Talking Heads Albums
Talking Heads are one of the bands that set the trends for people to follow, a completely unique band. They didn’t follow any kind of pattern or really build off of anything except the “idea” of rock music. They loved to experiment and though they had a pop side to their sound, they also dared to cross the line to experiment many, many times. The band was definitely of the disco age: all of their songs were danceable in some way, but they were rooted in rock music and especially tribal beats of the third world- a sound that consumed the band’s around their best albums. It is hard to compare them to other “punk” bands of the time such as the Ramones, The Clash, Television, Pere Ubu, etc, because Talking Heads always were their own flavor of music. In all though, Talking Heads fused pop music with a sense of quirkiness and disjointed edge as well as complicated structures on the best songs and albums, to create a new form of art rock. That, and they released the best concert film ever made, 1984’s Stop Making Sense directed by Johnathan Demme.
David Byrne – Vocals, Guitar
Jerry Harrison – Guitar, Keyboards
Tina Waymouth – Bass
Chris Frantz – Drums
Pere Ubu, Modern Lovers, Fela Kuti, Roxy Music, Al Green
More Songs about Buildings and Food and Remain in Light
1977 – (4.5 / 5) – Talking Heads ‘77
1978 – (5 / 5)+ – More Songs About Buildings and Food
1979 – (5 / 5)– Fear of Music
1980 – (5 / 5)+ – Remain in Light
1983 – (4.5 / 5) – Speaking in Tongues
1985 – (3 / 5)– Little Creatures
1986 – (4 / 5)– True Stories
1988 – (1.5 / 5) – Naked
Talking Heads: 77 – (4.5 / 5)
The debut by the Talking Heads must have sounded completely unique for its time. Really, it still does: it gets the mixture of pop music with disjointed oddness just right. This is not a harsh sounding album, it is not “punk” like Sex Pistols or Clash were. What this album presents is that quirkiness does not necessarily mean dorky, and that great songs can be about everyday life. “Happy Day”, “Then Book I Read”, “First Week Last Week… Carefree” are all songs about things like reading, jobs, love, and universal topics that Byrne really just does different variations on his whole career. Bryne is defiantly kind of strange and awkward, but he is also sincere and touching, and never alienating (the difference between Talking Heads and say, Pere Ubu).
A strong presence of well thought out song-structure also rules the album. For example, “No Compassion” is an era defining song: a song-within-a-song approach that to my knowledge, had NEVER been attempted before, at least not the way Byrne does it. It starts off talking about “a world where people have problems” in a slow, mysterious tempo – THEN it shifts to a completely different tune with its own verse and chorus and repeats this twice – THEN it goes back to the beginning mystery part. It is a awe inspiring example of song writing, and one of the band’s greatest tunes. “Psycho Killer” is the most famous tune on here with it’s mix of English and French and Byrne howling like a maniac, but even that is more disjointed than fast and intense; hell, it would work as an acoustic ballad. I love the way that song talks about “hating people when they are not polite!”, cracks me up every time. In the more traditional sense, we have “Uh Oh Love Comes to Town”, “New Feeling”, and “Pulled Up”, which are way more traditional sounding pop songs, but they are backed up by the great playing of the band. A little inconsistent towards the beginning with “Tentative Decisions” and “Who Is It” being a little grating in their repetition, but all in all a great debut from a promising band. This is a debut that points towards a future of infinite possibilities.
