One of the most iconic bands to emerge from the late-70s New Wave and post-punk era was also one of the weirdest. You’ll know Talking Heads’ go-to songs like Psycho Killer, Road To Nowhere and Once In a Lifetime from endless spins on radio, indie discos and TV specials with actual talking heads, but how often do you actually stop and listen?
Talking Heads made seemingly joyful songs out of human folly, paranoia, neurosis and absurdism, hitting rock music at oblique angles and deconstructing pop, while still creating some of the catchiest music of all time on their eight albums, from 1977 to 1988.
Former art school students David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz formed Talking Heads in 1975, later adding Jerry Harrison of the Modern Lovers, for the core of the band that never really played as a four-piece beyond their debut album Talking Heads 77. The band’s experiments with Afrobeat, funk, art-pop, proto-hip-hop and experimental electronics led them to expanding cast lists on later albums, with collaborators including Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew of King Crimson, Bernie Worrell of Funkadelic, Johnny Marr and most notably Brian Eno, who basically became a fifth member on three albums.
After years of Byrne steering the band as a solo vehicle and reducing the other three to session musicians, Talking Heads eventually split in 1991, with as much a chance of a reunion as Morrissey and Marr.
On his solo tours over the years, David Byrne has taken the rework template of Stop Making Sense and presented the classics through an extra few degrees of separation – from marching brass band versions of Road To Nowhere, to an African tribal take on Psycho Killer. Byrne is currently on his American Utopia tour, said by more than a few critics to be the most thrilling theatrical rock spectacle in years. He also said this week that he’s going through a sort of late period Leonard Cohen blitz of creativity, so there’s plenty more where that come from.
A separate top 10 of Byrne’s solo works and collaborations would be another uphill task, but here’s an attempt to narrow down his first act…
Psycho Killer (Talking Heads 77, 1977)
The first song Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth ever wrote, and if they’d left it here they could’ve retired leaving behind one of the all-time new wave anthems.
Even in 1977, Talking Heads were post-punk in their effortless disdain for the cartoon rage of bands that jumped into the shadow of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Granted, as an inner monologue of a serial killer, the song is dark, but there’s a nervy ambiguity in lines like, “I hate people when they’re not polite”. It’s also got one of the most iconic basslines of any era, and the clean spangly guitar sounds like pins & needles in your head.
Thank You For Sending Me an Angel (More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978)
Talking Heads albums always had brilliant opening tracks – even their patchy 1988 swansong Naked opened with the late period funk jam classic Blind. After the brittle, jagged minimalism of Talking Heads 77, Thank You For Sending Me an Angel is a hyper call to arms, kicking off with galloping drums, power chords and rattling rim shots and doesn’t let up for its two minutes, as Byrne strains to get the lines out.
Cities (Fear of Music, 1979)
Reviewing Fear of Music in Rolling Stone in 1979, Lester Bangs suggested it should be called “Fear of Everything” instead, as it was shot through with themes of urban paranoia and tension – shut off from the world like the minimalist manhole cover detail on the album sleeve. These themes pile up on Cities, which fades in with disorientating police siren effects and hangs off viciously scraped guitar lines.
Byrne’s character in the song is preoccupied with finding a city to live in that’ll swallow him up anonymously (“Look over there! A dry ice factory… a good place to get some thinking done.”) He gradually unravels and by the last verse he’s retching the words out in between actual dog barks: “Find a city, find myself a city to live in…”
I Zimbra (Fear of Music, 1979)
Brian Eno was a sort of avant-garde Forrest Gump figure in the 1970s underground, seeming to appear at every transitional moment – from his celebrated work with Roxy Music and Bowie, to his No Wave compilation and his formulation of ambient music. Not strictly a musician, he’d rewire songs with synths and effects, weird editing techniques and storyboard ideas. Mainly he was an infinite well of ideas, an unthinker who could use writer’s block as a sharp tool.
