Talking Heads - Biography

By Charles Reece


For all its roots in the conceptual art movement of the 20th century, where thought took precedent over craft, Talking Heads was as committed to the physical pleasures of music as it was to exploring aesthetic ideas.  The band brought Steve Reich’s exploration in the connections between minimalism and African rhythms to the more commercial American realm of pop, soul and funk, without ever becoming a minstrel show.  Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that the world is “pregnant with meaning” as a way of circumventing the philosophical tension between mind and body.  Any idea we might have of an object is already grounded in our bodily experience – our perception – of it.  The same reduction is needed in music where identity politics too often interferes with the experience of listening.  In the Heads’ militantly wholesome, geeky image, stereotypical whiteness was part of the performance, a way of questioning skin color’s role in determining musical authenticity.  Whiteness became as much of an abstraction as blackness.  By constantly appropriating and recontextualizing musical sources, the art of listening became primary, allowing the group’s music to speak for itself.


Born on May 14, 1952, David Byrne spent his first few years in Dumbarton, Scotland until his father, an electrical engineer, received an offer to work in Hamilton, Ontario.  By 1957, his father’s job had the Byrnes living in Lansdowne, Maryland – a working class, industrial suburb of Baltimore – which is where David spent the majority of his childhood.  Science, industrialization and suburban life would be preoccupying themes in his songs later on. He had a proclivity for music, playing piano, violin, guitar and the ukele by his early teens, writing his first song, “Bald Headed Woman,” at age 15.  He was a bit of an oddball and a loner, but loved the popular music of his time (Bob Dylan and The Beatles, in particular) just like all the other teenagers.  When it came time for college, he had a choice between science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and art at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. David chose Providence.  It was at RISD that he began to develop a taste for conceptual and performance art, using music as part of the performance.  It was also where he met Chris Frantz, during their freshman year.


Charlton Christopher Frantz was born on May 8, 1951, in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the son of a general.  He grew up playing in school bands, trying a variety of brass instruments, but eventually settled on the drums.  Of his two abiding passions, music and painting, he chose to pursue the former after high school graduation, moving to New York City with his band, The Beans.  When that fell apart, he opted for the latter passion, enrolling at RISD.  One of his studio partners was a gal with a pixie haircut and urbane demeanor by the name of Martina Michèle Weymouth.  Born on November 22, 1950, in Coronado, California, Tina was, like Chris, a military brat, the daughter of an admiral.  Her father’s naval career had provided an itinerant upbringing and a well-rounded education from a line of top-notch Catholic schools throughout Europe and the United States.  She had developed a worldly eclectic taste in the arts by the time she arrived at RISD.  Chris was infatuated, and the two would soon start dating.


While Weymouth and Frantz were completing their degrees and falling in love, Byrne had dropped out after only a year, rambling across the States as half of a performance art duo with his friend, Mark Kehoe.  The two met in 1971 as Byrne was deciding once and for all that art school was a scam at Baltimore’s Maryland Institute.  Their act typically consisted of slightly off versions of old pop songs with Byrne playing the ukele and Kehoe, the accordion.  After experiencing the hippie detritus of San Francisco’s Haight Street, they decided to head back East, eventually winding up in Providence.  Byrne met Frantz’s girlfriend in 1973 when he and Frantz began to work on the music for an experimental film Kehoe was making. Weymouth and Byrne seemed to have shared much of the same view regarding what constituted art.  Byrne had just performed a piece where he was shaven to the point of bleeding, accompanied by Kehoe’s accordion.  In addition to her abstract painting, Weymouth did things like showing up to one of her first RISD meetings naked, covered in green paint.


            At Frantz’s suggestion, Byrne joined him in forming a rock band.  Calling themselves The Autistics, they mainly performed covers of soul and bubblegum songs.  However, Byrne was constantly writing during this time, demonstrating a real talent for it.  He approached songwriting much like his art, conceptually and at an angle.  A critical refrain that has followed him throughout his career is that the lyrics are overly intellectual, too abstract, or affected – cold, in other words.  Byrne has rarely evinced much of an interest in the emotive bromides so often prized by the conservative taste of most rock critics as the pinnacle of pop songwriting.  Regardless, one instant where everyone seems in agreement that Byrne’s lyrical approach perfectly matched the demands of the song is “Psycho Killer.”  He wrote it in 1974, with Weymouth translating the final verse into her mother’s native tongue of French.  Any perceived coldness or pretension only served to make the first person depiction of a disaffected serial killer all the more plausible.  Delivered through Byrne’s sinewy voice and Tony Perkins frame, the song would become his signature song, no matter how many great ones followed.


