Three albums and two years in, Talking Heads stood flush against a wall. They’d gotten there, to the oppressive and paranoid Fear of Music (1979), quickly and economically; they’d reached the logical end to their nerve-frayed means. If there were to be a future for this crew of three RISD students and one ex-Modern Lover, it would have to exist skyward. Up and out.
The band would take its leap of faith and find release one year later with Remain in Light, the best album it ever made; until then, there was darkness that needed confronting. Fear of Music was stifling, hyperventilating music made at the dawn of the Reagan era, a new-wave rendering of a social hypochondriac’s conspiratorial rant. The utilitarian song titles — “Mind”, “Paper”, “Cities”, “Air”, “Heaven”, “Drugs” — are low-profile attempts to draw attention away from the Big Brother ruminations within: here are secrets about your government, about your life, about futility and existence, but shhhh you didn’t hear it from me… they’re listening.
At times the lyrics are claustrophobic inner dialogues made audible. In “Cities”, David Byrne answers his own questions in a darting, spooked-out delivery that suggests the best thing for the narrator would be to stay away from urban areas; elsewhere, they’re explicitly instructional and harried, like the detailed scare tactics disseminated in “Life During Wartime”: “You oughta know not to stand by the window / Somebody might see you up there.” There are fleeting moments when we’re compelled to believe Byrne’s paranoia, like when his voice is nearly consumed by synthesizers on “Mind”, every vowel sound he exhaustively hangs onto perilously exposed and at the mercy of machines.
Still, Fear of Music is an album that opens with a song of chanted nonsense (“I Zimbra”), so although the flashing red lights are everywhere, it’s hard to know who we should be trusting. Since their convulsive, anxious debut, Talking Heads: 77, Talking Heads had been difficult to pin down. The music they made, jolted and nervous like that of the emerging new wave, was anything but linear: images and ideas were but part of a fleeting randomness; words resisted rhyme and endured somewhat maniacal repeating; and Byrne’s vocal delivery, like that of a rabid recluse, was a bloodshot lunge of anti-pop. Bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz were, along with Byrne, students from the Rhode Island School of Design who, after forming the band, packed up and headed off to New York City. They didn’t look like rockers or punks were expected to look in 1977; they dressed up in deceptive normality, in plaid shirts and lecture-attending attire, even when opening for the leather-clad Ramones at NYC’s famed CBGB club.
After picking up Jerry Harrison from Jonathon Richman’s Modern Lovers, Talking Heads released Talking Heads: 77 in the fall of the same year. It was an album built on an alien, eccentric group characteristic, one that was simultaneously herky-jerky, prickly, and funny. Amid the thorny guitars, 77 is stuffed with boasts (“I’ve been to college, I’ve been to school / I’ve met the people that you read about in books” goes one of the first admissions in “Uh-oh, Love Comes to Town”), non sequiturs (“Don’t Worry About the Government” is about…buildings?), and the downright bizarro (“Psycho Killer” being one of the oddest songs to ever find a place in classic rock radio rotation — proving that your weirdness will be unconditionally embraced as long as it comes with a catchy hook). There was also evidence of the band’s gale-force live show in songs like “Pulled Up”, which matched the rhythm section’s groove obsession with Byrne’s unpredictable vocals careening off the rails.
1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food (its title a self-referential jab at 77 and the sophomore album “syndrome”) sounds like the work of a band that suddenly got it: the quirks and the tugs are more calculated, the twitching ends come together and fuse into one gyrating whole. Suddenly the lil’ arty band-that-could possessed a sense of purpose, as if it were on a road to somewhere. Recorded in the Bahamas, More Songs About Building and Food was Talking Heads’ first collaboration (of many) with producer Brian Eno, who helped rein in their panicky sound. The opening track “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”, for example, carries the wound-up tension of 77, but the nervousness is cleanly taut. The chord changes are announced in little Townshendian gestures, windmills that explode like awakened synapses — but it’s never big music (Frantz’s militaristic drum pattern pays no mind to it all, as he never touches a cymbal for the song’s entire two minutes). The looming chorus of “The Good Thing” is executed in robotic cadences; even the lines themselves (“A straight line exists between me and the good things / I have found the line and its direction is known to me”) are clinical and eerily matter-of-fact.