So when Byrne had no lyrics for Fear of Music, Eno got him to write out a table of contents for the themes, which eventually became song titles: ‘Mind’; ‘Cities’; ‘Drugs’; ‘Fear’; ‘Animals’ etc. The album’s opener I Zimbra was also jump start for Byrne’s seized-up mind, using the dadaist poetry of Hugo Ball, with nonsense syllables like “Bim blassa galassasa zimbrabim” freeing him up to chant with Eno untethered to any themes. The African rhythms and far-out solos by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp add to the bewilderment.
Born Under Punches (Remain in Light, 1980)
“Take a look at these hands!” Byrne yells with religious fervour as Talking Heads’ masterpiece album Remain In Light kicks in on skittish African rhythms and high-fret guitar licks. Born Under Punches is a good clue that the rest of the album might do away with regular rock’n’roll forms. Without a verse and chorus structure it’s held together by call and response preacher man chanting and a middle eight guitar solo that sounds like a synth rip from a mid-90s Warp Records release.
The Great Curve (Remain In Light, 1980)
The story goes that the first time Brian Eno met David Byrne in 1977 he played him Fela Kuti’s Afrodisiac album and that switched him onto the loosensss of Afrobeat and polyrhythms. Byrne has leaned on it since, through later Talking Heads albums and his solo records, up until American Utopia this year.
While I Zimbra used skewed rhythms, much of Remain In Light’s backbone is a new wave take on Afrobeat, and there’s even an outtake on the reissue called Fela’s Riff.
The Great Curve is the best example of Talking Heads nicking from the frantic funk of Fela, with call and response chanting, horns and an amazing scratched-out solo from King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, who added his impressionistic wails to Bowie’s Lodger the year before.
Once In a Lifetime (Remain In Light, 1980)
The most uplifting song about existential dread in history, Once In a Lifetime is Talking Heads’ hall of famer calling card track – a never-diminishing pop music miracle as good as any other big single of the 80s.
From the double-tracked hummed bassline and Eno’s spiralling synthline, the subtle scratchy funk riffs and Byrne’s yelped abstractions, it’s a puzzle that unravels beautifully every time. The video was also Byrne’s most fully realised performance art piece.
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (Speaking In Tongues, 1983)
Byrne’s first actual ‘love song’ is so disarming because it swims against the current of his other cryptic dissections of neurosis and detached observations of a weird world around him. Of course he’d never go full schmaltz, but he opens himself up enough to offer the most tender lines he’s ever written, connecting with someone who’ll “cover up the blank spots” and “share the same space for a minute or two”. Granted, it’s not blockbuster Meat Loaf dramatics, but you know he’s feeling it.
The minimalist treatment is another delicate plus – it’s a subtle synth slow jam that you can dance to once you dry your eyes.
Life During Wartime (Stop Making Sense, 1984)
Once freed from under the urban manhole cover on Fear of Music and onto the stage on Stop Making Sense, Life During Wartime takes on a funkier edge, with added congas and the wiry synth intro building up to a drop. There’s still no hiding from the urban decay in the lyrics, with Byrne singing of vans loaded with weapons, roadside grave sites, gunfire, ghettos and warning to stay away from your window.
The band running on the spot and Byrne doing laps of the stage is up there with the big suit in the concert movie best bits. This ain’t no fooling around…
Road To Nowhere (Little Creatures, 1985)
When I went to see Byrne play in Galway in 2004 he introduced this as the anthem for the upcoming Republican National Convention. It was during the reign of George W Bush and things couldn’t get any worse. Simpler times.
Like Once In a Lifetime, Road To Nowhere is another inspirational major key anthem with an underlying theme of plunging into the abyss. It was Talking Heads’ biggest single, but how the hell does it work? It’s a weird new wave/gospel/country/bluegrass/marching band hybrid with oblique nihilism from Byrne, who gradually stops singing and starts yelping like a wild thing by the end of the song.
“I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom,” Byrne said later.