Rebels Wit Attitude: Talking Heads

Excerpted from Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists by Iain Ellis, The Seventies: Radical Cynicism / The CBGBs Scene: Bored in the U.S.A. (PopMatters/Soft Skull, December 2008)

Iain Ellis talks with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck. Listen to the interview here: Humor as a Weapon

In the punk chain of causation, the Talking Heads emerged from some unlikely sources, but, by virtue of place, time, and circumstance, their identity is destined to be associated with this musical revolution. The band were regulars at CBGBs between 1974 and 1976, and their stark minimalism and contrarian attitudes to rock formalities put them in good stead with the emerging punk scene. However, their art school intellectualism, pop melodies, funk rhythms, and abstract humor also made them outsiders within the larger outsider set. Tagged as “new wave” by the late seventies to differentiate them from their rebel-yell guitar-buzz contemporaries, the Talking Heads proved to be an incongruity within all contexts—and they embraced that identity with an ironic self-consciousness and subversive wit.

With their core members graduates of the Rhode Island School of Art & Design, it is not surprising that art aesthetics would enter into their methods—just as they had for previous art school rock humorists like the Kinks and Roxy Music. Like those bands, the Talking Heads were visual beings using the rock vehicle. Lyricist David Byrne’s observations were invariably distinguished by a cubist’s angular quirks; he saw life and its spaces from unusual perspectives and in curious ways. He saw air and paper as engaging topics for lyrical concern, looked at war from ground level, scrutinized towns through their physical structures. Byrne’s eye for the everyday betrayed the strong influence of Jonathan Richman, who, in songs like “Roadrunner,” had offered prototypical examples of the kind of wide-eyed irony and witty sense of detail that came to define Talking Heads’ songs. But whereas Richman brought an ostracized innocence to his narration, Byrne was “a real live wire,” electric sparks of neurosis and anxiety coursing through the veins of his lyrical experiences. The resulting songscapes were filmic mise-en-scènes with the action dramatized by the urgent, tense, animated “acting” of Byrne in various speaker roles.

“Psycho Killer” was the band’s debut single release in 1977, and though it proved to make little commercial dent, it has become as emblematic of the band’s style and humor as “Roadrunner” has to the Modern Lovers. Its jagged, sliced rhythms and jerky vocal enunciation endeared it to the punk subculture of the time; yet, in many respects, the song was also something of an aberration alongside the more deadpan, less threatening numbers in the band’s set. Byrne’s attempt to get inside the mind of a serial killer led listeners into dark comedic quarters. According to biographer Jerome Davis, the song was an attempt “to combine Alice Cooper with Randy Newman.” Like the latter, Byrne gets in character, speak-singing his confessional, vocally acting out his “tense and nervous” condition. As the second verse begins, the narrative perspective shifts from first to second person, the killer addressing himself with an eerie inquisition that reveals his schizoid state. Disturbing though the portrait becomes, elements of levity consistently undercut the proceedings, whether it be the pop cliché “fa fa fas” of the chorus or the occasional pidgin French that adds quirky detail to the characterization. The humor of the fine (art) touches is superseded only by the hilarity of the sheer ambition of, firstly, tackling such a topic, and, secondly, attempting to do so from the inside out. Jerome Davis suggests that Byrne as “psycho killer” was an art exercise akin to Brian Ferry’s persona projects, saying, “He knew that he wanted to become an art project, to animate a created character.”

Their debut album—which included “Psycho Killer”—Talking Heads 77, was successful by CBGBs standards (reaching number 97 on the Billboard chart), but few could have predicted that the band would be rock stars by the decade’s end. Even within the New York punk scene, they were perceived as marginal figures. Critics—and even punks—liked the band, but they eluded easy categorization, and their overall “everything” just did not seem to correspond with the street aggression and bombast that defined the subcultural dominant. As the Ramones steered punks to leather jackets and ripped jeans, the Talking Heads dressed like their fashion icon, Jonathan Richman, in square suburban wear. Jerome Davis believes that this was self-conscious subversion on the band’s part: “For Byrne, adopting a conservative demeanor was a pretty revolutionary move. Wearing a LaCoste shirt to CBGB was a total contradiction in terms.”

The band also pushed against the prevailing winds of the underground in its eccentric stage performances. Whereas punk crowds ordinarily spat and pogoed in tandem with the band onstage, they just stood and stared in disbelief when David Byrne spasmodically jerked around his microphone while straight-laced Tina Weymouth bounced merrily along to her bass grooves. This style was contrived to contrast, of course, to deconstruct the gestures of punk peers who themselves thought that they were the deconstructers. And as their label, Sire, released debut albums by their more conventionally punk acts (the Saints, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell & the Voidoids) at the very same time that Talking Heads 77 came out, the practical need for differentiation became all-important.

As if to create further distance between themselves and the rest of the scene, the Talking Heads’ post-1977 work became less punk and more art-funk. Teaming up with ex–Roxy Music sound-eccentric Brian Eno for production duties on their next three albums (More

Songs about Buildings and Food [1978], Fear of Music [1979], and Remain in Light [1980]), the band ventured into new, uncharted territories of sounds, styles, and lyrical surrealism. Like the oversize suits Byrne was soon to sport onstage, the key feature of the new sound was expansion. Years before Paul Simon was credited as the “inventor” of “world music,” the Talking Heads looked to Africa for rhythmic inspiration. Flattening their usually jerky rhythms into slower, funkier patterns, with African percussion and free-form structures, their Eno-period songs opened up (the band) in scope and length, fostering a lyricism of greater freedom and space.

The increasingly distinctive Byrne’s-eye-view was soon zooming in on ever more unusual topics, including heaven (“a place where nothing ever happens”) and air (“it can break your heart”). In “Animals” (1979), Byrne brings comedic inversion to our conventionally sympathetic perceptions of animals as noble creatures in harmony with nature. Here, they are awkward, insecure, and mean-spirited. “Think they’re pretty smart, shit all over the ground, see in the dark,” the speaker quips.

The Talking Heads were at their most socially subversive in their songs of cultural observation. In “The Big Country” (1978) Byrne surveys the state of modern America. Instead of the sweeping land of open opportunity suggested by the title, he finds a neatly ordered suburbia, convenient and boring. Through an exaggeratedly irate narrator, Byrne protests with mock disdain, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” The Luddite caricature that is the speaker is presented as so aggrieved, as he mouths such predictably “bohemian” clichés, that the object of the song’s scorn is called into question. “It’s not even worth talking about those people down there,” says the speaker with turned-up nose. Is the band here satirizing the debilitating dullness of suburbia or the self-righteous cynics who condemn it while enjoying its comforts? Or both?

Want to read more about what Ellis says about the Talking Heads and other seriously funny people in pop music? See Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists