Graded on a Curve: Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food

Has there ever been a gawkier twitch of a front man than former Talking Head David Byrne? Regardless of how calculated his quirky on stage nervous tics may have been—Suicide’s Alan Vega, for one, wrote him off as a poseur, saying, “He didn’t make any twitchy gestures without something in his head saying, ‘Make a twitchy gesture now’”—Byrne made acute anxiety chic, both with his stage moves and ominously flat “Psycho Killer” vocal delivery. It was Byrne’s presence, the band’s stripped to the basics sound, and its allegiance to a dance aesthetic that put it at the forefront of the bands that helped make CBGB’s famous.

As everybody knows, that adherence to funky rhythms was what led Talking Heads down the primrose path to the world music influences that came to dominate their later albums—from 1980’s Remain in Light to 1988’s Naked. But those dance rhythms were around from the very beginning, and were what set Talking Heads apart from most of the other CBGB bands, excluding Blondie of course.

In any event, Talking Heads occupied a seemingly unique position in the New York rock scene. They certainly didn’t fit the “Fuck Art, Let’s Rock” paradigm, although they frequently and successfully toured with the Ramones. But neither did they fit comfortably into the more pretentious and artsy-fartsy circle of bands that took Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine as their inspirations (e.g., Patti Smith, Television, and even Richard Hell, who despite his punk bona fides was a doomed French poet at heart.) Sure, if push came to shove it would be the fine arts contingent I’d slot them in with, if only because of Byrne’s highly intelligent lyrics, but in the end early Talking Heads come off as aloof, loners, and every bit as quirky a band as their front man.

Talking Heads, in brief: David Byrne came to New York for reasons that may or may not have had to do with the desire to play rock’n’roll, only to be joined by former Artistics band mate Chris Frantz and his girlfriend Tina Weymouth. They won their first kudos as a three piece—a deliberate move, as Byrne didn’t like the ruckus and clutter of larger bands—but Byrne was no lead guitarist, and it wasn’t until former Modern Lovers’ guitarist Jerry Harrison joined the band that Talking Heads truly hit their stride. Their debut (1977’s Talking Heads 77) won them plaudits, but it was their 1978 sophomore disc, More Songs About Buildings and Food that truly showed what the band was capable of. Some of this was due to their choice of producer—Brian Eno—and part of it was due to the fact that the band had been playing many of the songs on their second LP for a long, long time.

More Songs About Buildings and Food is a truly strange LP. What is it they’re playing? Rock’n’roll? Some alien species of white funk or dance music? Or a combination thereof? I lean towards the last-named, and I think that the fascination the album continues to hold for me—when I’ve ceased to take much interest in any of their LPs after Remain in Light, and even my affection for that landmark is iffy—has everything to do with the rock in the equation. They kinda tossed it by the wayside after Fear of Music, like the bathwater with the baby, and I think its omission hurt them. So it’s the band’s first three LPs that I turn to when I want to hear some Heads.

I love opener “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel,” which comes galloping out of the stereo thanks to the great rhythm section while Byrne twists his vocals this way and that, throwing out a great “Here we go” and in general bending his phrasing in a way that I find utterly compelling. And I love the manic tattoo that Frantz plays after that “Here we go” too. It’s like the Charge of the Light Brigade, this tune, only with a happier ending. Meanwhile, “With Our Love” is a static and very funky number dominated by Byrne’s vocals and a rhythm section that keeps the lid on. Harrison plays a nervous solo, Byrne’s voice rises and falls, repeating phrases and suddenly barking out words or hanging onto notes, while the rhythm section is tight but not so tight that it strangles the song.

“The Good Thing” opens as a happy-making ditty with a hypnotic chorus complete with backing vocals by Tina and the Typing Pool, whoever they may be. Harrison plays bright little series of notes, while Byrne keeps the theatrics to a minimum, and so it goes for two verses and choruses, when the song takes off, Byrne crying “Watch me work” over and over, growing more agitated all the while, as Harrison plays a great riff on guitar. Byrne goes into psycho killer mode on the drums- and bass-dominated “Warning Signs,” which boasts a long Shaker-plain intro that leads to Byrne eerily singing, “Warning signs, warning signs” and “Hear my voice, hear my voice/It’s saying something/That’s not very nice.” Meanwhile Harrison plays a looping guitar while Byrne continues in psych ward fashion, finally ending in a sing-song of nonsense while Harrison (a puritanically frugal guitarist) shows off a little bit of spunk.