            After they graduated, Frantz and Weymouth followed Byrne to New York City.  The guys attempted to start The Autistics back up, but had difficulty finding a bass player who shared their love of soul, world music and The Velvet Underground.  An easier solution was to teach the like-minded Weymouth to play bass.  After 6 months of practice, the band was ready to play live.  They successfully auditioned for the new club, CBGB’s, playing a series of gigs as the opener for The Ramones beginning on June 8, 1975.  Now calling themselves Talking Heads (after a reference in TV Guide), the club would serve as their home base for the next couple of years, just as it would for many other now famous acts constituting the late-1970s New York scene, such as Blondie, Patti Smith and Television. 


            The Heads quickly garnered a fanbase of the city’s residential celebrities: Andy Warhol invited them to The Factory; John Cale thought them startlingly original, wanting to produce their record; and Lou Reed met with them to give advice (among other things, he recommended Byrne always cover his distractingly hairy arms).  Most importantly, Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein was smitten upon first hearing them perform “Love--> Building On Fire.”  Stein has had a remarkable track record, signing The Ramones and, later, Madonna, among many others.  He wanted to sign the Heads immediately.  After nine months of courting, he would, but not before they became a four piece.


            Jerry Harrison was born on February 21, 1949, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He had been playing in rock bands since high school, continuing through his studying architecture at Harvard University in the late 1960s.  He dropped out of school to pursue music professionally in Jonathan Richman’s The Modern Lovers.  When that band imploded before the release of its first album due to bad financial arrangements and a micro-managing lead singer, a jaded Harrison gave up music, returning to Harvard.  The Lovers’ album would not be released until 1976, but the circulation of demos had made them a prominent influence in the underground music circuit.  It was to their squeaky-clean fashion and Velvet Underground-influenced minimalism that the Heads were being most often compared at the time.  Upon finding their sound a bit thin on some demos recorded for Beserkley Records (also The Lovers’ label), they decided to hire a keyboardist.  Harrison was a perfect fit.  Weymouth called him up, and he joined the band, but insisted they wait for him to graduate.


            He proved to be more than a harmonic asset.  When the band hired their manager, Gary Kurfist (former manager of Peter Tosh and co-owner of the clubs Fillmore East and West), Harrison went over the contract carefully, insisting that certain escape clauses be put in should the group not make enough money in the future.  Likewise, when the Heads contract came up for renewal in a few years, it was Harrison who got Sire to agree to, among other things, the inflation clause, where the band’s advances proportionally increased with the rate of inflation.  His trial-and-error experience with The Lovers had made him into a shrewd businessman.


            Talking Heads: 77 was released on Sire in the summer of its eponymous year, right around the time Frantz and Weymouth were married.  The band had considered having Cale produce, but worried about his reputed drinking problems.  Instead, they went with Tony Bongiovi (Jon Bon Jovi’s older cousin), who had engineered their first single back in 1975 (the aforementioned “Love-->,” which never appeared on a studio LP).  Bongiovi was a commercially oriented producer who would become increasingly prominent during the disco era (e.g., on Gloria Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Good-Bye”).  For all the off-key chord changes, abrupt time shifts and staccato single note repetitions, the Heads was essentially a dance band – one that was seen as commercially viable by its members. They wanted to have success on their own terms, change the concept of what a dance or pop band could be.  A good portent came when the single “Psycho Killer” reached #92 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart.


