“I got wild imagination, talkin’ transubstantiation– “Moon Rocks” by Talking Heads
Any version will do
I got mass communication, I’m the human corporation
I ate a rock from the moon”
In 1987, Frank Olinsky and Talking Heads collaborated to publish a collection of art titled What The Songs Look Like: Contemporary Artists Interpret Talking Heads’ Songs. The book is a stunning artifact of 1980s New York culture, containing artwork from several visual art luminaires of the time, including Keith Haring, Sue Coe, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, each imagining or deconstructing a song from the Talking Heads’ catalog.
In one of his pieces for the project, Olinsky (who also had a hand in designing the MTV logo) interpreted “Moon Rocks”. The piece depicts a pre-Bart Simpson prototype, complete with spiky hair and a skeletal grimace. This figure is either backlit by the moon or is perhaps being electrocuted by it. Olinsky’s piece is playful and sinister, a perfect visualization of what is an unrefutably strange and supremely funky pop-rock song from Talking Heads’ fifth studio LP, Speaking in Tongues.
Released in 1983, the album was the first one apart from their debut not to be produced by Brian Eno, that pioneer of ambient sound and music production. Speaking in Tongues served as Talking Heads’ commercial breakthrough, featuring their sole US top-ten hit, “Burning Down the House”. Speaking in Tongues also contains one of their most enduring and beloved songs, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. In between these two landmark tracks are seven wildly adventurous and genre-breaking songs over which David Byrne gleefully exclaims his urban surrealist lyrics.
Speaking in Tongues captures Talking Heads at the zenith of their funk freakout and just before a big gray suit would change everything for them. It’s an art-pop funk masterpiece, full of extended instrumental jams and downright irresistible grooves. While Remain in Light has been called their magnum opus, its follow-up Speaking in Tongues feels like their most easily accessible, full of infinitely groove-able music that still seems wildly futuristic four decades after it was first released.
Dreams Walking in Broad Daylight
To get to Speaking in Tongues, though, there are ten years of Talking Heads’ history to cover first. Here that history is painted with the appropriate broad strokes.
There is a beginning at the Rhode Island School of Design. First, there is a band called Artistics. Then, Tina Weymouth, who is dating Chris Frantz, is asked to learn to play bass by studying Suzi Quatro records. There’s a first gig, opening for the Ramones at CBGB. A year later, fresh from the wreckage of the breakup of the Modern Lovers and with his Master’s degree in architecture from Harvard in hand, Jerry Harrison shows up with his guitar and keyboard in tow. Finally, in 1977, there’s a debut, Talking Heads: 77, which wound up completing the definitive triumvirate that John Rockwell named out of New York new wave punk rock, along with Patti Smith‘s 1975 album Horses and Television’s Marquee Moon released earlier in 1977.
In a New York Times article about their debut, John Rockwell wrote that Talking Heads visually “stand aside from almost any band around, punk or otherwise, by the unassumingly clean‐cut, WASPY‐stylish nature of their appearance; on the back of the album, (Chris) Frantz even sports a pink button‐down shirt.” The group always somehow wrestled with this notion throughout their career, the almost unbelievable juxtaposition of what Talking Heads’ music sounded like versus what they looked like while performing it.
After their debut, Brian Eno got on board as Talking Heads’ producer and collaborator. By then, he’d already worked with David Bowie, Roxy Music, and John Cale. He’d already released his pioneering minimalist album Discreet Music and was about to release Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Eno introduced them to records by Fela Kuti and Parliament–Funkadelic and pushed their approach to music and art-making. Three more albums arrived in the next three years, all critically praised at the time and which now are considered essential new wave: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980). Each record pushes a bit further into the musical unknown that was the late 1970s, the band leaning harder and harder into borrowed West African polyrhythms and voice recordings found in Eno and Byrne’s record collections.
Then, a hiatus. Not from making music. Just from making music with each other.
There are three years between the release of Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues. Those years are filled with music projects outside the full band lineup, beginning with Byrne and Eno’s 1981 samples-and-found sounds album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Byrne also released his score to choreographer Twyla Tharp’s dance project, The Catherine Wheel. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s side project Tom Tom Club released their self-titled debut in 1981. And Jerry Harrison’s first solo album, The Red and the Black, appeared later that year. After their success and consistent schedule of studio releases, Talking Heads had tired of one another, and the dissolution was imminent.
What would it take to get the four Talking Heads members back together and record again? It turns out it took a split with Eno and lots and lots of wordless music.
“I Hear Beautiful Sounds Coming Out of the Ground“
There’s a particularly stunning live performance of “Burning Down the House” that Talking Heads did on an appearance with David Letterman during Speaking in Tongues‘ promotion. It was shot in black-and-white and is remarkably wild and distinctly cinematic for a single late-night TV appearance. The band clearly downsized their iconic stage setup of that tour for the performance.
In the interview after the performance, Letterman asks Byrne about the album’s title and how it fits into the writing of the lyrics for the album.
Letterman: “You originally just started out with sounds, then substituted the words?”
Byrne: “I originally sang nonsense and made words to fit that. It worked out alright.”
In David Bowman’s Talking Heads biography, This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century, he reconstructs Byrne’s lyric-writing process for the album like this: “The band would record a bit, then David would return to Manhattan and begin pacing his SoHo loft singing gibberish into his little tape recorder. Gibberish in the meter of the songs. All day and night, the melody that came up would keep playing in his mind… Searching for words. Typing them down. He would end up typing pages and pages. David was typing in tongues.”
Like many things, Byrne owed this approach to phrasing and lyric writing to Brian Eno. Nowhere on the album did he employ this approach to more significant effect than on Speaking in Tongues‘ first song and its first single: “Burning Down the House.” With its pop music legacy now unshakable, brought about by both the song and its corresponding music video, it’s hard to remember how transgressive this track was at the time: over four minutes of infectious non-sequiturs that vaguely return to a shouted chorus, broken up with two rambling, extended instrumental sections. Remember also that it made it all the way to number nine on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Chris Frantz had first heard the phrase “Burn Down the House” from the groove masters themselves: during a crowd chant at a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Madison Square Garden. The musical basis of the song came from a Weymouth and Frantz jam. (David Bowman states that Weymouth owes the bassline to Robbie Shakespeare from a Black Uhuru song.) Byrne heard the story about the chant at the P-Funk show, and off he went, typing in tongues, hoping that lyrics would be manifested by the music. Of course, they did, and those lyrics have since become some of the most easily recognizable and parodied in pop music, including “hold tight, wait till the party’s over”, “fight fire with fire”, and “365 degrees”.
The music video was equally adventurous, featuring floating heads and a film-projected fire acting out the song’s title. “It’s amazing that a form so young — “music videos” — already had rituals and cliches by 1983. But they did. The former art students that made up Talking Heads couldn’t resist mocking these conventions,” Bowman writes. Throughout the video, Talking Heads consistently substitute themselves performing the song for actors or instead double impose their faces onto that of someone else’s floating head. The video was a stalwart for a fledgling MTV, garnering the song the audience it deserved.
To prove that Byrne’s approach to lyric writing here wasn’t only a creative exercise, the band places “Making Flippy Floppy” next. Here is one of the most poignant lyrical passages on the entire album and perhaps Byrne’s entire career:
We are born without eyesight“Making Flippy Floppy”
We are born without sin
And our mama protects us
From the cold and the rain
We’re in no hurry
Sugar and spice
We sing in the darkness
We open our eyes
Frantz’s and Weymouth’s rhythm section is impossibly tight here, propelling this thing straight towards the kind of space first traveled by the P-Funk Mothership. The song comes complete with a synthesizer break that Ray Parker Jr. thought sounded good enough to take from for his contribution to Ghostbusters a few months later. A formula begins to emerge with these two songs where the listener starts to expect extended instrumental sections, still anchored deeply in that in-the-pocket rhythm but reaching out via a synthesizer or guitar towards something greater. Rather than simply invoke the Mothership, Talking Heads went ahead and brought in Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell to play synthesizer on “Girlfriend Is Better”.