“The Girls Want to Be With the Girls” is a bouncy number that features Byrne in semi-robotic mode and a melody as catchy as a pit filled with punji sticks. I love Harrison’s guitar riff, and Byrne’s vocal delivery, which is as odd as it is matter of fact. Meanwhile somebody (either Eno or Harrison) plays a brief solo on the synthesizer, bringing the sound back around to Byrne, who makes one of rock’s odder contributions to gender analysis by singing, “Girls are getting into abstract analysis/ They want to make intuitive leap/They are making plans that have far reaching effects/And the girls want to be with the girls.” A premonition of Riot Grrrl? A statement on radical lesbianism? With Byrne, there’s no knowing. It’s followed by the great “Found a Job,” a herky-jerky funk rocker that opens with Byrne singing, “’Damn that television… what a bad picture!’/’Don’t get upset, it’s not a major disaster.” Frantz and Weymouth plow one cool groove while Harrison plays a staticky guitar and Byrne conducts an examination of how to form a successful relationship, which involves not “Fighting over little things/And wasting precious time.” But the highlight comes when the band breaks into a propulsive jam featuring a synthesizer that sounds like steel drums duking it out with Harrison’s manic strumming, which goes on and on and could go on forever as far as I’m concerned.

“Artists Only” is a dryly hilarious rant about starving artists, set to a perky beat. “I’m painting/I’m painting again” sings Byrne against a throbbing musical backdrop. “Pretty soon now, I will be bitter/Pretty soon now, I will be a quitter” he sings, as Harrison delivers up a big throbbing solo. “I don’t have to prove that I am creative,” sings the defensive and unhappy Byrne, who employs all of his trademark nervous tics and has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Venus de Milo, and the song’s chipper beat only underscores Byrne’s jealousy and rancor. “I’m Not in Love” is a funky and upbeat rocker that slows for the choruses, in which Byrne insists he’s not in love. In the meantime he whispers, shouts, hisses, and generally covers the waterfront before emitting a banshee howl, at which point the song really takes off and Harrison takes over, playing frantic herky-jerky strings of notes, the rhythm section and its propulsion carrying the weight. There’s some stop and start before the big ending, which climbs and climbs, Harrison playing dissonant chords before launching into a solo that Weymouth underpins wonderfully.

“Stay Hungry” offers up more academic funk, with the band playing a complex opening before the song opens up like a flower. Harrison’s guitar solo is pure funk and goes on and on, and somebody throws in a moody synth riff as Byrne sings, “Here’s that rhythm again,” although whether it’s a good thing or a cure is hard to decipher. Meanwhile, the band’s take on Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” is a solid and tightly wound slice of soul, which is highlighted by Byrne’s vocals on the choruses. There are some nice keyboards, Byrne sings about being the biggest fool of them all, and the band’s sound is clinical until both Byrne and band let loose, which is good because if they hadn’t we’d have been witnesses to the coldest baptism and rebirth in the history of Christianity.

I love “The Big Country,” what with its seductive and mid-tempo melody, beguiling guitar riff by Harrison, and Byrne observing America’s heartland from 30,000 feet and concluding, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me/I wouldn’t live like that no siree/I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do/I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” Does he mean it? Or is he making fun of people who feel nothing but contempt for Middle America and its citizens? We’ll never know. What I do know is that the song’s ending, during which Byrne falls into a cadenced stutter followed by some nonsense syllables, and Harrison plays some great chukka-chukka guitar, never fails to make my day.

Talking Heads, with Eno as a full collaborator, gradually moved into rhythms both exotic and worldly, and it’s hard to gainsay songs as great as “Once in a Lifetime,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Burning Down the House,” and “And She Was.” But listening to the albums they’re on after all these years it comes as a revelation how uneven they are. No, to my way of thinking the Talking Heads I still love are the Talking Heads of the first three LPs, before they turned into the world music outfit David Byrne may well have wanted them to be all along.

In short, I admire their musical path, and their dedication to pushing the boundaries of rock, but as for the product of said experiments I don’t think they’ve passed the test of time as well as the controlled and wound-tightly-as-a-spring sound of the songs on Talking Heads 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Fear of Music. Talking Heads’ late albums are friendlier and less enigmatic, and you would think that would be a good thing but it’s not. Indeed, I can’t even listen to the last three and wonder how I ever could. Turns out sometimes a clinically certified psycho killer is what’s called for, and nobody ever filled those shoes like the early David Byrne.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Mike Edwards

    So, now I gotta go listen to that record again.Which is a good thing.

  • Michael Little

    It’s worth a listen. I actually prefer Fear of Music, so why I didn’t write about that one is puzzling. I think I have a Fear of Fear of Music.

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