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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Legends of Note: Talking Heads

Hey gang, let’s talk music once again! Today’s legend in question is none other than one of the most interesting and unique bands to come out of America in the ‘80’s: Talking Heads. It’s sort of bizarre to me that David Byrne’s highly idiosyncratic spaz-rock art band is virtually a household name at this point, largely due to the band’s highly-successful, highly-unlikely hit “Once in a Lifetime.” There is an argument to be made for its popularity being owed to a new interest in music videos fostered by the advent of MTV, but again, Byrne’s now-famous nerdy dance moves are not the stuff of fame (then or now, really).

I would venture Talking Heads’ rise to stardom is an example of that rare moment when true art prevails, where a song as beguiling as “Once in a Lifetime” can climb the charts, where listeners who would normally scoff at anything the slightest bit avant-garde end up owning a copy of Talking Heads’ most obtuse and best album, “Remain in Light.”
I never really gave Talking Heads a chance until my junior year of high school. A good friend forced me to listen to “Stop Making Sense,” the Heads’ widely-popular live album. It was good, to be sure, but “Remain in Light” blew me away from first listen.
Released in 1980, “Remain in Light” was Talking Head’s 4th record, and their last produced by Brian Eno. It’s a record undoubtedly influenced by African polyrhythm, but escapes the trappings (read: cheese-factor) of other American bands dabbling in “ethnic” modes. Rather, the Heads’ take African funk and re-imagine it in some sort of futuristic dreamworld, making a sound I’ve never heard another band come close to. One listen to Byrne and Eno’s brilliant side-project, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,” and it becomes clear this is largely the vision of the duo. That the rest of the band (especially the married rhythm section of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth) helped achieve this vision is an understatement; this is Talking Heads as a band at their finest.
Opener “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” starts things off with fast, tense overlapping melodies. Byrne’s paranoid ramblings about being a “Government Man” introduces a vaguely political feel to the album, but here again Byrne escapes the missteps of similar attempts made by rock musicians to “make a statement” (I’m looking at you, Bono). It’s a weird beginning, but damn if it doesn’t make you want to dance.
Up next is the mighty “Crosseyed and Painless,” just maybe the best thing Talking Heads ever recorded. Here again Byrne moves between anxious rambling to quite beautifully haunting melodies at the chorus, if you can call it such. And a damn fine video too, which I unfortunately couldn't find on youtube. Here's a rad live version instead:
Side A closes with “The Great Curve,” the record's longest song at 6 and a half minutes. Here the overlapping African-esque melodies reach a frenzied climax, and with some of the best lyrics Byrne ever put to paper (“The world moves on a women’s hips” always strikes me as a thing of wonder), this song is a true event.
Side B kicks off with “Once in a Lifetime.” I have a lot a could say about this song: the brief sense of relief I would get when it came on the company radio station at my high school job, memories of covering it with my band in college, memories of all of the other bands I’ve seen cover it in concert (from Mercury Rev to the Smashing Pumpkins), to the one time I had a very clear epiphany about the “meaning” of the song, so vivid and real and profound in my mind that I am still very frustrated I no longer have any idea what it was I was thinking. If I could divorce this song from all of these moments, there would still be a great, ethereal pop song about displacement and confusion that somehow must have summed up a common feeling we all share.
“Seen and Not Heard” is a strange little tune, mostly spoken word over a relatively subdued track. It works well to bring the energy down a bit, as “Remain in Light” ends on the most somber note of the Heads’ catalog. “Listening Wind,” the album’s penultimate song, brings the politics to the forefront. Sung from a young African terrorist’s point-of-view, it is easily the Heads’ most potentially controversial moment (perhaps now more than ever). Byrne’s sympathy (if not support) is apparent in his lyrics:
Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill Mojique thinks of the days before Americans came He sees the foreigners in growing numbers He sees the foreigners in fancy houses He thinks of the days that he can still Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands Mojique sends the package to the American man Softly, he glides along the streets and alleys Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover He feels the time is surely now or never...more. The wind in my heart The wind in my heart The dust in my head The dust in my head The wind in my heart The wind in my heart (Come to) Drive them away Drive them away. Mojique buys equipment in the marketplace Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone He feels the wind is lifting up his people He calls the wind to guide him on his mission He know his friend the wind is always Mojique smells the wind that comes from far away Mojique waits for news in a quiet place He feels the presence of the wind around him He feels the power of the past behind him He has the knowledge of the wind to guide him...on. The wind in my heart The wind in my heart The dust in my head The dust in my head The wind in my heart The wind in my heart (Come to) Drive them away Drive them away.
The song itself is gorgeous, one of Bryne’s most haunting melodies. It’s a buzzkill for sure, but in many ways, the record is the better for it.
And then we have “The Overload,” a near spot-on Joy Division tribute, supposedly recorded based only on reviews of Joy Division (the band claimed not to have actually heard any of their music before recording this track). If true, it’s pretty amazing, as this could easily have been one of JD’s best songs. As it is, it’s one of Talking Heads’ best songs, and easily their most profound album closer. Oh, and a real party killer too.
The band would go increasingly more pop from here on out (see ‘Burning Down the House,’ ‘Road to Nowhere,’ etc.), and while each subsequent album has its own moments of brilliance, nothing would ever come close to “Remain in Light.”
...except, maybe, the film “True Stories.” Pops Staples singing Papa Legba? Yes! Seriously, if you’ve never seen this film, watch it. You can even fast-forward through the songs (except for Pops, of course), and you’ll see John Goodman at his finest, you’ll see clearly why Radiohead named their band after a Heads song, and you’ll see a wistful, beautiful look at late stage capitalism. So please, get yourself a copy of ‘Remain in Light” and Netflix “True Stories.” Make a weekend of it!
Here's Pops, with German overdubs of the dialog from the movie (thanks youtube!):
Speaking of Radiohead, next time we’ll take a look at them! Have something to say at Radiohead? Email it to me at by 2/25/11. Have thoughts on Talking Heads, please leave them in the comments!


  1. I enjoyed this very much. This must be the place for great music analysis.

  2. That scene of Pops Staples in True Stories is one of the best scenes in any musical or non-musical move, ever. He was the most charming man with the most charming voice in the most charming movie about the most charming people. 100% A++++

  3. Wow. This was a really impressive writeup. As someone who has been a huge Radiohead nerd from freshman year of high school on, I'm looking forward to your take next week.

  4. The thing about Byrne that has always impressed me the most is his ability to journey through different music styles. Where other respected musicians sound like novelty groups when they go outside their comfort zone, Byrne seamlessly adapts.