Talking Heads, fresh-faced and downright cherubic.
When this song was recorded, Talking Heads were still a three-piece band—keyboardist Jerry Harrison had yet to join—and though the track lacks just about anything that would allow one to guess it was Talking Heads, David Byrne’s voice is unmistakable when he announces “This is an instrumental; we call it ‘Theme,’ but then we just keep it to ourselves.” The group opened for Television for that show.
Other than that, you can hear bits and pieces of the band that would become Talking Heads, but this is still pretty amateurish stuff. I, for one, find it comforting. It’s nice to be reminded that even Talking Heads weren’t always Talking Heads.
In 1984, the same year that Stop Making Sense was released, another meticulously crafted Talking Heads concert movie made its debut as well. I refer to Once in a Lifetime, a 69-minute piece of experimental television that surely startled the great piebald tapestry of viewers tuning in to Britain’s Channel 4 that night.
From the perspective of today, Once in a Lifetime (some sources call it Talking Heads vs. the Television or Talking Heads vs. Television) is very much a document of its moment, as filtered through the cheerfully experimental sensibility of David Byrne (although Geoff Dunlop was the director). It elevates quick-cutting montage using heterogenous sources to the non plus ultra of confrontational video art. This was 1984, the high-water mark of MTV; other directions were not considered. It would have been obscurely baffling and disappointing if a movie like this had not used aggressively random splicing.
Once in a Lifetime opens with barrage of video content and a few voiceover musings by Byrne before getting to the footage of a Talking Heads show at Wembley, which is amusingly described in an early scroll as a place where a “Horse of the Year Show” might occur—this might be the last foray into actual humor in the movie.
As far as I can tell, the Wembley footage was shot in 1982—anybody know? Did anybody reading this attend?
What makes the movie remarkable is the band’s willingness to have its performances messed with. None of the songs are presented straight—all feature some form of montage or visual comment. The strategies for each song are largely dictated by the song’s content. For instance, “Life During Wartime” is puncutated with footage of urban strife, in the form of police sirens, drug use, and automated weaponry. “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” features an unwitting ancitipation of “Road to Nowhere” in the form of a lengthy take of a dusty southwestern horizon receding from the camera. “Once in a Lifetime” weaves in ample footage of American evangelists; it struck me for the first time that Byrne’s famous forehead-slapping gesture is an obvious reference to evangelical ritual (I know, I’m an idiot). Testament to the Heads’ commitment to experimentation, the live rendition of “Once in a Lifetime” gives way to perhaps 20 seconds of the music video (you’ve surely seen that before).
Implicit in this mode of presentation is an imperative of showing UK audiences what vulgar America is “really” like, so a premium is placed on material not available overseas, such as the evangelical footage, the TV commercials, the news coverage, and so on. For “Mind,” the chorus of which is, let’s recall, “I need something to change your mind,” the accopanying montage is all about good old American hucksterism, particularly billboard advertisements and the patter of late-night TV commericals. While listening to “Big Business,” the viewer sees images evoking technology, industrialization, and the assembly line.
The boldest stroke is probably “Psycho Killer,” an ingenious montage folding together perhaps twenty different versions of the song, each with its specific venue, camera quality, sound quality, outfits, and so on. They seldom stay with any version for more than about a line, but the result is not unpleasurable. For “My Big Hands (Fall Though the Cracks),” Byrne busts out a megaphone. “Swamp” features a series of stills of Byrne’s face, often distorted through video or computerized effects, and ends with a freeze frame of Byrne’s singing, hot red visage—a clear reference to nuclear annihilation.
The video is a must-see for any Talking Heads fan—I’ve emphasized the experimentation but you also hear a dozen songs (nine Talking Heads numbers, three from Byrne’s The Catherine Wheel score), and that’s always a good thing. But the emphasis on the avant-garde nature of the proceedings tends to undermine the “concert” aspect of the movie. Early on Byrne says in a voiceover, “When the performance is successful, something sort of transcendent happens that has to do with the audience and the musicians losing their egos and immersing themselves in sort of one identity or whatnot. It need only happen in a performance for maybe thirty seconds or so, and that justifies the whole thing.”
I take Byrne at his word, but to judge solely from Once in a Lifetime, it’s sheer poppycock.
“Life During Wartime”
“Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)”
“Once in A Lifetime”
“My Big Hands (Fall Though the Cracks)”
“What A Day That Was”
“Crosseyed And Painless”
Oh what a time it must have been on Manhattan’s Bond Street in the mid-1970s. Bond Street connects Broadway and the Bowery exactly where CBGB’s used to be, and a lot of cool folks used to live there when it was still considered a pretty sketchy part of town—before NYU moved in. Today Bond Street is mostly known for very expensive co-ops.
