“And you may ask yourself, ‘Well…how did I get here?’” The punk scene of the late 70s was hardcore and edgy mixed with angsty youth. When Talking Heads debuted in 1977, they were revered as minimalist geniuses. Their world of melodic pop and trippy lyrics were an exploration of the avant-garde. Not only were they prolific musically, but their image and stage presence were witty with incredible energy. At the time, there was no other lead singer quite like David Byrne. Equipped with glasses and an oversized suit, he captivated audiences with his jerky moves and bellowing voice. During their peak, Talking Heads were the most lauded group of the 80s, earning two Grammy nominations and a collection of classic hits. But before they were “Burning Down the House”, they were trying to get through school.
Before he found himself in a “beautiful house, with a beautiful wife” David Byrne was an awkward, withdrawn “art-school punk”. The son of Scottish immigrants, Byrne had a strong interest in music early on in life. By the time he started high school, he was already proficient in several instruments. But his “off-key” voice was considered problematic to choir teachers who shunned him for singing. That wouldn’t stop him from starting a band with his peers at Rhode Island’s School of Design. The group would head down to New York City where talk of an underground movement was booming. Famed concert venue CBGB hosted one of Talking Head’s earliest performances in the city. News of the band’s funk-rock style and quirky attitude had spread around the state. Their list of fans would include poetic spinster Lou Reed, who encouraged Byrne to continue his enigmatic attire. Two years later, they landed their first record deal with an album that swiftly hit the world soon after. Aptly titled: Talking Heads: 77.
The album’s reception was magnanimous and had critics praising the group on their impressionist-like music. They were punk without being punk. It was a new form of rock music that infused funk with intellectual lyrics. The lead single “Psycho Killer” introduced their trademark jerky guitar and rhythm. Accompanied by Byrne’s wide-eyed, loose but robotic movements. Having a refreshing, albeit polarizing style, worked well for the group’s first outing. While it wasn’t a commercial success, it showed the band had originality with potential to grow. Development on their sound continued into their next couple albums. 1979’s Fear of Music blossomed with praise as Byrne vocal performances and lyrical content shined. “Life During Wartime” baffled critics and music enthusiasts with its relation to funk while remaining rock. The New Yorker quoted the track, “an apocalyptic swamp-funk transmission in four-four time,” further praising it as their “pinnacle.” The track itself was a turning point in music as The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it in their feature: 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
At the time of their latest release, Talking Heads toured extensively before enjoying a short break. This brief stint was followed with one of the most innovate, sonic experimentations in history. 1980s Remain in Light is a visionary classic that assembled the most diverse genres into one record. It featured everything from psychedelic funk to art rock with polyrhythmic beats. Byrne’s expressionist lyricism powered through hit singles “Once in a Lifetime” and “Houses in Motion”. The biggest of these stunners would come through stylized concept videos premiering on MTV. The experimental undertaking eclipsed album of the year polling’s that included The Clash and Bruce Springsteen. Later, publications had listed it as one of the most defining albums of the 80s.
How do you follow-up a career defining album that was hailed for being one of the best of the year? Speaking In Tongues was the answer to that question in 1983. The crossover nature that the band reveled in was a recipe for success. Rolling Stone critic David Fricke stated it as, “the album that finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk.” The fiery hot single “Burning Down the House” packed a jam list of classic rock and dance pop into one track. While the single burnt to the top of the charts, the band decided to document a few of their concerts. It wasn’t expected that this filming would turn into something bigger than they could ever imagine.
Stop Making Sense is considered to be not just an amazing work of art, but “the finest concert film” ever made. Taking place at Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater, the live concert combines four shows across 16-tracks. The stages centralized lighting of the band created a visual spectacle that boasted their energy. With neutral attire colors and usage of illumination created the group’s most spellbinding performance. The 1984 release brought commercial success and critical acclaim with The New Yorker defining it as “close to perfection.”
Talking Heads moved on to release a few more albums with their last being 1988s Naked. An extended hiatus and individual members moving to solo projects questioned the bands future. These questions were met with a formal announcement in 1991 stating the band had officially dissolved. But that hasn’t stopped original members from reuniting and coupling reissues of their greatest hits. For their part in shaping music and creating timeless hits, Talking Heads was officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
“And you may ask yourself, ‘How do I work this?’” According to Byrne, “To some extent I happily don’t know what I’m doing. I feel that it’s an artist’s responsibility to trust that.”
Written by Trenton Luber