Stein called 77’s style new wave, but it is closer to what came to be known as post-punk, only replacing that sub-genre’s rhythmic dub drone with Weymouth and Frantz’s livelier, but equally bass-driven, soul influence.  Whatever one calls them, they certainly did not mesh too well with the punk ethos.  Byrne thought The Sex Pistols a not particularly clever con pulled on the working class.  On the Heads first European tour, opening for The Ramones, the former quickly grew irritated with the latter’s cultivated ugly Americanisms, such as demanding hamburgers everywhere they went.  Contrariwise, The Ramones found its touring companions to be pretentious and distant, always reading, rather than having fun. 


The one good thing to come out of that tour was befriending Brian Eno while in England.  He was so enamored that he used an anagram of the band’s name for a song title (“King’s Lead Hat,” on Before and After Science).  They, in turn, asked him to produce their next album, which ended up being the next three.  Eno could not read music, nor did he play any instruments.  As was evident in his days with Roxy Music, his talent lay in processing sounds.  He used the mixing board as if it were another musical instrument, often manipulating the individual note until it became detached from the instrument that organically made it.  His structural influence on the Heads’ sound became so great that, by the last album they did together, he was effectively a fifth member.


 Keeping with most sophomore efforts, the appropriately titled More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) consisted of songs that did not make it onto the first album (e.g., “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls”), with a few new ones written since then (e.g., “The Good Thing”).  Initially, Sire executives were wary of letting the guy who worked on the first album from David Bowie to commercially bomb (Low), but their fears were put to rest when the Heads had their first Top 40 hit with Al Green’s tale of masochistic love and redemption, “Take Me To The River” (peaking at #26).  Eno admired the way soul music production of the 1960s and 1970s made bass the most prominent sound.  Here, he gives Weymouth’s playing a syrupy funk timbre that pushes the song along while stray notes from Harrison’s keyboard sound like water dropping in a cave.  Rather than attempting to ape soul singing, Byrne sounds like a preacher on a pulpit discussing his sex life.  The song is one of those rare cases of a cover version re-configuring the original while existing on equal footing.  The highpoint of the record, however, is “Big Country,” where Byrne abstractly describes the various shapes he’s seen in flyover country, sardonically reducing middle-American life to form without content.


Certain long-standing tensions within the band became more pronounced after the success of the second album.  Byrne had become the focal point in the media and, with the addition of Eno, decision-making decidedly shifted away from Frantz and Weymouth towards the other three.  When Byrne experienced writer’s block, Stein took him to Trinidad in an effort to get his creative juices flowing.  Weymouth, in particular, was feeling ignored due to Byrne’s star treatment.  Despite the pampering (or, maybe because of it), he came back enraged at Stein under mysterious circumstances.  Whatever might have occurred on the trip, Byrne began writing some of the best songs of his career for the new record, Fear of Music (1980).


In a series of songs with mostly one-word titles, his lyrics are akin to the experimental short stories of Ben Marcus, taking familiar concepts and reconfiguring their semantic networks, decentering the mental lexicon. “Heaven,” for example, becomes a dull dance party where everyone behaves in the same manner.  With the song’s sweet melody, a peaceful resolution is offered to the abstracted lives in “Big Country.”  Likewise, the ghostly effect Eno uses on Weymouth and her sisters’ backing vocals on “Air” makes the pervasiveness of oxygen about which Byrne sings seem pernicious, like the omnipresent eye of Big Brother.  Despite this high art approach to pop songs, the album always retains a fundamental, ass-shaking catchiness.  The album sold better than the previous ones (peaking at #21) and Harrison received a Grammy nomination for the cover design, but the single, “Life During Wartime,” stopped at #80 on the charts.  It would take a few more years before Byrne’s doomsday lament about the Mudd Club and CBGB’s entered popular jargon.


The most challenging song on the record, though, that became representative of the transition the band was about to undertake, is “I Zimbra.”  When Byrne was experiencing another bout of writer’s block, Eno suggested chanting nonsense syllables from a Dadaist poem by Hugo Ball.  Due to the track’s congas-supplied polyrhythms (from a couple of street musicians) and Robert Fripp’s complex guitar work, it was clear that the core members would not be able to replicate it live.  Plus, Eno had no desire to recreate his increasingly baroque sound manipulations in front of an audience.  The band did its best to play the songs on tour, but began to feel the need to expand.  


