Talking Heads are my favorite band.  There’s no getting around this fact in my life.  When I was a sophomore in high school, a boy burned me a copy of their first album, Talking Heads: 77, and I did not immediately date this boy, which was probably dumb of me but whatever, I was young and stupid.  The point here is that this was my first exposure to David Byrne and the gang, and when “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” started, probably as I drove away from campus that day, I was immediately hooked.

The band came out in the New York punk scene of the late 70s, playing at CBGB with the likes of Television and the Ramones, but they weren’t exactly punk themselves, instead borrowing from influences ranging from new wave, funk, and art rock.  Singer/guitarist David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth were all classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design and moved to New York City to start a band.  They picked up multinstrumentalist Jerry Harrison along the way.  Byrne’s lyrics were often neurotic, somewhat whimsical, but rooted in seriousness and reality, while the band’s sound was such an interesting fusion of styles that they were not easily grouped in with the rest of the CBGBs crowd.  At a time when it seemed that everyone was doing their own new thing and combining styles, Talking Heads were truly unique.

If you’re getting started on Talking Heads, go buy “Stop Making Sense” on DVD right now and just dive in.  It’s crucial, with songs encompassing most of their career, and really gives you a taste of how dynamic and innovative they were as performers, particularly David Byrne, who is unquestionably the focal point of the band and who conceptualized the stage show along with the director, Jonathan Demme. Standouts for me include “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, which is actually my favorite Talking Heads song, along with “Life During Wartime”, “Heaven”, “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Slippery People”. That’s not to say that the rest of the set drags in places; it literally does NOT let up for the entirety of the film.  From the acoustic “Psycho Killer” at the beginning, to the ending of “Crosseyed and Painless”, the film is flaw-free and perfect in every way.  There’s a reason why it’s constantly referenced as one of the best concert films ever made — it rightly deserves its place in history.

“Stop Making Sense” will also give you an idea of some of the often-parodied things associated with Talking Heads, like Byrne in his big suit or Byrne dancing with the lamp. Or, really, just David Byrne dancing, which is an art in itself. So, y’know, added bonus!

From there, you really can’t go wrong with any of the holy trinity of Heads albums: Fear of Music, Remain in Light, and Speaking in Tongues.  I’m partial to Tongues myself, but the other two are also incredible, thorough, and feature production from Byrne’s longtime collaboration partner, Brian Eno.

Fear of Music features a collection of songs that are focused on situations of a dystopian nature, particularly “Life During Wartime”, which is an almost-claustrophobic song focused on what appears to be the life of a spy. The recorded version has a really incredible effect because it fades out as Byrne is singing the final lines, giving the song the illusion that it just continues forever and ever.  It was written in the Cold War-era, but still seems timely today.  The album is stacked, too; “Cities” is a slow-burning song with a funky groove, while “Air” is all paranoid power chords with a positively nasty solo.

Remain in Light may be regarded as the most acclaimed Heads album, and deservedly so.  It boasts what is perhaps their most well-known song in “Once in a Lifetime”, a tune about living life on autopilot that is also oft-parodied (HOW DID I GET HERE?).  That song, combined with the 1-2 opening punch of “Born Under Punches” and “Crosseyed and Painless”, as well as other standout tracks like the rumbling “Houses in Motion” flesh out this album.  It perfectly blends funk and African-inspired influences into what would likely now be referred to as the signature sound of Talking Heads. It’s a must-own for any Talking Heads fan, and is the most “them” you’ll probably ever get in terms of sound.

My favorite of their albums is Speaking in Tongues, not only because it features my favorite of their songs, but because it takes all the influences previously noted in their albums and takes off in a more dance-friendly direction.  The signature funkiness is still there, but it’s honed and refitted.  “Stop Making Sense” was filmed during the tour following this album, so songs like the ubiquitous “Burning Down the House” and the aforementioned “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Slippery People” make the first side of the album a solid romp through a weird disco and funk groove, while the second half gets a little dark and chill with songs like, “Swamp” and, naturally, “This Must Be the Place”, which is the most flawless song ever written.  It’s really just an incredible piece of work, and unfortunately, one of their last solidly great albums before tensions within the band broke them up.

Not to say that there aren’t good Talking Heads albums after that!  Little Creatures had quite a few radio-friendly singles, including the weirdo “Stay Up Late”, as well as “And She Was” and “Road to Nowhere”.  The soundtrack to David Byrne’s film, “True Stories“, boasted the single “Wild Wild Life”, which is one of the grooviest and coolest Talking Heads songs around.  Their final album, Naked, featured guitar lines from Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and the unforgettable “(Nothing But) Flowers”, a song that wishes we could eliminate all the urban sprawl and get back to nature.  Sadly, in 1991 they made their official split, and have only performed together once since then, at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Though bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz have played with the Tom Tom Club since the mid-80s, David Byrne was undoubtedly the creative force behind the band and began making solo albums before the official breakup, including My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with Eno. He’s a creative genius who is still out there designing bike racks for NYC, writing books, collaborating with Fatboy Slim on a musical about Imelda Marcos, performing with Arcade Fire, and releasing albums — most recently, his collabo album with St. Vincent titled Love This Giant, which is a must-own.  If you like Talking Heads, you’ll like his solo work.  He’s incredible, and forever one of my faves. I could do an entire Gateway to Geekery on him alone.

Though their breakup put an end to new Talking Heads songs and the chances of a reunion are virtually nonexistent, they’re still a band that is culturally relevant and their music has stood the test of time.  Their influence can be seen everywhere, from older bands like U2 and The Smiths, to newer groups like Arcade Fire and The 1975 to even deeper references on cultural juggernauts like The Simpsons.  They’re just so great, and I can’t recommend them enough.

About The Author

Self-deprecating fundraising lackey, avocado connoisseur, pop culture aficionado, latte-drinking liberal elitist.

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