Talking Heads were an American new wave and avant-garde band formed in 1975 in New York City and active until 1991. The band comprised David Byrne (lead vocals and guitar), Chris Frantz (drums and backing vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass and backing vocals) and Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, and backing vocals). Auxiliary musicians also regularly made appearances in concert and on the group's albums. The new wave style of Talking Heads combined elements of punk rock, art rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, world music, and Americana. Frontman and songwriter David Byrne contributed whimsical, esoteric lyrics to the band's songs, and emphasized their showmanship through various multimedia projects and performances.
Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes Talking Heads as being "one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the '80s, while managing to earn several pop hits." In 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four of the band's albums appeared on Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and the Channel 4 100 Greatest Albums poll listed one album (Fear of Music) at number 76. On a 2011 update of Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", the band was ranked at No. 100.
1974–1977: First years
David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. There Byrne and Frantz formed a band called "The Artistics" in 1974. Weymouth was Frantz's girlfriend and often provided the band with transportation. The Artistics dissolved within a year, and the three moved to New York, eventually sharing a communal loft. Unable to find a bass player in New York City, Frantz encouraged Weymouth to learn to play bass by listening to Suzi Quatro albums. They played their first gig as "Talking Heads" opening for the Ramones at CBGB on June 20, 1975.
In a later interview, Weymouth recalled how the group chose the name Talking Heads: "A friend had found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as 'all content, no action.' It fit."
Later in 1975, the trio recorded a series of demos for CBS, but the band was not signed to the label. They quickly drew a following and were signed to Sire Records in 1977. The group released their first single, "Love → Building on Fire" in February of that year. In March 1977, they added Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), formerly of Jonathan Richman's band The Modern Lovers.
Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, which did not contain the earlier single, was released soon thereafter.
1978–1982: Building a reputation
It was with their second album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food that the band began its long-term collaboration with producer Brian Eno, who had previously worked with Roxy Music, David Bowie, John Cale and Robert Fripp; the title of Eno's 1977 song "King's Lead Hat" is an anagram of the band's name. Eno's unusual style meshed well with the group's artistic sensibilities, and they began to explore an increasingly diverse range of musical directions, from post-punk to new wave to psychedelic funk. This recording also established the band's long term recording studio relationship with the famous Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. "Psycho Killer", from the debut album, had been a minor hit. More Songs... cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" broke Talking Heads into general public consciousness, and gave the band their first Billboard Top 30 hit.
The Eno-Talking Heads experimentation continued with 1979's Fear of Music, which flirted with the darker stylings of post-punk rock, mixed with white funkadelia and subliminal references to the geopolitical instability of the late 1970s. Music journalist Simon Reynolds cited Fear of Music as representing the Eno-Talking Heads collaboration "at its most mutually fruitful and equitable." The single "Life During Wartime" produced the catchphrase, "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco." The song refers to the Mudd Club and CBGB, two popular New York nightclubs of the time.
1980's Remain in Light, heavily influenced by the afrobeat of Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, to whose music Eno had introduced the band, explored West African polyrhythms, weaving these together with Arabic music from North Africa, disco funk, and 'found' voices. These combinations foreshadowed Byrne's later interest in world music. In order to perform these more complex arrangements the band toured with an expanded group that included Adrian Belew and Bernie Worrell, among others, first at the Heatwave festival in August, and later in their concert film Stop Making Sense. During this period, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz also formed a commercially successful splinter group, the hip-hop influenced Tom Tom Club, and Harrison released his first solo album, The Red and the Black. Likewise, Byrne – in collaboration with Eno – released My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which incorporated world music, 'found' sounds, and included a number of other prominent international and post-punk musicians. All were released by Sire.
The Remain in Light album's lead single, "Once in a Lifetime", became a Top 20 hit in the UK but initially failed to make an impression upon its release in the band's own country. But it grew into a popular standard over the next few years on the strength of its music video.
After releasing four albums in barely four years, the group went into hiatus and nearly three years passed before their next release, although Frantz and Weymouth continued to record with the Tom Tom Club. In the meantime, Talking Heads released a live album, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, toured the United States and Europe as an eight-piece group, and parted ways with Eno, who went on to produce albums with U2.