Whether it was under the influence of Eno, the album’s geographical setting, or merely the band’s influences, funk began to emanate from Talking Heads: songs like “Found a Job”, “Artists Only”, and “I’m Not in Love” were dictated by wiry punches, and the left-field cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” implied that the band had more than pieces of New York’s punk scene in its fractured head. The explicit R&B connection that “Take Me to the River” made was perhaps a way to validate the band’s decisive branching-out; its wooden-legged rhythm and somewhat zealous intensity were both obsessive and detached, giving the band (perhaps unexpectedly) its first hit single.
By the time they made it to Remain in Light (1980), Talking Heads had thoroughly integrated numerous elements of African music into their own. Repetitive electric guitar motifs (reminiscent of Afropop), polyrhythmic percussion, and multi-voiced melodies in unison are as central to the album’s sound as Byrne’s idiosyncratic songs. “Born Under Punches (The Beat Goes On”) and “Crosseyed and Painless” use the foundations of African and American funk music as liberators, not constrictors (which was perhaps Fear of Music‘s inaccessible mistake) — as a result, they’re bigger, more breathtaking loops of expressive pulsations. “Houses in Motion” and “Seen and Not Seen” are more reserved instances of this newfound freedom; the band had learned that subtle, airtight vamps didn’t necessarily require a stranglehold to build tension. If Talking Heads harbored hopes of transforming themselves into a new definition of an R&B band, then Remain in Light was the closest they ever got to realizing that goal.
Byrne’s lyrics are as obtuse and impressionistic as always on Remain in Light, but he had become increasingly preoccupied with the concept of shape-shifting — relevant, no doubt, to Talking Heads’ continued transformation. The very first line of the album (“Take a look at these hands”) is not only an invitation, but a self-conscious narrative awakening. The line is repeated numerous times, as if Byrne himself can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. Later, Byrne notes that he “lost [his] shape” and is “changing [his] shape”; he’s “walking a line” in a consciousness where “facts all come with points of view…facts just twist the truth around”. The spoken word monologue in “Seen and Not Seen” describes the altering of appearances through some kind of visual osmosis or intense willpower. The most famous instance of this acknowledgment of transformation is “Once in a Lifetime”, which spawned the iconic big-suit video, a question-heavy meditation on what’s real, what’s only perceived as real, and, most importantly, what’s changed, all played out over a gurgling backing track that bubbles with a similar curiosity.
Here, at the moment of Talking Heads’ first major reinvention, they still thirst for answers and hunger for reasons; at the height of a fertile three-year period, the band plays as though all of its discoveries were only mere clues leading to an even greater revelation. Whether or not they lost the thread following their next album, Speaking in Tongues (which, incidentally, took them three years to make), is up for debate. It’s also irrelevant. As their first four albums demonstrate, Talking Heads had already found something wholly indefinable by 1980, something instigated by quirk, stimulated by fear, and liberated by possibility.
Following last year’s career-spanning Brick box set (which replaced the cumbersome Once in a Lifetime box from 2003), Rhino Records is now releasing all of the Talking Heads’ albums as individual DualDiscs. The first four albums discussed here have just hit shelves with the final four to arrive in one month. Per usual, the Rhino editions present a considerable upgrade in both audio quality and packaging, especially considering that Talking Heads’ catalog had previously only been available on CD as horribly outdated, flat transfers. The fidelity sounds resurrected, or at least revitalized, ushering crucial bass lines to the front of the mix (the booming bass of “I Zimbra” had been inaudible on the original CD transfer), making the punchy bits punchier (both 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food snap like untouched elastic), and, in the case of Fear of Music and Remain in Light, allowing the mixes to breath. There isn’t a wealth of new bonus tracks included: songs like “Love –> Building on Fire” and “Sugar on My Tongue” have already been made available on past collections, while alternate versions of a few songs from More Songs and Fear of Music are unfocused and impenetrable, respectively. The DVD sides of the DualDiscs offer, in addition to the now-trendy 5.1 surround sound mixes, a few live videos per disc, most of which are viciously relentless. Regardless, the extras here are supplemental, incidental stuff, taking a backseat to the original albums themselves.