contemporary society, it comes wrapped in a fairly wicked groove that makes the message go down just that much easier.
The band rocked harder than ever, but where Stop Making Sense was one of the great concert films, True Stories is a rock movie that dreams small and stays small. That may have been the point; but where their first four albums were each more instrumentally sophisticated than the last, this further return to basics after Little Creatures seems like a decline. On Remain in Light, a gospel chorus would have been part of a rich, living, forward-looking dialogue with other musical traditions; here it merely seems like a group of hired voices. Still, it’s a catchy title hook that’s smarter and catchier than the album’s hit single.
Lyrics like “Piece of mind/ Is a piece of cake” on “Wild Wild Life” show the precipitous drop in Byrne’s lyrical gift. So it’s a wonder that this pleasantly hummable but relatively simple deep cut inspired the name of one of the most challenging musical groups of their time. “It’s the sound of a brand new world” no longer describes Talking Heads at this musical juncture, but it would soon come to describe its progeny.
This pleasant, waltzing ballad revolves around a gentle title image that seems out of the head of a benign David Lynch, which is a fair description of the movie it comes from. Byrne’s cut-up approach to lyrics resulted in obscure but fascinating wordplay. For this album and movie, Byrne turns into a well-meaning populist: “Every dream has a name/ And names tell your story” is a perfectly nice idea. But there was a time when Byrne was good for more than just nice ideas. When Byrne reaches for falsetto late in the song, it’s a reminder that on Talking Heads’ early albums, his signature neurotic high notes were an arthouse reinvention of the falsetto crooner.
Talking Heads riffed on country music all the way back on More Songs About Buildings and Food with “The Big Country.” In those days Byrne was more indirect with his lyrical conceits, which may have seemed frustrating at the time. Here he puts it bluntly: “We don’t want freedom/ We don’t want justice/ We just want someone to love.” But the song’s strongest image comes from the kind of small detail Byrne used to toss off so easily: “Who will answer the telephone?” The song’s title may well answer its own question.
The much, much, much younger brother of “First Week/Last Week…Carefree,” this was another beachside trip in Talking Heads’ catalogue. Sunny synths accompany Byrne’s descriptions of a “nature boy, nature man” and his obsession with water continues with the claim that “I’m a little fish and you’re the river.” He later recounts a “polka party” at the bottom of the ocean after a shipwreck. Despite that dark imagery, “Totally Nude” still has a child-like sense of the world, where everything’s just a little more colorful.
Johnny Marr might have added his guitar work here, but the song’s very DNA is encoded with drums; thumping, rolling, thunderous drums. Guest Brice Wassy combined his talents with Frantz to create the rollicking intro of primal drum work that served as the track’s foundation. Airy guitars and Byrne’s wayward coos and detailed pictures of stormy waters are just icing on the cake.
What a short story to fit into four minutes. On the easiest level, it’s about a long family road trip through the eyes of the kids sitting in the backseat with Byrne singing that he’s “sleeping on my daddy’s shoulder.” But the details of feet covered in blisters and the admission that “we’re not going home” cast a dark shadow. Is it a mass exodus from a natural disaster? An escape from violence in some distant country? Byrne never says, but his unreliable narrator only makes the story that much more mesmerizing.
The late days of the Reagan administration weren’t exactly happy days (unless you were a Gordon Gekko type), but it did produce some blistering political art. Over a breezy backdrop, Byrne lazily talks about a strange circus wandering into town with unfurling flags, guns and signs of a forced draft. Just after Byrne plays a switcheroo with “And when the ringmaster calls our names/ We’ll be the first ones to go… to sleep” the music takes on a more muscular, dangerous tone. Byrne evokes Dylan as he howls that it’s “Gonna rain! Gonna Rain! Gonna
rain!” leaving no doubt that it’s a perfect day for an airstrike.