A loft in Manhattan, New York, 1979: Talking Heads are working on their latest album Fear of Music. A TV crew from England are present making a documentary for the UK arts series The South Bank Show. They interview and film the band at work—writing, rehearsing and recording songs. At times, listening to Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison and David Byrne talk they all make it seem what they’re doing is really quite ordinary, almost mundane. Frantz says he considers his life quite normal when not on tour. He gets up early rather than sleeping all day and going to the clubs at night. Byrne, who sounds at times like Andy Warhol—nervous, shy—discusses his thoughts about dressing like ordinary working people in ordinary everyday work clothes, though he soon discovered keeping up with ordinary fashions was expensive. Tina Weymouth points out the band plays under full house lights and eschew spotlights on solos. They are earnest, conscientious, and make it sound as if what they are doing, what they are creating, is quite workaday when in truth this talented quartet are producing something very, very extraordinary.
As the documentary develops, the disparity between their artistic aspirations and their personal points of view of what they’re all about becomes apparent—with Frantz musing on whether it’s good old rock ‘n’ roll or actually art that they are producing. History’s jury has already returned the verdict on that—a unanimous decision in favor of art—great art.
Weymouth, Frantz and Byrne first played under the name The Artistics. They had an idea of “combining conceptual and performance art with popular music (their sound earned them the nickname The Autistics).” Then a friend suggested the name “Talking Heads” lifted from the TV Guide—which appealed as it had no genre defining angle. Dressed in button down shirts, sensible shoes and corduroy in amongst the ripped T-shirts, leather jackets of New York’s punk clubs, Talking Heads was a vision of the future, belonging to no genre or scene, ultimately. This became more than evident through the eight studio albums the band produced between 1977 and 1988.
Fear of Music was Talking Heads’ third studio album—a powerful rich and diverse record that was rightly voted album of the year by the NME in 1979. It was also the bridge between More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) and the gold standard of Remain in Light (1980).
A necessary footnote—The South Bank Show has produced many of the greatest arts documentaries of the past five decades—all of which has been under the editorship of producer and presenter Melvyn Bragg, who has been the single most important figure in the dissemination of great artistic culture to all—long may this tradition continue.