David Byrne used to live at 52 Bond Street back in the day, just a few steps away from CBGB’s. He crashed with an old RISD buddy of his, an artist named Jamie Dalglish. Dalglish was and is a painter but at that time he was obsessed with video. In 1975 he had the idea of a video art project that would consist entirely of interviews. The idea was that Dalglish would compile hours and hours of footage of his artist friends talking with Byrne—but Byrne would be offscreen the entire time. The name of the project was “Talking Heads.”
As David Bowman relates in his book on Talking Heads (meaning the band, not the video project):
But back in 1974, Dalglish spent most of his energy on ideas about video as a replacement for language. At year’s end, Dalglish would undertake a massive seven-and-a-half-hour video consisting of more talking than images. It would be composed of fifteen static shots of fifteen different people sitting in a chair listening to David Byrne.
David was talking—jabbering actually—performing a stream-of-consciousness dialogue off-camera. Tina said, “The tape was David spouting off what other people thought. Memorizing anecdotes and advertisements from TV. Things that he’d heard other people say.”
This video disappeared years ago and has become the Holy Grail of Talking Heads research. Dalglish is convinced that Talking Heads manager Gary Kurfirst has it. Kurfirst says he doesn’t know what Dalglish is talking about.
I’m not a private detective or anything, but to me it sure sounds like those tapes are lost for good, fellas.
As Byrne blandly tells it in his 2012 book How Music Works, “In the mid-seventies I was offered room and board in New York by a painter, Jamie Dalglish, who let me sleep on his loft floor in return for help renovating the place. This was on Bond Street, almost right across from CBGB, where Patti Smith would read occasionally while Lenny Kaye accompanied her on guitar.” And that’s the last we ever hear about Dalglish—and no word at all about Dalglish’s “Talking Heads” video project.
Here’s a little more about Bond Street, taken from a 2007 article in the New York Observer—the whole thing is worth a read:
My other neighbors included a struggling and somewhat unstable artist, an ex of David Byrne’s, and a lesbian novelist who would later publish to considerable acclaim but who then worked at a rickety table I could see out my window, where she’d gently masturbate with one hand and hunt-and-peck type with the other. Our doormen were typically prone and pungent skid-row types. There were several Bowery hotels, a.k.a. flophouses, nearby, but no Bowery Hotel, and certainly no trendy restaurants.
The only semblance of uptown chic arrived with visitors slumming at CBGB. Which may be why, after Talking Heads shows, David Byrne would escape to visit my downstairs neighbor, a fellow Rhode Island School of Design grad, [this is almost certainly Dalglish—Ed.] while Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who shared a cold-water loft on Chrystie Street, would come to my place for hot showers and quick pick-me-ups.
The full “Talking Heads” videos appear to be lost, but you can see four short snippets to get a taste of the whole thing. Here Byrne and artist Jeff Koons discuss authenticity in music, working in a key reference to The Bob Newhart Show:
David Byrne / Jeff Koons:
After the jump, Byrne talks with Jeff Turtletaub, Chris Frantz, and Vito Acconci…
Hidden in plain sight in the midst of his prodigious creative output, there is an unfairly overlooked gem in David Byrne’s discography that I feel is an absolutely monumental masterpiece of late 20th century music, one right up there with Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and his seminal collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I refer to the seamless funk opera score Byrne created for choreographer, Twyla Tharp in 1981, The Catherine Wheel. Unless you were a big Talking Heads or are David Byrne completest, chances are this one might have passed you by.
The Catherine Wheel is, to my mind, the third spoke (see what I did there) of a deeply psychedelic African-influenced polyrhythmic trilogy along with the above-mentioned Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—all three were easily in my top ten “tripping soundtracks” as an acid-gobbling teenager and all three would still be on my Desert Island Discs list as a middle-aged rock snob. If you’re a fan of the two better-known albums, but have not heard The Catherine Wheel, well, you’ll be in for a profound treat, but especially if you drop some acid beforehand (I’d encourage it, no really!).
Musicians heard on the album include Jerry Harrison, the powerful drummer Yogi Horton, percussionist John Chernoff, Adrian Belew, P-Funk’s resident Minimoog genius Bernie Worrell and Brian Eno. It’s mind-blowing to me that there’s not a deluxe 2-CD set of the album that would include the 12” mixes and live Talking Heads performances of songs from the score, but I feel like this incredible piece of music has always gotten short shrift from whatever major label currently owns it. (The Catherine Wheel is one of the greatest “fuck albums” of all time, too. That’s how they should market it, if you ask me. I toyed with the obnoxious linkbait title of “David Byrne, of all people, recorded the ultimate fuck album” but thought better of it).
Above, Talking Heads performing “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” at Wembley Arena in 1982.
