2
Feb
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Five
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"A friend 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."-Tina Weymouth, bass player

"We're in a funny position. It wouldn't please us to make music that's impossible to listen to, but we don't want to compromise for the sake of popularity."-David Byrne, lead singer/songwriter.

"America's most venturesome rock band."- John Rockwell, The New York Times

"This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around."-Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"

When I asked three of my most music savvy friends to create a list of essential albums for me to chart a course through, I wholly expected that there would be some overlap between the lists. I figured certain bands would show up on every list, and certain albums might appear more than once. I was right on this front (though often very wrong about what bands would show up multiple times or what albums would be chosen), and over the course of this year there are I believe three or four albums that appear on two or more lists (how I shall approach these shall be made clear in time). However there is only one band that appeared with a different album on each list. One band that each of my three expert compatriots deemed essential, and yet presented me with four different choices for the album they deemed most essential (Tab's list included both More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music). One band to rule them all. Or, at least to get a full installment of My Year in Lists dedicated solely to them. And that band, in case you skipped the above quotes and are really only skimming this introductory paragraph for band names or sexual references, is Talking Heads.

Formed in New York City in 1974, Talking Heads combine elements of punk rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, international music and art rock to create a sound that is at once singular and vastly influential, entirely unique and endlessly aped by the 30 years of music that has followed them. In short, they are sort of the ideal band for this early point in the life of this feature. The band played their first gig as Talking Heads (after a brief stint as The Artistics) opening for The Ramones at CBGB on June 8, 1975. Their first album Talking Heads 77 did not sell well, nor did it produce a hit for the band.

I don't think it's being particularly bold to say that Americans fear change (except possibly for the type that we can believe in, which somehow makes us giddy). As a nation, we generally like things the way they are. Our Founding Fathers made sure to engrain this in our Constitution, and the majority of Americans think they got it right (some want things to stay the same more than others. Caution is one thing, but personally I'm a fan of things like electricity and equal rights. That could just be me though). It may be slightly bolder, though I venture no less correct, to claim that this is one of the reasons covers are so prevalent in American music. The cover can be seen as a testament to an artistic influence, sure, or as a band delivering their take on a classic. But looking at the amount of artists I have examined even so far in the short life of My Year in Lists, it seems that many artists also break into the mainstream by delivering a solid cover of a beloved song. To paraphrase Patton Oswalt, people like what they like, and they like it even more when you give it to them. This explains why the procedural flourishes on television (people like cops, doctors, and lawyers and are willing to watch them be cops, doctors, and lawyers weekly for decades on end), why remakes make hundreds of millions at the box office (people say to themselves, "˜Oh yeah. I liked Psycho. I should go see that new movie Psycho.' NOTE: Do not, under any circumstances see the remake of Psycho. Consider yourself warned) and why, in part at least, there are so many covers floating around the music industry. All of these are partially explained by a dearth of creativity and by artistic bankruptcy, but Hollywood wouldn't be able to get away with all of this if it wasn't for Americans fearing change and loving to be reminded of the things they love, occasionally lovingly.

All of this is prelude to the fact that Talking Heads' fortunes started to change, when they began collaborating with producer Brian Eno (formerly of Roxy Music, and also the producer of David Bowie's famed Berlin Trilogy) on their second album, the aptly titled More Songs About Buildings and Food. The Talking Heads were almost definitely a band that changed the course of music and had a vast influence on what was to come. So it seems only appropriate that they broke into the mainstream and scored their first hit with a cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River," which they performed on Saturday Night Live (another example of Americans fearing change and liking what they like, almost regardless of the show's wildly uneven quality) in February of 1979. The album would go on to be ranked 382 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, and is a stellar achievement on its own merits, but what got people listening was that song they'd heard a million times before, with a slightly different sound.



The album opens with the upbeat, pop-rock "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," which allows for heavy bass and a guitar solo along with its catchy beat and lyrics. "With Our Love," clearly a heavily Eno-influenced track, feels almost like a Berlin Trilogy Era Bowie song infused with lead singer/songwriter David Byrne's distinctly punkish vocals. "The Good Thing" feels like a throwback pop track for most of its runtime, yet its chorus has a distinctly Talking heads refrain that feels like a modern interlude into a retro track.





"The Girls Want to Be With the Girls" harkens most toward the direction the band was headed in, using electronic sounds heavily and delivering the most fluid expression so far of Byrne's whimsical, esoteric lyrical style. The album's closing track, "The Big Country" plays with the album's loose concept (made fairly obvious by the title), experimenting with a comparatively folksy, country influenced style, though the song never lapses fully into wither genre, remaining pretty firmly a rock-influenced ballad.




The band's next effort, 1979's Fear of Music tended more toward the darker side of post-punk rock. Fearing they would become viewed as a "singles machine" after "Take Me To The River," the band wanted to expand on the subtle disco rhythms of More Songs About Buildings and Food and make them more prominent. However, the band found early recording sessions unsatisfactory and retreated from the studio into Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth's loft (the two had been married since 1977), where they had rehearsed prior to being signed to a label. They called Brian Eno in to help them, and eventually recorded the entire album in the loft space. Rather than set the songs in contemporary situations as he had previously, Byrne decided to place the characters in his songs alone in dystopian landscapes. The album was titled Fear of Music because of the stress and pressure the band was under while recording it.