After the tour, the members took some time off from each other.  Harrison began his career as a producer on Nona Hendryx’s album.  Frantz and Weymouth rented a home in Nassau, Bahamas, where More Songs had been recorded.  They were experiencing marriage troubles related, in part, to their place in the band.  After hearing from a reporter than Byrne was quitting the band, Weymouth wanted to quit first, but Frantz absolutely refused.  They renewed their bond by practicing voodoo in Haiti and playing drums with the Reggae duo Sly and Robbie.  Weymouth’s fear was hardly allayed when she heard that Eno and Byrne had made an album together.  Little did she know that the recording of 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire) had caused a riff between the two men that was never fully repaired.  Eno had no plans on returning – until, that is, he heard some of the tracks the group was recording.  With his help, the tracks turned into the band’s magnum opus.


The lineup for Remain in Light (1980) expanded to include Jon Hassell’s synthesized trumpet playing (also featured on Eno and Byrne’s album), Hendryx on backing vocals, Frank Zappa’s sideman Adrian Belew on guitar, and additional percussionists.  Rather than Byrne writing the songs ahead of recording, the band agreed to meet in Nassau and jam together, coming up with one-chord loops that served as components from which a variety of songs could be constructed once back in New York.  For example, the most oft-referenced single, “Once In A Lifetime,” began as two guitar riffs that Eno and Byrne combined, eventually layering other loops into the mix, such as the bass rhythm that begins the song.  This modular approach to composition has its roots in minimalism, such as Philip Glass’s  “Music In Twelve Parts.” The overall effect is something like a denser version of early 1970s James Brown (confer “Hot Pants”), where all the musical constituents – including much of the vocals – function percussively (continuing the polyrythmic exploration of “I Zimbra”). 


The high art influences converging with funk loops and rhythmic vocals made Remain one of the earliest reflective interstices between hip-hop and its minimalist predecessors in the classical realm.  The connection is most explicit on the Kurtis Blow-inspired second single, “Cross-Eyed And Painless,” in which Byrne chants a litany of negative anthropomorphic characteristics he uses to re-describe our concept of facts.  Instead of being mere white appropriation of black popular culture (such as Blondie’s “Rapture”), the song actually helped situate hip-hop within the currents of musical tradition (not all that differently from the efforts of Afrika Bambaataa).  When it came time to make a video for the song, Byrne had Toni Basil (who had worked with Elvis Presley and The Monkees among many others) choreograph it using break dance troupe The Electric Bugaloos (from whom Michael Jackson got the moonwalk). She also helped design Byrne’s famous tapping his forearm gesture for the “Once In A Lifetime” video.


Although the videos did not help the immediate success of the two singles (the first was the only one to chart, at #90), they were the beginning of the Heads’ use of visual performance to complement their musical development.  It was through Byrne’s relationships (both professional and romantic) with the dancers Basil and Twyla Tharp that he began to conceptualize all those jerky movements that have since become iconic of the band.  (It was during this time that he wrote the score for Tharp’s 1981 dance piece, The Catherine Wheel.)  Music video was not merely an advertisement for the singles, but a part of the band’s aesthetic statement.  Along with the success of the next studio album, this approach would pay off when MTV began regularly airing the video for “Once In A Lifetime” in the mid-1980s.  It came to define the mass audience’s view of the Heads, and their mainstream status would be consecrated by Rich Hall’s parody on Saturday Night Live.


Even though the album was the band’s most successful to date (peaking at #19), the members were increasingly quarreling with each other.  Everyone had agreed that the songs would be credited to all four members and Eno, but the back cover listed only Byrne and Eno separately, with the other three as the Talking Heads.  Weymouth was already angry that her bass parts had been re-recorded without her consent, but now she started bad-mouthing Eno and Byrne in the press.  Additionally, she and Frantz were not receiving proper credit in the graphic design world for the computer-generated cover they had designed (the first of its kind) with the aid of an MIT computer lab.  Likewise, Eno was bitter because he thought he deserved his name on the front cover, but the band refused.  He would not return.  After the tour, they all took an extended time off from each other to work on their own projects.