After the jump, much more including the full Twyla Tharp ballet as it aired on BBC and PBS in 1983…
In 1993, Rough Trade records put out Lipstick Traces, a “soundtrack” to the book by Greil Marcus. It’s one of my favorite CDs of all time, with tracks by The Slits, Essential Logic, The Raincoats, The Mekons, Buzzcocks, The Gang of Four, Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, Situationist philosopher Guy Debord and others. It’s an amazing collection, but one track in particular stands out from the rest, a recitation by none other than Marie Osmond, of Dada poet Hugo Ball’s nonsensical gibberish piece from 1916, “Karawane.”
Hugo Ball was a follower of anarchist philosopher Mikail Bakunin and became one of the founders of the Zurich nightclub, Cabaret Voltaire, the nexus of the Dada art movement. He would go onstage dressed like this and basically, uh, do avant garde things:
Here’s the story behind this, I think you’ll agree, most excellent clip. From the Lipstick Traces liner notes:
As host of a special (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) show on sound poetry, Osmond was asked by the producer to recite only the first line of Ball’s work; incensed at being thought too dumb for art, she memorized the lot and delivered it whole in a rare “glimpse of freedom.”
Seven months after their first gig at CBGB (an opening slot in June of 1975 for The Ramones), Talking Heads were videotaped performing a set at the legendary club.
1. Psycho Killer
2. Tentative Decisions
3. With Our Love
4. I Wish You Wouldn’t Say That
5. I’m Not in Love
6. 96 Tears
7. No Compassion
When we were performing at CBGB’s alongside Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith, and Blondie, there was never any doubt in my mind that something unforgettable was going on. To me it was obvious that history was in the making; in no small part thanks to Hilly Kristal who owned CBGBs and gave these bands a stage to play on when no one else would.” Chris Frantz.
David Bynre, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz still finding their feet as a band but the essence that made them great is all there.
Andy Zax, who lovingly prepared Talking Heads’ oeuvre for CD re-issue a few years back (including the stellar 5.1 surround mixes) in conversation with novelist Jonathan Lethem about his new “33 1/3” series book on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music for The Los Angeles Review of Books podcast.
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist, critic, and professor of English at Pomona College. His new book Fear of Music (reviewed tomorrow for the Los Angeles Review of Books by Evan Kindley) is the latest in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of monographs on individual record albums. Andy Zax is an L.A.-based writer and record producer who, in the mid 2000s, prepared Talking Heads’ entire catalog (including Fear of Music) for CD reissue. In this podcast, they discuss the ins and outs of this highly unsettling record (the band’s third), air some rare ephemera from the archives, and share some reminiscences of adolescence. Produced by Oliver Wang.
It’s two articulate guys sitting around bullshitting about music, so if that’s your kind of thing, listen below:
Another stellar Talking Heads concert for you lucky people, a 50-minute performance from the Westfalenhalle, in Dortmund, Germany, on December 20th, 1980 for the Rockpop TV show.
Once In A Lifetime
Crosseyed And Painless
Life During Wartime
The Great Curve
Can you tell what I’ve been listening to around the house, lately? Is it that obvious?
The final, 8-minute-long romp on “The Great Curve” will fry your synapses.
(For those of you unaware of its existence, there is an amazing 5:1 remix of Remain in Light from 2006 that is a treat for the ears. If ever there was an album meant to be heard in multi-channel audio, it is this polyrhythmic masterpiece. Cheap, too.)
“The big difference between us and punk groups is that we like KC and the Sunshine Band. You ask Johnny Rotten if he likes KC and the Sunshine Band and he’ll blow snot in you face.
As I mentioned in a recent post about the excellent new Talking Heads: Chronology DVD, for me, the apex of the band’s career was, hands down, Remain in Light. This 1980 concert, shot with the expanded Talking Heads “Afro-funk orchestra” line-up in Rome, captures these musicians in fine, fine form with four out of the eleven numbers coming from that classic album. Featuring future King Crimson guitar god Adrian Belew wringing all kinds of impossible noises out of his guitar.
Play this one LOUD, it’ll knock you sideways. Just imagine what a Blu-ray DVD release of this with a 5.1 soundtrack would be like? I’d take this over Stop Making Sense any day.
The recently released Talking Heads: Chronology DVD is must-see TV for fans of the legendarily Caucasian 70s art school quartet who mutated into a futuristic Afrofunk-orchestra that rivaled Parliament-Funkadelic within just a few short years. Chronology charts the band’s progress from their stiff early days at CBGB and The Kitchen, through TV appearances on American Bandstand, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and Late Night with David Letterman, with clips from the US Festival and the reunion performance of “Life During Wartime” from their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002.
