Talking Heads’ first four albums signify a world of sonic possibility. From 1977 to 1980, the band jumped from continent to continent, genre to genre, looking for sounds and styles to appropriate into their nervously timbered art-rock. This was due in large part to lead man David Byrne and his seemingly unquenchable thirst for musical discovery. The rhythm section of ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison, and the rhythmic love birds Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz did not go unnoticed though. Together they synthesized the utter weirdness of their awkward leadman within a framework of atypical beats and sonic angularity.
Their debut album “Talking Heads: 77” has a tense and multi-directional mood about it. The songs’ unconventional structures and rampant key changes suggest the Heads’ allegiance to bands like Yes and early Pink Floyd. But their anthemic energy and starving-artist New Yorkism places them more so in line with their C.B.G.B. comrades the Ramones and Patti Smith. Aside from the album’s funky opener “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” –in which the hip-swerving percussion and buoyant groove signify the rhythm section’s love for James Brown and Al Green—none of the aforementioned influences on “Talking Heads: 77” are that easy to point out. The songs are so weird, so shamelessly detached from the bulk of their musical contemporaries and predecessors that one can only point out influences based on ideals, rather than sonics.
Ironically, this scattershot unpredictability also plagues parts of the album. When it shines, David Byrne’s compulsive oddities—his twitchy guitar, his jarring yelps—sound natural above the varied rhythms; on “No Compassion” and “Happy Day,” however, these disparities seem to cause confusion amongst the band. Along with another lackluster tune, the inconsiderate “Tentative Decisions,” this imperfect quirkiness rarely transcends the nervous direction like “Psycho Killer” and “Pulled up” do. And for skeptics, complaints about the overall weirdness of Talking Heads usually overshadow any semblance of respect for the consistent tautness of Weymouth’s bubble bass and Frantz’s fat-back drums. Luckily, the Heads’ meeting with studio mastermind Brian Eno in the fall of 1977 provided a direction in which all of the Heads’ eccentricities could flourish in an ever-developing musical form.
Those familiar enough with the synthesizers and clamoring percussion that Eno was so well-known for in the mid-70’s can identify right away what he brings to the Heads’ sophomore LP “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” In the urgent “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” the leap and howl of Byrne’s vocal is grounded by a similarly leaping conga that dashes competitively in between the verses. In “With Our Love,” the synthesized eeriness that harnesses the frantic, ticky-tack guitars perfectly articulates this new direction. In this sense, Eno “caught” the Heads at a very important time.
After their debut, the band could have opted for a route of rigid new wave theatrics, choosing to focus on those quirky nerves much like their often-but-falsely compared to new wave contemporaries Devo. Instead, Eno’s presence forged a new musical trajectory for the Heads, in which rhythm and sonic expressionism would be the focal points, while still letting the quirk and nerve exist in a complimentary sort of way. This musical compartmentalization was possible in part because of the Heads’ open-mindedness, but also because of Eno’s strength as a studio innovator.
In 1975, after having created several albums in the arty glam-rock mood of his previous band Roxy Music, Eno recorded the textural “Another Green World.” Experimenting with ambient tones and surreal synthesizers, Eno opted for a calmer and more layered approach. He pushed African rhythms against gated reverb backbeats, and synthesized the various obscurities of everyday life in an alarmingly beautiful array of choruses and wave-crashing aural fantasies. In one song, “Over Fire Island,” he channeled the syncopated tap-tap rhythms of “In a Silent Way” while dropping ambient, droning keyboard figures that fell in and out of the accented time. The distinction of sonic exploration in this song—and for most of “Another Green World”—is clear-eyed and accessible. In this way, Eno continued in the style of Miles Davis’ genre shattering bravado, but took it in an entirely new pop direction.