Greatest Songs: No Compassion, Psycho Killer, Happy Day, The Book I Read
More Songs About Buildings and Food – (5 / 5)+
Talking Head’s second album is their best and shows a band in complete control of their abilities. The confidence shines through from the first song to the last. Everything Byrne and company does is sublime and perfection in a nutshell, with many echoes of The Modern Lovers debut album from 2 years prior. I feel like I need to stress what an underrated album this is: not just a quantum leap from the previous one (Talking Heads ‘77), not just the band’s most underrated in its discography, but one of the best rock albums ever. It is NONSTOP in its barrage of great tunes and it changes tones and qualities the exact right amount of times in my opinion. It is CONSISTENT and every song is great (though a minor quibble could be “I’m Not In Love”). It is DANCEABLE & FUN all the way through, with “The Good Thing”, “Stay Hungry”, and “With Our Love” containing amazing twists and turns and “Warning Sign”, “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”, and “Take Me to the River” being straight up funk classics! Most of all, it is PASSIONATE through and through. Byrne pleads with people to take another look at life in songs like “Girls Want to be with the Girls”, “Found a Job”, and “The Big Country” (which contains the great phrase “I wouldn’t lift it if he paid me”) and his struggle is personal not political like many of their new wave contemporaries.
Brain Eno’s production is the icing on the cake – known for his moody atmosphere and sheer great skills, ENO makes the band sound like something out of this world (though the songs by themselves would be great anyway…but that’s besides the point). I must point out that two of the best songs ever exist on More Songs About Buildings and Food: “With Our Love” and “Stay Hungry”. The former has a great captivating style while talking about the problems of natural human relationships and conflicts that arise such as jobs and stress, while the latter emphasizes structure of a different kind changing substantially three different times while maintaining a constant flow. Bryne proves himself worthy of the past masters of song structure such as Paul McCartney and Arthur Lee. Overall, rock music is given one of its best albums with More Songs about Buildings and Food, a shining light in a time of mainstream arena-rock garbage such as the late seventies.
Greatest Songs: With Our Love, Stay Hungry, The Big Country, The Good Thing
Fear of Music – (5 / 5)
The band’s third album is a measure of human paranoia. Every single song is named after a topic to be afraid of, an experiment by Byrne to explore why people think like they do. An album created by any other band of this era would be hard to listen to, but Talking Heads have a target audience in mind, and come across with some of their most accessible songs. “Life During Wartime” is one of the most paranoid songs ever, but it is performed with such a jubilant attitude that all you wanna do is dance! Many other songs are of similar vein: “Heaven” and “Mind” sound ‘pleasant’ while being very serious in tone, while “I Zimbra” is some exuberant African funk that has little to do with the theme of the record, except that it is of exceptional quality. “Paper”, “Life During Wartime”, and “Electric Guitar” exemplify the paranoid mood and actually SOUND demented and crazy. “Animals” does not work so well, and is the only failed experiment on here. In some strange way that is hard to explain with words (most great albums are), Fear of Music has a flow to it that works well despite the overall negative tone and paranoid fantasies. The band shows its least accessible side with this album, but just because it is so bizarre at points (the Pere Ubu homage “Drugs” and the psychedelic vocals of “Air” come to mind) it is all relatively easy to enjoy. With tunes like “Cities”, “Heaven”, my personal favorite “Mind” about the nature of relationships, hell….about any nine songs on here are great by any standards, and that makes it another indispensable album by the band.
Greatest Songs: Mind, Air, Memories Can Wait, Heaven
Remain in Light – (5 / 5)+
“Don’t you miss it, don’t you miss it; some of you people just about missed it,” says David Byrne in the first song of the Talking Head’s 4th album. Well, some people never ‘got it’, but this is not only one of the best albums ever but also one of the most unique. Morphing disco, dance, and African/Native American rhythms into abnormal and repetitive songs, this album is a hypnotic trance of music that you could listen to everyday and still get something out of it. The first half of the album is very upbeat, and the second half gradually becomes depressing until the finale; basically it goes from chaos to normality (the classic single “Once in a Lifetime” and “Houses in Motion”) then back into chaos ending with “The Overload”, a black hole of depression and excellent example of drone music.
Multiple listens are needed for Remain In Light to truly sink in, hard to get used to, but once you start to like it, you will realize it is one of the best albums of all time. My personal favorite is “The Great Curve” with its awesome gospel music chanting; it makes you want to go join the chorus and sing in! Another quality about Remain in Light is the way the album is not dated for an album released in 1980, it still sounds futuristic to this very day. ‘77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Fear of Music are all great albums, and Remain in Light is right there with them among the top of the rock album heap of the late 1970’s, looking down and setting the trends for the1980’s. The album is basically flawless, every song is great (even though there are only eight, if I had to like one the least it would be moody “Seen and Not Seen”), and it influenced artists as varied as Paul Simon, Madonna, Prince, U2, and countless New Wave rock bands. Remain in Light basically has more to offer than almost any other album does, period. Ladies and gents, this is great music experimentation.