This push to seek out their sources is what set Talking Heads apart from other New Wavers at the time and the reason that their music hasn’t seemed to age as drastically as some of their contemporaries. That combined with their decision to forgo a drum machine to rely primarily on recording live drums and building impossibly groovy synth and guitar parts accordingly. Here, Byrne utters the now famous line: “Stop making sense, making sense.” At first, it’s a command from Byrne to his audience and probably to himself. Later, it would become a significant part of the group’s credo and enduring legacy.
A sort of sonic malice appears in the following three tracks on Speaking in Tongues. It might be religious or, at the very least, performative. The call-and-response choruses on “Slippery People” can be traced directly back to Fela Kuti, specifically his song “Mister Follow Follow” on his 1977 album, Zombie. An argument could be made for this as a sort of spiritual sequel to “Psycho Killer”, albeit set in one of those churches with fainting and swaying and, of course, speaking in tongues.
In “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity”, the malice is undoubtedly present but is hard to place. It’s the most cyclical of the songs on Speaking in Tongues, repeatedly falling into the open arms of Byrne’s three-word melody. “Swamp” is as close as David Byrne has ever come to singing a blues number. Over the muddy strut of Weymouth’s synth bass and Harrison and Alex Weir’s twin guitars, Byrne intimates something of a revivalist preacher standing on a table outside a food court Orange Julius.
It cannot be overstated that this entire record pulses with a cool ferocity, with a forward momentum that is difficult to describe adequately. “Moon Rocks” is a playful dancehall gambit that begs to be played at full volume. Harrison and Weir’s guitar work here is particularly spectacular, a delicate mix of almost country bends and harmonics filling all the space that Byrne’s lyrics leave. “Pull Up the Roots” marches without quarter, colored masterfully by the percussive flair of Raphael Dejesus.
Closing out Speaking in Tongues with “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is both fitting for the record and prophetic for Talking Heads’ future. It’s the equivalent of the house lights turning on after the show is over, and it’s clear that there will be no encore. The dance party is over, and it’s clear from the opening line, “Home / Is where I want to be / But I guess I’m already there,” that this one feels different. The “Naive Melody” part of the title is owed to the fact that everyone was not playing their primary instrument on the track. (Byrne on lead guitar and synthesizer, Weymouth on rhythm guitar, and Jerry Harrison on synth bass.) Along with capturing their musical playfulness, here is also the pinnacle of Byrne’s lyrical attempt to type in tongues, to stop making sense, as it were.
There’s a profoundly moving vulnerability on “This Must Be the Place”, perhaps partly due to the infinite repetition of the music but primarily from Byrne’s impassioned vocals. The swampier second half of Speaking in Tongues was waiting all along for something exactly like this to come. In his entry for Pitchfork’s “200 Best Songs of the 1980s”, Winston Cook-Wilson asks, “Is there a better moment of catharsis in pop than the song’s final eureka realization, after Byrne gets whacked with the monolithic spiritual hammer and awakes from a life-encompassing daze into unexpected stability? There’s nothing to narrow his eyes at anymore: ‘Cover up the blank spots, hit me on the head/ Aaoooh, aaooh, aaooh, aaoooh.’”
This is Talking Heads at their existence-affirming best, a band uniquely capable of combining their singular earworm music with words that seem somehow off and also seem somehow exactly right.