After “Another Green World,” Eno worked with David Bowie and John Cale, opting to focus his approach more so on the production side of things. This eventually led to groundbreaking material for both artists. Towards the late ‘70s, Eno had championed the artist/producer balance that is now apparent in the careers of Daniel Lanois and Pharell Williams, but at this time was rather unprecedented. This dynamic provided Eno a unique perspective: to be able to assist in not only the technical side of the music, but also helping to quell that directional uncertainty that happens so often in an artistic process. And for a burgeoning young band that could be equally accepted in a punk club or an art gallery, Talking Heads seemed a perfect fit for Eno’s collaborative mindset.
The most blatant development from “Talking Heads: 77” to “More Songs about Buildings and Food” is the appropriation of funk sounds within the music. And this is not all because of Eno: the dancing rhythms and high-pitched guitars of “Love Comes to Town” foreshadowed this departure way before the band ever came in contact with him. In the upbeat and tense “Found a Job,” as Byrne criticizes his generation’s apathetic knack for “wasting precious time,” the sinuous groove of alternating bass lines and tight drums provide consistency and power, while the rhythmic punchiness of Byrne’s vocal and guitar provide a blustering attitude. If you ask any funk fan what gets them about James Brown or George Clinton in two words or less, “groove” and “attitude” will no doubt come up. In the relatively extensive coda in “Stay Hungry,” Byrne’s splashing right-hand rhythm is again the centerpiece, only this time the groove is accented by a swooping onset of patchwork synthesizers—courtesy of you-know-who.
Where the Eno effect is most apparent though, is the manner in which he highlights the Heads’ strengths while they play this homogenized funk. The way he splits the rubber band bass and chiming guitar between the speakers on the jam at the end of “I’m Not in Love,” or when “Warning Sign” starts, the swooshing languidness of the drums create that trance-like sensation of being underwater. These rhythmic dynamics at times overshadowed the expressionistic components, yet, on the Heads’ 1979 follow-up “Fear of Music,” the established rhythms remained second to the album’s expressive sonic identity.
To contradict this point right off the bat, the album begins with the polyrhythmic chant “I Zimbra.” Based off a poem by Dadaist Hugo Ball, this song was the first sign of African rhythms that would come to define parts of the Heads’ later career. In the context of “Fear of Music,” though, “I Zimbra” is a one-off dash whose only other resemblance on the album are the accenting djembe and congas in “Life During Wartime.” What still provides continuity though are those funky guitar strums, apparent again, only this time complimented by an onslaught of synthesized horns.
The tension that defined much of their debut is apparent in some of the album’s rowdier songs, too. The quick, cattle driving pace of “Animals” and the sing-songy nature of “Paper” could have been suitable in an opening set for the Ramones. However, the introspective apartment search “Cities,” with its stark high-hat and snare combo and disco-ball directness could have easily been featured on “Soultrain.” But, on the aforementioned “Wartime,” when Byrne says, “This ain’t no Disco..This ain’t no C.B.G.B,” he’s not just referring to the song’s no-nonsense attitude. With “Fear of Music”—an album title that is as appropriate as ever—the Heads’ celebrated an array of different genres, but also made it abundantly clear that they had no intention of being categorized within any one style.
On the record sleeve, Eno’s production credit is labeled as “treatments.” To some, this may just sound like a more poetic way of referring to his overall production output; however, this term actually refers to the manner in which he would manipulate sounds after the band had recorded takes. This nob-twisting, dial-turning technique is apparent in the album closer “Drugs,” where the ambient guitar is warped and unnerving, sounding more like a gust of wind than the same instrument that punches and kicks its way through other parts of the album. Even on “Cities,” where that punchiness is clear, Eno’s sonic engine revs roar voraciously between the verses, complimenting the song’s get-up-and-do-it mentality almost as much as Weymouth’s bubbly bass does on “Found a Job.” In these songs especially, Eno’s expression underpins the spookiness and urgency. And although his actual instrumental output on “Fear of Music” is particularly less than the percussive and keyboard elements he added to “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” Eno’s treatments have a recognizable timing and timbre to them and take on a collaborative “Fifth-head” mentality amongst much of the frenzied grit that defines this album.
