Quiz time: what band that was hugely successful in the seventies and eighties has turned down mega-dollars to reunite since? Here's a clue: the band members haven't always gotten along well with each other. Another clue: the lead singer has toured regularly since the band's break-up and his set lists continue to include some of the band's biggest hits. If you guessed Led Zeppelin, you're right, but all of the above also applies to the Talking Heads, who came out of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975 and parlayed a regular spot at New York's famed CBGB's into New Wave fame.
When you get to my age, invariably there are bands that you've spent much of your life following. Starting with my teenage years, the Talking Heads fit this description. Their debut, Talking Heads '77, came out at the start of senior year of high school. That same academic year ended with seeing the group for the first time at the tiny, 300-capacity Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA. The Talking Heads were the first group I wrote about when I became the music writer at the Colorado Daily in 1981 (see above). David Byrne even made an appearance at my first date with my future wife--which is to say we bumped into him entering the San Francisco sushi bar we were exiting that fateful night in 1986. More than twenty years later, I took our son in 2008 to one of his first concerts, a show at the Buell Theatre in Denver featuring David Byrne performing material from My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, the ground-breaking collaboration with Brian Eno that featured "found audio" (like a radio preacher performing an exorcism) sampled above funky rhythms.
Drummer Chris Frantz's just-released memoir Remain in Love is an enthralling walk down memory lane. While the book contains a few too many digs at Byrne, it's still a vivid look into the thriving scene that birthed New Wave. The book provides an incredibly detailed account of the Heads' first tour of Europe with that punkiest, most curmudgeonly of bands, The Ramones. That group might have single-handedly invented punk, but they literally didn't speak to each other for years and guitarist Johnny Ramone left a trail of abused, bullied people in his wake. Here are three of the many amusing stories from the book:
Johnny Thunders' Incorrect Assumption
In 1976 Johnny Thunders was in Florida on the ill-fated final tour of the New York Dolls when he saw posters for a band from Gainesville called Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Thunders liked the band name so much, figured "these guys will never go anywhere" and decided to steal the moniker for his new group. And thus Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers was born, but not for long. That band from Gainesville reclaimed the name and went on to fame and fortune. By the way, Petty's long-awaited Wildflowers and All the Rest was finally put out in mid-October, and is sure to be at the top of every list of archival releases in 2020.
How To Be a Rock Star 101
One winter night during a blizzard, Frantz decided to visit CBGB's, just a few blocks from his East Village loft. He wore a knit ski cap, a wool tartan Brooks Brothers scarf, a white sheepskin overcoat and black engineer boots. Frantz pulled open the door to a nearly-empty club only to see New York Dolls lead singer David Johansen standing at the bar wearing a light blue satin suit with no shirt underneath. Johansen took one look at Frantz, had a sip of his cocktail, and said "You know, Chris, rock stahs, we don't dress fuh the weathuh."
On tour in the UK, Frantz's wife (and Heads bassist) Tina Weymouth asked the bus driver if they could go see Stonehenge since they would be going right by it. As they approached the historical site, the British Tour Manager asked the driver to follow the signs to the parking lot. Hearing this, Johnny Ramone became apoplectic. "What? What? We're not fucking stopping at Stonehenge! It's just a bunch of fucking old rocks!" Dee Dee Ramone stood up and said "C'mon, Johnny! I want to see Stonehenge. Everybody wants to see Stonehenge. C'mon!" And so Johnny Ramone sat in his seat fuming while everyone else got off the bus and surveyed the monolith "on a quiet, still morning" back when there was no protective fencing and visitors could stroll through and around the gigantic stones.
The Chris Frantz book is full of of anecdotes and insights into the making of the Heads' records and live shows. If you came of age at the same time as the Talking Heads, or just want to hear how some of the best music of the last fifty years was created, you'll love it.
David Byrne's 2018 tour brought him to Red Rocks (pictured above) as part of a national tour. The concert was a stunning, original presentation of Talking Heads and Byrne solo material that featured a completely blank stage and a large, mobile and highly choreographed backing band. The show was so unusual and popular that Byrne took it to Broadway, where it played to packed houses right up until February of this year. It's due to restart after Broadway returns, hopefully at some point in 2021. In the meantime, Spike Lee has produced a concert film of the show, American Utopia, which premiered on HBO/HBO Plus in October. Whether you caught the Red Rocks show or not, the movie is must-viewing and features intricately-detailed, frenetic and infectious renditions of many of Byrne's best songs, including "I Zimbra", "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" and "Burning Down The House."
HOW TO BUY TALKING HEADS:
1. Remain in Light (1980)--Their most influential work, this album abandoned more traditional song structures in favor of repetitive grooves that built into hypnotic, catchy dance music, most popularly on "Once in a Lifetime."
2. More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)--Their second album featured the sharpest distillation of Byrne's unique lyrics and the group's frenetic New Wave energy, and included their first (and biggest) hit, a slowed-down cover of Al Green's "Take Me To The River."
3. Fear of Music (1979)--Amidst the crunchy guitars of "Paper" and "Mind," the band added the trademark rhythms on "I Zimbra" that embodied their new world-funk direction.
4. Speaking in Tongues (1983)--Their most commercial album, Speaking in Tongues found the group embracing R&B and gospel-style on rave-ups like "Slippery People" and "Burning Down the House."
5. Stop Making Sense (1984)--The soundtrack to arguably the greatest concert film ever was a greatest hits collection whose highlight was "What a Day That Was," a track from Byrne's The Catherine Wheel solo LP, itself the soundtrack to a collaboration with dancer Twyla Tharp.
6. Talking Heads '77 (1977)--Their debut found the group at their nerdiest, from the goofy lyrics of "Don't Worry About The Government" to their first radio-friendly song, "Psycho Killer," featuring French lyrics in the bridge and that "Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh" chorus.
7. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)--This double-live record pulled from three different periods of their first six years of touring.
8. Little Creatures (1985)--This album was a tamer, pop follow-up to Speaking in Tongues. Probably their last complete record, the highlights were "The Lady Don't Mind," "Stay Up Late" and "Road to Nowhere."
9. Naked (1988)--Their next to last release had some strong material but paled next to what had preceded it, and found the band sounding directionless for the first time.
10. True Stories (1986)--The soundtrack to their ambitious if not entirely successful film of the same name was their first (and only) sub-standard work, almost an afterthought musically.