“Pleasantly Out of Proportion“
It’s important to remember that Talking Heads were not operating in a vacuum of their own in 1983. Of the many New Wave bands of the period, maybe only Devo came closest to the Talking Heads’ sense of sonic adventure. Their songs “Freedom of Choice” and “Beautiful World” sound the closest to what Byrne and the band were up to, but Devo’s unyielding devotion to their particular brand of kitsch anarchy was always the point. (For more evidence on this, watch this video of Devo and Neil Young deconstructing “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” while wearing rubber masks and singing from a baby’s crib.) Deborah Harry and her Blondie bandmates always polished their popscapes until they were certain hits, and the Cars never made it weird enough to transcend past the period. Who knows what Television would have gotten up to had they been able to stick together, though. Marquee Moon remains one of the greatest debuts of the last 50 years.
The most interesting through line, though, compares the dance hall funk of Speaking in Tongues to the disco reinventions of New York auteur Arthur Russell. Russell and Talking Heads go way back, with Russell playing cello on an early unreleased version of “Psycho Killer”. Their musical circles had overlapped deeply even before that, like the time Russell booked Harrison and the Modern Lovers to play at New York’s art space, The Kitchen. The scope of Russell’s music truly spans from straight-ahead country folk to Buddhist cello incantations and Casio keyboard pop songs.
But in the early 1980s, Russell worked most consistently under his disco moniker, Loose Joints. He released several disco and funk jams that became dancehall staples, most notably “Is It All Over My Face” and “Pop Your Funk” (1980), “Go Bang” / “Clean on Your Bean #1” (1982), and “Tell You (Today)” (1983). It’s tough not to hear Frantz’s drum intro on “Girlfriend Is Better” as being directly pulled from “Is It All Over My Face”. But while Talking Heads stretched their grooves out to five and six minutes, Russell was piecing together seven, 12, and even 16-minute disco vamps. Taken in combination, Russell’s and Talking Heads’ work play essential parts in the story of a much larger New York dance and funk scene in the early 1980s.
“Go Ahead and Pull the Curtains”
Speaking in Tongues is often overshadowed by the subsequent film captured during their tour supporting it. Stop Making Sense, released in 1984, was directed by Jonathan Demme, with cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth, who was fresh off of shooting Blade Runner. It is, in short, a masterpiece of the concert film genre. Paste Magazine placed the film second on their “21 Best Concert Films of All Time” list. Only The Last Waltz was ahead of it, which invented the whole concert film genre in the first place.
In his contribution to the list, Robert Ham writes, “While you’re caught up in the grooves of “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Take Me to the River”, the perfect pacing and fluid camera moves put you right in the eye of the tornado that was the Heads’ touring band.” If there were any concerns about how this band might convert these songs into a live setting, the film does away with it as soon as Byrne walks iconically onto the stage, carrying his boombox and acoustic guitar. By the film’s end, and after the debut of that iconic big gray suit, over half the songs from Speaking in Tongues have been performed, as well as tracks from all of their previous releases. (Later this year, the film will be shown again in select theaters, and missing it this time would be inexcusable.)
The film is also vitally important because it captured the last time that Talking Heads ever went on tour, despite several more studio albums over the next few years. With 1988’s Naked, the band was through for good.
While Remain in Light may always overshadow Speaking in Tongues in Talking Heads’ discography, the album remains one of many pinnacles in their musical evolution. From hits to hidden grooves, Talking Heads convey the emotion of “joy” better than maybe any other release of the time. David Byrne’s persistent charm is that of a man out of time, either his or any other. He knows this and has always seemed to play with the ramifications. Has anyone in pop music asked as many questions in his lyrics as David Byrne and gotten away with it?
On Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads decided to embody that old aphorism “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” The irony here is that only when they stopped making sense did they reach their purest and funkiest form.
Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River and has never strayed far from it. More of his work can be found at averygregurich.com.
Sara Williams is an artist currently living in Iowa. She spends all of her free time happily distracted by the state’s waterways, timbers, farms, and fields. To see more of her artwork, visit tenacioustimbers.com.
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