1983–1991: Height of commercial success and break-up
1983 saw the release of Speaking in Tongues, a commercial breakthrough that produced the band's only American Top 10 hit, "Burning Down the House". Once again, a striking video was inescapable owing to its heavy rotation on MTV. The following tour was documented in Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, which generated another live album of the same name. The tour in support of Speaking in Tongues was their last.
Three more albums followed: 1985's Little Creatures (which featured the hit singles "And She Was" and "Road to Nowhere"), 1986's True Stories (Talking Heads covering all the soundtrack songs of Byrne's musical comedy film, in which the band also appeared), and 1988's Naked. The sound of Little Creatures and True Stories was much more American pop-rock, while Naked showed heavy African influence with polyrhythmic styles like those seen on Remain in Light. During that time the group was falling increasingly under David Byrne's control, and after Naked the band went on "hiatus".
It took until December 1991 for an official announcement to be made that Talking Heads had broken up. Their final release was "Sax and Violins," an original song that had appeared earlier that year on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World. Only Byrne and Harrison appear in the song's video, however, lending doubt to Frantz and Weymouth's participation on the track. During this breakup period, Byrne continued his solo career, releasing Rei Momo in 1989 and The Forest in 1991. This period also saw a revived flourish from both Tom Tom Club (Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom and Dark Sneak Love Action) and Harrison (Casual Gods and Walk on Water).
1992–2002: Post break-up and final reunion
Despite David Byrne's lack of interest in another album, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison reunited for a one-off album called No Talking, Just Head under the name The Heads in 1996. The album featured a number of vocalists including Debbie Harry of Blondie, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, Andy Partridge of XTC, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Ed Kowalczyk of Live, Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays, Richard Hell, and Maria McKee. The album was accompanied by a tour which featured Johnette Napolitano as the vocalist. Byrne took legal action against the rest of the band to prevent them using the name "Talking Heads", something he saw as "a pretty obvious attempt to cash in on the Talking Heads name." They opted to record and tour as "The Heads". Likewise, Byrne continues his solo career.
Meanwhile, Harrison became a record producer of some note – his résumé includes the Violent Femmes' The Blind Leading the Naked, the Fine Young Cannibals' The Raw and the Cooked, General Public's Rub It Better, Crash Test Dummies' God Shuffled His Feet, Live's Mental Jewelry, Throwing Copper and The Distance To Here, No Doubt's song "New" from Return of Saturn, and in 2010, work by The Black and White Years and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Frantz and Weymouth, who were married in 1977, had been recording on the side as Tom Tom Club since 1981. Tom Tom Club's self-titled debut album sold almost as well as Talking Heads themselves, leading to the band appearing in Stop Making Sense. They achieved several pop/rap hits during the dance-club cultural boom era of the early 1980s, particularly in the UK, where they still enjoy a strong fan following today. Their best-known single, "Genius of Love", has been sampled numerous times, notably on old school hip hop classic "It's Nasty (Genius of Love)" by Grandmaster Flash and on Mariah Carey's 1995 hit "Fantasy". They also have produced several artists, including Happy Mondays and Ziggy Marley. The Tom Tom Club continue to record and tour intermittently, although commercial releases have become sporadic since 1991.
The band played "Life During Wartime", "Psycho Killer" and "Burning Down the House" together on March 18, 2002, at the ceremony of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, reuniting for a concert tour is unlikely. David Byrne states: "We did have a lot of bad blood go down. That's one reason, and another is that musically we're just miles apart." Weymouth, however, has been critical of Byrne, describing him as "a man incapable of returning friendship" and saying that he doesn't "love" her, Frantz, and Harrison.
- Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
- More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
- Fear of Music (1979)
- Remain in Light (1980)
- Speaking in Tongues (1983)
- Little Creatures (1985)
- True Stories (1986)
- Naked (1988)
Talking Heads have been cited as influences by many artists, including Primus, Bell X1 and Radiohead, who took their name from the Talking Heads song "Radio Head" from the 1986 album True Stories.
- David Bowman, This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century (New York: HarperCollins, 2001). ISBN 0-380-97846-6.
- David Byrne, How Music Works (San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2012). ISBN 1-936365-53-7.
- David Gans, Talking Heads (New York: Avon Books, 1985). ISBN 0-380-89954-X.
- Krista Reese, The Name of This Book is Talking Heads (London: Proteus Books, 1982). ISBN 0-86276-057-7.
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Image from Discogs