Greatest Songs: The Great Curve, The Overload, Born Under Punches, Crosseyed and Painless
Speaking in Tounges – (4.5 / 5)
Say what you want about the awful 1980’s production (we were all a little spoiled by the previous Eno albums, how could you not be? It’s Eno damn it!), Speaking in Tongues is still in the same league as the previous TH records and a great album. No, it’s not Remain in Light or More Songs About Buildings and Food, but it could easily be as great as ’77 or maybe even Fear of Music. The pop quotient is up as “Making Flippy Floppy”, “This Must be the Place”, “Girlfriend is Better”, and “Slippery People” are just about perfect as radio singles. In truth, it’s not that much of a departure from “Life During Wartime”, “Pulling Up”, or “Happy Day” from previous records.
On the other hand, not everything on here is that pop oriented, and it’s in the darker songs the album finds its strength: “Swamp” is a demented piece of stylistic singing that rivals anything on Fear of Music in paranoia territory; “Burning Down the House” was a hit single, but it is disjointed and punky as well, making it humorous that it was ever a hit in my opinion; “Pull up the Roots” is among the band’s best album tracks and truly a psychedelic storm of sound effects, a more Remain in Light style venture. There are two bad tunes though, “I Get Wild” and “Moon Rocks” are lame by the Talking Heads excellent standards. Expect the expected with this record: dance music done incredibly well with every member of the band being right on time, and add a bit of giddiness, African instrumentation, derangement, and you’ll enjoy this as well as anything the band has done so far.
Greatest Songs: Burning Down the House, Swamp, This Must Be the Place, Pull Up the Roots
Little Creatures – (3 / 5)
Bookended by two of the band’s biggest singles, the touching rocker “And She Was” and the marching “Road to Nowhere”, this album can be deceiving. It is not that it is bad, it is just not that good. The band reaches into its back catalogue because it is running out of ideas. “Give Me Back My Name” rips off “Air”, “Walk It Down” rips of “Girlfriend is Better”, neither of them do it so much as I would warrant seeing for plagiarism (isn’t this the year John Fogerty got sued for ripping off himself? He won that case by the way) but it’s just they way they seem to be out of ideas that bothers me (the album as a whole comes off like a Speaking in Tongues b-sides collection). “Creatures of Love” is a pretty good song that starts off great with its “I’ve seen sex and I think it’s ok” lyric, but the chorus is generic. Not only that, “The Lady Don’t Mind” through “Television Man” are mediocre songs to the core, and it doesn’t get more boring than that. A disappointing album, but “And She Was” might be worth the price of the album alone.
Greatest Songs: And She Was, Road to Nowhere
True Stories – (4 / 5)
True Stories is worlds better than Little Creatures; anyone who tells you any different is crazy and has not really listened. The production is better for those who care about such things, and the songs are way better. There is a funny story with this: since Byrne made the soundtrack to the movie with different actor’s voices for almost every song, he wanted to make a true soundtrack for the album, but the record company wouldn’t allow it. So Byrne had to sing all of these songs with his vocals, and it’s not that they are bad like that, but it would have been much more fun with the actors from the movie (if you have never seen the film and are a Talking Heads fan, go buy it right now! It truly is a one of a kind comedy.) The power pop of “Wild Wild Life”, the surging punk energy of “Love for Sale”, the airy “Dream Operator”, and country rock of “People Like Us” are some of the best songs this band has ever done, and stylistic pop reigns supreme here. The stranger songs, “Hey Now” and “Papa Legba”, don’t work as well without the visuals applied to them in the film, and so they suffer on the album. The polka influenced “Radio Head” of course inspired the band of the same name. Some of the other songs are not as great on just a “soundtrack” or “album” as they were in the movie (for example “Hey Now” is sang by a gang of kids in a hilarious way that has to be seen to be believed) but even so, this is a good record and a strong album for the late period Talking Heads. It is definitely their most laid back and easy going.
