Talking Heads Brick
By: Eric Greenwood
The more time that passes the larger the legacy of the Talking Heads looms. This band of RISD art school geeks changed the face of pop music forever. And not just musically, either. The Talking Heads revolutionized the music video format even before MTV's inception, making their indelible melodies, nervous consumerist deconstruction, and world beat fringe into a zeitgeist touchstone that almost ubiquitously represents the forward-thinking momentum of an entire musical era. Or at least for the self-obsessed '80's.
The Talking Heads never fit in at CBGB's. It's a complete fluke that their wiry, edgy pop found footing in such a bizarre environment. Aesthetically, the Talking Heads couldn't have been any further from punk if they had tried. Utterly unassuming, David Byrne wore khakis, preppie golf shirts, and boating sneakers on stage, which hardly endeared him to black-clad Ramones fans frothing at the mouth for Debbie Harry. But his weirdly commanding presence, serpentine guitar lines, and tourrettes-like vocal ticks certainly intrigued the leather bound creeps that hung out in that nasty hole in the wall in New York City's bowery in the late '70's.
Talking Heads: 77 gave rise to the concept of "college rock." Previously, underground music had been geared towards misfits and music nerds with encyclopedic knowledge. The Talking Heads lured thinkers into their web, since they were above the angst-ridden clichés of dunderheaded punk. They were rebellious thinkers and clever, artful musicians, and they attracted a like-minded and equally educated following. So it only follows that most of them were college students.
The Brick is the first Talking Heads box set to capture the band's entire catalogue. It expands each album in a Dual Disc CD/DVD format, complete with bonus tracks, videos, and 5.1 surround mixes. The first few notes of "Uh-oh, Love Comes to Town" reveal the electricity of the remaster: a crisper punctuation of percussion and a dynamic range that sounds sinewy while enhancing the nervous anxiety of the original masters. Those first notes also betray a fondness for a bizarre amalgamation of influences, ranging from '60's soul-pop to traditional island music to funk.
Any semblance of traditionalism in the pop machine gets clogged by the outright weirdness of "New Feeling." Byrne's bizarre lyrical flow abandoned the concept of rhyme and cliché in favor of non sequitur tangents and unpredictable outbursts that sounded like a man genuinely possessed. The brilliance of the Talking Heads lies in their ability to make such abnormal music palatable. The melodies are there, clean and clear. The musicianship is there, tight and smart and nervy. But it's all skewed and topsy-turvy.
Bryne's eccentricities aren't quite as jarring on More Songs about Buildings and Food, mainly because it was expected of him at this point. Producer Brian Eno homogenizes the band to an extent, in so far as he makes the music gel in a way that sounds less shrill and random than it did on Talking Heads: 77. Tine Weymouth and Chris Franz step up their respective bass and drum strengths, too, lending the record a more cohesive rhythmic backdrop, which sounds dancier and punchier at the same time. Overall, the record is darker than its predecessor, equally as bizarre, but probably a lateral move. Stepping to the right of genius, however, hardly constitutes a mistake.
By Fear of Music in 1979, the Talking Heads were confident in their idiosyncrasies. The nonsensical African chant on "I Zimbra" foretold of the band's future reliance on tribal rhythms, particularly African polyrhythms. Byrne's absurdist musings stayed strange but added bitter irony to the mix to match the darker timbre of the music: "We dress like students, we dress like housewives/or in a suit and a tie/I changed my hairstyle so many times now/don’t know what I look like!" The band's thickening sound was buoyed by more complex arrangements and a riskier, experimental feel, too.
As expansive and complex as their tunes had become, nothing could have prepared listeners for the colossal brilliance of the next Talking Heads album, Remain in Light. It's the perfect marriage of Brian Eno's production skills and the Talking Heads' conceptual craftsmanship. Byrne's strict paranoia had evolved into a kind of hopeful resignation, with insights as relevant today as ever, as the flagship Talking Heads classic "Once in a Lifetime" reveals: "You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/You may ask yourself; Well…How did I get here?" Then, the sliver of hope in the chorus: "Letting the days go by…"
Remain in Light signified the transformation in the Talking Heads' image from meek, nerdy, pop ideologues to abstract, intellectual, cultural phenomena. The music had become so densely arranged that the band members' individual eccentricities as well as Byrne's erratic delivery-style had become overshadowed by the sum of its parts. Loads of outside musicians supplemented Chris Franz's percussion, while Jerry Harrison's keyboards coalesced with Eno's layered production. And Bryne's strained vocals competed with gospel choirs.