For years Talking Heads could do no wrong in my eyes. I have dropped untold amounts of LSD listening to Fear of Music, Remain in Light, The Catherine Wheel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Tom Tom Club, but after a point I soured on them a bit. I don’t think I’m alone among “first wave” Talking Heads fans when I say that I’m not really all that interested in anything that came after Remain in Light so I’m glad to see mostly early and mid-period material represented here.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some great tracks on Speaking in Tongues (and that limited edition Robert Rauschenberg cover was tres excellent) but their later work started to feel really kinda forced to me. Prior to this release, “live” Talking Heads video material was mostly limited to Stop Making Sense. Frankly, I thought they were already well on the decline by then. These earlier performances are more alive—and certainly more spontaneous, looser, rawer, fresher and funkier—to me than what was staged for the Jonathan Demme film. That’s why the material on Talking Heads: Chronology is so essential. Hell, after watching the live performance on the DVD of “Crosseyed And Painless,” I’d contemplate anything short of murder just to see more footage from the era covered on the latter half of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. See for yourself, it’s a scorcher.
Extras on Talking Heads: Chronology include audio commentaries from the entire group, a 1979 episode of The South Bank Show devoted to Talking Heads and a David Byrne interview from 1978. There is both a deluxe version of the DVD that comes packaged like a hardback book (with a fantastic essay by Lester Bangs) and a regular version. Since you can get them both for just about the same price on Amazon, go with the deluxe version of Talking Heads: Chronology for sure.
Below, a fucking killer live “Crosseyed And Painless” videotaped at the Capitol Theater in Passiac, NJ, 1980 included on Talking Heads: Chronology:
Welcome to part III of my multimedia dossiers on the wild and wonderful recording career of that great American band, the B-52s. Today’s topic, my personal favorite of all of their releases, the 1982 EP produced by David Byrne known as Mesopotamia.
Yes, what is generally thought of as being one of their least successful records—it was critically savaged when it came out—is to my mind their very best work. The hiring on of Byrne, then at the height of his creative powers—he was simultaneously producing the seminal score he did for Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production, The Catherine Wheel—I thought was an inspired move on the band’s part. Byrne introduced the polyrhythmic African beats of Remain in Light and his Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts into the signature sound of the “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia’’ ” to great effect. I was a huge Talking Heads fan, so hearing elements of their “African/Eno-era” sound melding with the trademark B-52s wacky racket was heaven for me as a teenage rock snob. Byrne took their sound to a different place, and I felt nicely expanded on their sonic palette. The B-52s obviously felt differently, as Byrne was fired before a complete album could be recorded (hence an EP of the sessions was released).
Seriously, you have no idea how often I played this record. It falls into the “soundtrack of my life” category in a big way. But what many fans of the group do not know is that there are three very different versions of Mesopotamia: The “classic” short (US/Warner Brothers) EP version; the extended mix version mistakenly(?) released in Germany and in the UK by Island Records; and the 1991 CD version, which basically mixed David Byrne right out of the proceedings…
The first two B-52s albums are classics, and to my mind, perfect in every way, but a third album in that same style would have probably been one too many. Byrne’s involvement, for many fans, took the band a little too far away from their inspired amateur beginnings perhaps, but who else but Byrne was capable of coming up with such amazing grooves back then? And haven’t the B-52s always been about the beat? David Byrne was on fire then creatively. I’ve read that the B-52s felt that his production made them sound too much like the Talking Heads, but hey, what a valid direction that was for them!. True, certain elements of their sound (Ricky Wilson’s Venusian surf guitar for one) were diminished, but other elements (Wilson’s striking use of dissonance in his compositions) are given free rein with different instrumentation (like the nearly atonal horn lines). Their sound was nicely expanded upon by Byrne’s “dubbier/trippier” and more-layered production approach, if you ask me, but the B-52s didn’t ask, and it’s their call, ultimately…
Still why not release a special collector’s edition of Mesopotamia with the original David Byrne mixes, the longer Byrne mixes and the known outtakes: “Queen of Las Vegas,” (see below), the original “Big Bird” and “Butterbean” (both recut for Whammy) and the out of character Fred Schneider ballad “Adios Desconocida” (which I found here)? In any case, the longer, “alt” David Byrne version of Mesopotamia, unavailable now for nearly 30 years and never released on CD can be downloaded at The Same Mistakes blog and elsewhere)
PS I don’t hate the 1991 remix of Mesopotamia, but I’d never choose to listen to it over either of the David Byrne versions. Ever. Nuff said.
Kate, Fred and Cindy on the set of The Guiding Light soap opera in 1982 (see below for video clip)
Compare the nearly 8-minute version of “Cake” with the shorter version that was released ex-UK and Germany. This song minus the horns at the beginning? A sacrilege!
And to think that at one point, I actually thought this song really was about baking a cake… Short version of “Cake” (US version):
Below, “Deep Sleep.” It’s true that this would very much sound at home on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but would anyone doubt that this is the B-52s once the vocals come in?
A slamming live “Mesopotamia” from the Rockpop Festival, Dortmund, Germany, 1983:
After the jump, the B-52s make a guest appearance on “The Guiding Light” soap opera in 1982… and more!