The string of the Heads’ first three albums at this point represents a rapid evolution. And what is most impressive is the amount of time in which it took them. In just two years, the Heads transformed their dynamic from that of angular minimalism to peppy funk to all-encompassing pastiche. And no one else sounded like them—it was too hard. Who else would dare mix styles as dissimilar as punk and funk? Or ambient and disco? Certainly, the Gang of Fours and Blondies of the world incorporated elements of this overt genre-melding, but none had the forthright committal, the brooding determination to remain creative and transcendent as much as the Heads did. And on 1980’s “Remain in Light,” the Heads synthesized this determination in a startling array of rhythmic charm.
The first three songs place the album’s emphasis on back on the groove. The blip and glitch of “Born under Punches” pushes dance and endurance amongst a repetitive groove of mish-mashed drums and chubby bass. As these elements pop back and forth, one can almost see Byrne’s gawky frame gyrating as he approaches the mic. “Take a look at these hands!” He shouts, but by this time you’re not listening to the words. Even if they could mean a world of good for you and your viewpoint, the groove is too infectious and all you wanna do is dance. This impulse holds true for the next two numbers too, although the seemingly identical rhythmic pace of “The Great Curve” and “Crosseyed and Painless” does start to wear you out a little. But that’s what cocaine is for, right? It was the 80s, you know.
The polyrhythmic territory the Heads’ explored on “I Zimbra” returns on nearly every track on “Remain in Light.” At Eno’s implore, the Heads’ experimented with various African hand drums. They had used the djembe and conga before, but not to this extent; the further implementation of thumb pianos, talking drums, and bongos fully signified a rhythmic shift for the band. This way, the Heads could toy with the bare-bones groove of each song; swinging it here, double-timing it there, exploring the roots of rhythm far before Paul Simon even thought about going to Graceland.
This looseness is displayed thoroughly in the layered “Houses in Motion,” where the onslaught of wood blocks and djembes run wild above Frantz’s bass drum, hi-hat minimalism. In “Listening Wind,” as Byrne’s dramatic portrayal of a young terrorist reaches toward a specific middle-eastern temper, the rippling groove of bongos and shakers underpin him the way a life raft would while floating on the Nile at dusk. This vocal and rhythmic continuity is so expressive and exact, that any complaints about the song’s lack of a traditional drum kit are firmly overshadowed by a frightened sense of humanism. And, the thought that terrorists are people too—which is as alarming now as it probably was in 1980—only speaks to the explicit longevity of this music.
Much like on “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” Eno’s studio tactics on “Remain in Light” highlight points of excitement within the songs, exhibiting the Heads’ talents, rather than manipulating them. On “Punches,” as one David Byrne is hollering compulsively about being a “Government Man,” a chorus of about three-to-four more David Byrnes hang over him singing calmly “All I want is to breath.” The juxtaposition of both mood and delivery within these voices is captured perfectly by Eno’s tasteful mix, and even though the dancing listener doesn’t care much what Byrne is yelling or crooning about, it’s nice to know that Eno did.
His synthesized voice has a recurring similarity throughout several songs on the album’s second side. On “Once in a Lifetime,” the repetitive swirl that sparkles and chimes above the song’s boom-boom-bounce movements is ringing and memorable. And on “Seen and Not Seen,” as the click-and-loop snare-snaps foreshadow an entire generation of hip hop beats, Eno’s tingling snowfall of synths ring like that same swirl, adding a distinct continuity below Byrne’s gentle hum.
The synth and percussion on “Remain in Light” typify the Eno effect perhaps more so than any of the Heads’ previous forays do. But, where his effect is most felt is within the band’s full-on hybridization of sounds foreign and familiar to the traditional rock and roll landscape. Again, this refreshing mix was not entirely due to Eno’s presence, but it was under his guidance that the band’s creative leaps and bounds were harnessed.
This notion of creative advancement holds true throughout the varied sonic identities of “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” “Fear of Music,” and “Remain in Light.” And in 2000, when asked about his time spent with Talking Heads, Eno’s somewhat abstract response was the perfect summary to their beautiful musical partnership: “It was like looking out to the world and saying, ‘What a fantastic place we live in. Let’s celebrate it.’”