My friend Rod burst into my dorm room without knocking. Frantic with excitement, he held up a copy of the newly released Talking Heads album, Remain In Light. With grave urgency Rod looked me dead in the eye and said “You have to listen to this record right now.” I was about to walk to World History class, but obviously this was more important at the moment, so I put my books down and lit a cigarette. Rod plopped the vinyl onto the turntable of my dorm-room-obligatory Magnavox stereo, all the while carrying on about how great this album is, how David Byrne is a genius, how this record will change everything, blah blah blah. By the middle of the second song I was so absorbed by the hypnotic beat and sensuous sonic timbre that Rod’s enthusiastic but relentless endorsement speech was but a faint drone in a polyrhythmic musical wonderland.
Neither Rod nor I were strangers to Talking Heads when Remain In Light was released in the fall of 1980; “Take Me to the River” had been a huge hit when we were in high school, and the Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music included “Life During Wartime”, which contained one of our favorite quotable lines: “This ain’t no party/This ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around.” However, when Talking Heads made their debut in 1977 they did not catch our attention. Like most contemporary music fans at the time, we were still ensconced in the glow of the Boston/Rumours/Hotel California honeymoon, so artists like Talking Heads, Television, and Elvis Costello, all of whom made their debut in 1977, escaped our notice. But music critics did take note of these artists, although they did not know quite how to define them. Talking Heads was variously described as new wave, avant-garde, funk-rock, pre-punk, post punk (!), art-punk (!!), dance rock, and as white purveyors of the newly emerging genre known as hip-hop. If they couldn’t agree on a label, the critics at least agreed that Talking Heads were distinctly and refreshingly different.
Talking Heads’ front man David Byrne wrote songs that paradoxically describe in great detail an urban romantic uncertainty from which Byrne sought to distance himself. This lyrical dichotomy produced a tension that was countered by the rhythmic optimism of the music, especially Tina Weymouth’s persistently perky bass guitar. These were songs that made you think while simultaneously giving you an irrepressible urge to dance. In a musical landscape that was polarized by the vacuous escapism of disco at one extreme and the nihilistic self-consciousness of punk at the other extreme, Talking Heads cleared out a space in between, taking a stance that neither denied the existence of punk or disco nor refrained from bumping into the musical and philosophical elements thereof. Such analysis might seem superfluous for a musical idiom that serves primarily as a vehicle for the expression of the tension between sexual urgency and romantic uncertainty, but therein lies the genius of David Byrne and the appeal of Talking Heads.
Beginning with their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Talking Heads and their producer Brian Eno sought to progressively add layers of rhythmic complexity to their music on each successive album. With its influence of Caribbean and West African rhythms, Remain In Light thus marked another step in that process. Had it been released after the band’s first album, it would have been a jarring juxtaposition, but coming as the fourth installment in the series, it was a natural culmination of the progression, but was still stunningly different enough to provoke the kind of behavior described in the first paragraph.
Having produced four seminal albums in as many years, Talking Heads took a three-year hiatus after Remain In Light, although all four band members stayed busy with side projects during the break. They reconvened in 1983 to record the highly anticipated and very successful follow-up, Speaking In Tongues, which includes “Girlfriend is Better”, a song that is every bit as funky as anything recorded by Prince. For their subsequent tour, Talking Heads hired members of Parliament-Funkadelic to augment the funk-driven sensuality of the band’s set list. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme was recruited to record some of the shows during the tour. The resulting film, Stop Making Sense, whose title is taken from a line in “Girlfriend Is Better”, is one of the best concert movies ever made and still looks as fresh and inventive today as it did three decades ago. The film includes a brilliant performance of the aforementioned “Girlfriend is Better” that famously features David Byrne wearing a comically oversized suit jacket, thus producing one of the most iconic images of the goofy nineteen-eighties.
Tonight’s featured video is Talking Heads’ performance of “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense. I chose it because it is equally satisfying visually and musically, and it showcases the brilliance of David Byrne’s ability to communicate the paranoia of the lyrics and the contrasting buoyancy of the music. Byrne’s onstage demeanor combines the theatrical posturing of David Bowie and the sheer physicality of Mick Jagger. Meanwhile, everyone else onstage is bouncing, smiling, dancing, jogging in place, and generally having a damn good time. The overall effect is that the phrase “life during wartime” turns out not to mean that our behavior will be different in mostly negative ways during wartime, rather it means that not even war can suppress the basic human desire to keep dancing, or at least to keep moving. As Byrne sings “This ain’t no party/this ain’t no disco/this ain’t no fooling around” he and everyone around him are behaving to the contrary. This is sort of like saying that even in the face of mass destruction we can party like it’s 1999, but two Prince references in one essay might be a bit much. Then again, that is precisely the kind of funky irony that David Byrne would appreciate.