"I Zimbra" the album's opening track adapts the Dadaist Hugo Ball poem "Gadji beri bimba" into a heavily African-influenced disco blend that also helped to set the stage for the band's evolution. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison freely admitted the song's heavy influence on what was to come, saying "we knew that our next album would be a further exploration of what we had begun in I Zimbra." The song "Paper" somewhat sardonically compares a love affair to a sheet of paper, while "Cities" details the search for the ideal urban environment to live in. "Life During Wartime" is a jazzy comparison of New York at the end of the "˜70s to WWII era civilians, and argues against the view of New York in any period as a bohemian landscape. The song is included as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll" and also became one of the biggest hits off of the album.



"Air" is a protest song against the atmosphere, written seriously by Byrne about a man so depressed that the idea of breathing troubles him. "Heaven," my personal favorite song on the album, explores the idea of achievement and finding a purpose in life by identifying Heaven as the perfect victory over all of your personal goals. As such, Heaven in Byrne's conception becomes a place where your perfect achievement, and the height of your celebration over that achievement will happen over and over again as exactly the same moment in the exact perfect way.





In 1980, Remain in Light found the band collaborating with Brian Eno once again. The band aimed for the album to dispel the notion that Talking Heads was effectively singer/songwriter David Byrne leading a backup band. The album experiments heavily with African polyrhythms, and at Eno's suggestion recorded the instrumental tracks pre-vocals as a series of samples and loops, which had never been done before.

Widely considered the band's magnum opus, Remain in Light originated out of the band taking time off to pursue personal interests. David Byrne worked with Brian Eno on an experimental album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Jerry Harrison produced an album for soul-singer Non Hendryx. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth discussed the possibility of leaving the band (Weymouth believing that Byrne exercised too much control over the band's direction), but instead took an extended Caribbean vacation, where they became involved in Haitian Voodoo and learned native percussion instruments. Rather than writing music to Byrne's lyrics as the band had done before, the band performed instrumental jam sessions, using "I Zimbra" as a starting point. The band focused on a more collaborative process than ever before, experimenting with Afro beats and taking some inspiration from the beginnings of hip hop.

The lyrics for the album came last, a first for the band. Because of this, Byrne struggled with writer's block and felt that anything he added to the instruments sounded stilted. As a result, he looked to Africa, as the band had for musical inspiration, and discovered that African musicians often improvised the words to their songs as they performed. What resulted is a free-association feel to many of the album's tracks, composed mainly of stream of consciousness lyrics.

The album opener "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" borrows from preaching and ranting that Byrne had heard and read. "Crosseyed and Painless" is the most directly hip hop inspired track, borrowing the old school rap, "Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late." Taking further inspiration from Africa, "The Great Curve" is built on a famous African phrase, "the world moves on a woman's hips."





The band's most famous and enduring song, "Once in a Lifetime" has been named one of the 100 most important musical works of the 20th Century by NPR. The song examines the idea that people move through life with little awareness, rarely questioning what they do. The song examines an existential crisis and the inevitable sacrifice of youthful ideals for conventional success. Borrowing from the structure of evangelical diatribes, "Once in a Lifetime" exists as a prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s. Remain in Light is widely considered Talking Heads magnum opus, and was ranked 126 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list.



The group's next album, 1983's Speaking in Tongues got its title from Byrne's writing technique (debuted on Remain in Light but perfected during the recording of this album) of singing nonsense over the music the band had written and then making words fit to that. "Burning Down The House," the album's opening track became the band's first and only American Top Ten hit, though the song found less success elsewhere (which is odd, considering Talking Heads had 14 Top Ten hits in the UK and several in Australia). "Girlfriend is Better" features the famous refrain "stop making sense" which became the title for the band's concert film, directed by Jonathan Demme. "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)" is a rare love song from the band. Byrne described it as, "["¦] a love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs, phrases that may have strong emotional resonance but don't have any narrative qualities. It's a real honest kind of love song. I don't think I'd ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a reservation or a twist."





Talking Heads released three albums after Speaking in Tongues (1985's Little Creatures, 1986's True Stories, and 1988's Naked) before going on hiatus and finally breaking up in 1991. The band cited increased musical divergence and "bad blood" as their reasons for splitting up, and Tina Weymouth has since commented that Byrne drove the band apart, calling him "incapable of returning friendship" and unloving to his fellow band mates. All rock bands, to some extent or another, end in tragedy, though, and prior to their inevitable demise, Talking Heads created some of the best, most influential music of the late "˜70s and early 80's. The band has been cited as a huge influence on countless bands, perhaps most importantly on a little band you may have heard of called Radiohead, who took their name from the song "Radio Head" off True Stories. Ushered into the American consciousness with a cover that promised things would stay the same, Talking Heads changed the face of modern music forever. Things are not the same as it ever was. But would you really want them to be?


Read more My Year in Lists here

Look out next week for more on Talking Heads in the first My Year in Lists: Interlude in which each of the three list contributors to this feature talk about the band, why they think they're essential, and why they chose the album they did.


Next on My Year in Lists:

John Coltrane gives us a Love Supreme, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band deliver something called Trout Mask Replica and we look into the self titled debut of Violent Femmes.
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