Greatest Songs: Love For Sale, Wild Wild Life, People like Us, Radio Head
Naked – (1.5 / 5)
I wanted to like this final Talking Heads album, but it’s unlikeable. They try to make another Remain in Light and failed, plain and simple. It does NOT WORK. “Ruby Dear” is a great tune I suppose, with more songs like that they could have made something special, but no. It ain’t special, and a bad way for such a great band should go out of the world. Oh well, at least they stopped after this! The monkey on the cover of the album should give you a hint on how good the record is. Too bad monkeys can’t talk.
Greatest Songs: Ruby Dear
Compilations (live albums, EP’s, b-sides, etc.)
Stop Making Sense – (5 / 5)+
*This is a review of the concert film / live concert, not the audio album only
The 1984 concert Stop Making since is a visual treat as well as an audio one, and stands as the best concert movie ever made (in my humble opinion). It uses staging, lighting, and dynamics visual effects and movements to enhance the huge touring band that was the Talking Heads in 1983/84. In addition to regular band members David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Franz and Jerry Harrison, you have soul singers Lynn Marby and Ednah Holt, guitarist Alex Weir (From The Brothers Johnson), additional keyboardist Bernie Worrell (of Parliament/Funkadelic), and percussionist Steve Scales. It was directed by Johnathan Demme, who was already known for his work directing quirky independent movies like Melvin and Howard (1980) and would go on to helm Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), and Rachel Getting Married (2009). As a concert film it is different than a movie with a plot and acting, yes, but it should be noted that a lot of the themes Demme expresses in his movies are still available in Stop Making Sense as well, just like The Last Waltz contains many of Martin Scorsese’s qualities and attitudes.
It’s a great match, a director like Demme that can pull off moments of suspense and horror like Hannibal Lector breaking out of jail and Alec Baldwin’s death on a train is perfect for the madness of a song like “Swamp” with it’s serial killer vibe and vocals. The same kind of passion that drives Philadelphia’s court case scenes is evident in the strobe light effects of “What a Day That it Was” (from Byrne’s first solo record /soundtrack in 1981 The Catherine Wheel) and Tom Tom’s Clubs performance of “Genius of Love”. In fact, the very fact that the songs contained on Stop Making Sense are not only talking Heads “Songs” but a combination or the different band member’s solo work is telling of a kind of unity that most bands simply do not have and it shows on stage. Talking Heads are very much a band were the member’s do their job, but also have fun while doing it.
Lastly, I would say that it is unique that the songs the Talking Heads do are almost ALWAYS better live than on record. That is impressive, because they have some of the most elegantly produced records in rock in roll history (More Songs, Remain in Light). It has to do with the energy the band creates live and it is evident on every single song on the album. Compare “Burning Down the House” or “Making Flippy Floppy” to the version on Speaking In Tongues and it is obvious. The combination of different races coming together is also beautiful to behold and having the African American backing band to the all-white Talking Heads brings not just the ideas and influences of songs from Fear of Music and Remain in Light out into the open, but injects them with renowned fervor. A Cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” may feel a tad conventional and like a perfect closer, but no, “Crosseyed and Painless” that follows right after is obviously a better choice. Cutting out about three songs that were also performed and are bonus tracks on the DVD/Blu Ray (“Cities”, “Big Business”, I Zimbra”) was the right idea – as too much a good thing is sometimes a bad thing. 16 perfect tracks that start small (“Psycho Killer” with David Byrne alone on stage with acoustic guitar and boombox) to a full band capable of shaking the foundation of the world. The band themselves put up and raised all the money (over a million dollars, in the 1980’s) just to make this concert film a reality. The passion is evident, and passion is what makes this the greatest of all concert films.