Up to 1980 the Talking Heads had been on a one-album-per-year cycle, but the massive undertaking of Remain in Light's many strata derailed the momentum, as it took the band almost three years to put out Speaking in Tongues, its commercial breakout. For its first Top Ten single, "Burning Down the House", Byrne remarried his penchant for silliness (that had been all but absent on the past two records) with his non-linear observations: "No visible means of support and you have not seen nuthin' yet/Everything's stuck together/I don't know what you expect starring into the tv set/Fighting fire with fire."
After mounting the groundbreaking Stop Making Sense tour, the Talking Heads returned with Little Creatures, their most accessible and commercial album. Though it lacked the roomy grooves and experimental fearlessness of its recent predecessors, Little Creatures succeeded on its pop craftsmanship alone. The shock of the band's nerdy intellectual persona had worn off the moment Time Magazine put Byrne on its cover, but the Talking heads' ability to push their formula in a commercial direction revealed a different level of genius.
True Stories barely counts as a Talking Heads album, as it served more as a backdrop for David Byrne's directorial debut than it did as an official Talking Heads release. Byrne actually had no intention of making it into a Talking Heads album (tensions within the band had begun to surface at this point), but the studio backing his film thought otherwise. Bryne envisioned the characters in his film supplying all the vocals themselves (which actually did turn up on b-sides). But, hey, it had "Love for Sale" and "Wild Wild Life", despite being the closest thing to an artistic compromise or self-referential retread the Talking Heads had ever engaged in. But, of course, Radiohead swiped its name from a song of the same name, so all was not lost.
Miraculously, two years later the Talking Heads resurfaced with a proper follow-up to Little Creatures. Naked would serve as the Talking Heads' closing set, although it was an unplanned swan song since the band didn't acknowledge its dissolution until 1991. Harkening back musically to the free associative grooves of Remain in Light, Naked takes broad-stroke steps to punctuate all of Bryne's lyrical obsessions. Themes familiar to any Talking Heads fan creep into songs, as the band expands on its experiments with world beat and island rhythms and tropical pop.
With its complicated rhythms, Naked spawned dark, syncopated pop ("Blind") alongside, ponderous, philosophical musings ("Nothing but Flowers"). It's an underrated Talking Heads album, as fans and music historians are too apt to damn any artist's latter day output with faint praise. But Naked holds up over time, not only as an essential Talking Heads album, but also as an ambitious foray into new and exciting sounds from a band that made its name pushing the limits of commercial pop.
Talking Heads Brick is presented in a characteristically artsy, all-white plastic cube, completely embossed with song titles. It's beautiful. Each disc is completely white, save for a sticker revealing the album art (but no artwork on the spines or backs of the discs, so the cube is literally white on all sides, forcing the listener to pull out the inlay card just to see a tracklist). Expanded booklets contain all original artwork and lyrics, plus limited edition prints of interpretive snapshots of the music. Guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison led the Advanced Resolution Stereo remastering and the 5.1 surround mixes. The bonus material is exciting, if not downright essential, for longtime fans, as it contains rare live video clips (Talking Heads performance at the Kitchen in 1976), crucial studio outtakes (unfinished Remain in Light-era "Dancing for Money"), and alternate versions of classics (pre-knob-twiddling version of "Burning Down the House"), just to name a few. It's scary to think all of that brilliance could be compacted into that small cube.
With the Talking Heads having already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Brick could be the last hurrah for the foreseeable future. Expectedly, David Byrne has vehemently scorned any sort of reunion ideas (making fair exception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the band slayed with "Psycho Killer", "Life During Wartime", "Burning Down the House", and "Take Me to the River"), so the Brick will have to suffice. And it does on so many levels. The legacy of the Talking Heads will only continue to grow and loom large over all the upstart bands trying to push their respective arts further than this band did. Good luck. This music endures, not only as a testament to a band frighteningly ahead of its time, but also as proof that rock and roll can be smart and subversive and successful without gimmick, pandering, or compromise. And if all these songs collected in one place prove anything, it's that the Talking Heads are and always will be the most innovative band of its time.