It was in 1978 that Talking Heads released their second album, entitled More Songs About Buildings and Food; the album was notable for three things: the beginning of their collaboration with Brian Eno, the wonderful single (reinvention) of Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’, and the fact that the record didn’t contain much material that could be described as being either about buildings or food. Their previous album Talking Heads:77 had included ‘Psycho Killer’, which was destined to become a major landmark as part of their ensuing 1980 Stop Making Sense film/soundtrack, as was ‘Take Me To The River’. The songs couldn’t have been farther apart in style, execution or intent, though it was ‘Psycho Killer’ that truly represented where the band was headed. But it was the Al Green song that really brought the band to public consciousness.
Talking Heads were the whitest of the white bands on the New York scene. They were art students, most of them, who had met at The Rhode Island School of Design. After one brief and uneventful year as a band which they called The Artistics, they moved to New York, moved into a loft together and resumed their musical journey. Their new name “Talking Heads” emanated from the phrase given to television commentators who were “all content and no action”, which the band felt described themselves perfectly. They got a propitious start when they opened for The Ramones in 1975 and began writing off-kilter material together. So what were they doing covering Al Green? – these skinny white kids seemed utterly devoid of rhythm and blues as well as soul. Therein lies the paradox: their sense of rhythm turned out to be polyrhythmic world music. David Byrne, the genius behind the group, was impossibly thin and often wore an outsized white suit, dancing spasmodically on stage while singing about psychos and how ‘The Girls Want To Be With The Girls’. Somehow that melded with the new beats that were beginning to take hold in American music fans.
“When we were making this album I remembered this stupid discussion we had about titles for the last album,” Tina Weymouth (bass) smirked. “At that time I said, ‘What are we gonna call an album that’s just about buildings and food?’ And Chris Frantz (drummer) said, ‘You call it more songs about buildings and food.’
Two musical elements forged their success – Byrne was weirdly magnetic, and the band played great, great dance music which was eagerly embraced by the New York club scene, especially with those audiences who wanted nothing to do with discomania. You could dance to their stuff – you could gape wildly, lunge desperately, dress strangely and if you had the balls to carry it off, then Talking Heads was your kind of group. Even in the hinterlands of Boise, Idaho, and Winnipeg, Manitoba where from the beginning the band was thought of as cool, the very mention of their music made one a muso of sorts, someone who could be taken seriously but who obviously didn’t take himself seriously. Talking Heads was a band for a new kind of nerd who forged his own fashion sense, someone who was eclectic and open to punk, reggae and electronica. Electronica? – wtf was that? You know, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Talking Heads. Except you couldn’t easily groove to the first two groups, while that funky bass from Tina Weymouth got you moving even though you couldn’t dance at all.
As for electronica, that’s where Brian Eno came in. Yes, he went on to produce David Bowie and U2, but Talking Heads is Eno’s greatest achievement, not just for their recordings but for their live performances, and their integration of art, spectacle and musical invention. These were, and remained for years, Eno’s preoccupations. With Talking Heads as a vehicle, with David Byrne as the unlikely front man, supplemented by written material that was truly bizarre, this was a collaboration made in heaven.
“That’s the one for my tombstone… Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” – from an interview with Byrne.
Key tracks: ‘Take Me To The River’, the afore-mentioned ‘The Girls Want To Be With The Girls’, and the stunning closer ‘The Big Country’, Byrne’s retrospective of a trans-continental flight across the United States with its notable lines:
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me
I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I’m tired of travelling, I want to be somewhere
It’s not even worth talking
About those people down there
All set to an irresistible dance groove. More Songs About Buildings and Food is an achievement for the ages, still worth your attention, especially in the remastered 2005 version which includes bonus material. No one but David Byrne ever came closer to flying straight off the earth while not moving at all.