The tour was captured on a double-LP live release, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982), so named for the tendency of journalists to add a definitive article to the band’s name).  It was the Heads’ only release for three years, featuring on the second half the expanded lineup (assembled by Harrison) that would record the fifth studio album, such as keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, plus backing vocalists Hendryx and Dolette MacDonald.  The notable exception is the replacement of Belew by Alex Weir after the former had joined King Crimson.  At one point, Weymouth had tried to get the erstwhile guitarist to replace Byrne as the Heads’ frontman.  Belew thought it a ludicrous idea, which became a definite impossibility for all after Weymouth and Frantz refused to give him co-writing credits for their side project, Tom Tom Club.  By the time their self-titled debut (1981) went gold, they were no longer taking Belew’s calls.  He would eventually receive some credit when Mariah Carey sampled the song “Genius Of Love” for her hit, “Fantasy.”


Without Eno, the Talking Heads-produced Speaking in Tongues (1983) is decidedly less weird than the previous release, being more of a straight-forward afro-funk album, undoubtedly helped by the addition of former Funkadelic member Worrell.  He knew a thing or two about getting people to dance.  Perhaps Sire’s executives were right about Eno, after all, since the new album became the Heads’ most successful one of its career (peaking at #15 and eventually selling over a million copies).  One could not turn on MTV without seeing the Byrne directed and conceived video for “Burning Down The House.”  Its prominence established the Heads as one of the most original video-bands of the 1980s.  Byrne’s use of projected faces, doppelgängers, the suburb, fire and television snow would later be exploited for horrific effect in David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  The two even share a sequence where the camera follows the painted lines on a road.  The song reached #22 on the Top 200.  The album won a Grammy in 1984 for its Robert Rauschenberg-designed limited edition cover.


The tour (with Tom Tom Club opening) became something of a production nightmare.  Byrne had the idea to have each member come on stage as another song began, one at a time.  He kicked off the show with an acoustic version of “Psycho Killer,” accompanied by a boom box playing a drum loop, then Weymouth joined him for the next song, and so on.  While great in theory, the logistics of having the players ready with their instruments on cue was a constant frustration for Byrne.  He never would tour with the group again due to his feeling that they would never be able to top this conception (in addition to the troubles with its realization).  Such troubles are not evident, however, in Jonathan Demme’s filmed document of the tour, Stop Making Sense (1984), shot on the group’s second night at Hollywood’s old Pantages Theater (after the first night resulted in some of the aforementioned difficulty).  It is an innovative and influential concert film, for its use of long shots of the players with no shots of the audience.  Narratively, it tells the story of an uneasy young musician who goes on to front a multi-ethnic, nine-piece band in a fancy, over-sized suit.  Not many concert films have come close to Demme’s, so Byrne’s reluctance to tour with his band again is understandable.  It made for a good dénouement.


After finishing the Big Suit tour, Byrne turned to the film medium (another reason for his not wanting to tour), developing True Stories (1986) with the moneyed connections he had made during the time with Demme.  In the film, Byrne plays an on-camera narrator in a ten-gallon hat, connecting various stories inspired by gossip magazines.  Eccentric though its characters may be (including John Goodman and Papa Staples), few films have so truthfully captured the mall-infested suburban sprawl of modern Texas, framed by highways and a pure blue sky.  He had written parts for his three bandmates, but they declined, feeling it would not be a good idea to be under his direction.  Weymouth, for example, was bothered by the way the live film had made Byrne the center of attention, with the others coming on as support.  Nonetheless, they were willing to come together to record a soundtrack for the film.


Before the film and its soundtrack could be completed, Sire was due another Talking Heads record.  The band decided to keep it simple, recording once again as a four piece.  The result, 1985’s Little Creatures, is the most radio-friendly and last of the group’s classic albums.  Whatever interpersonal problems were plaguing the band members, the creative rapport they had continued in the studio.  Despite the stripped-down commercial approach, the album did not do as well as Tongues, stopping at #20.  Its most successful single, “And She Was,” peaked at #55 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Sire put up the money for each member to develop a video for the album.  Harrison and Weymouth came up with the concept for “Lady Don’t Mind,” directed by Jim Jarmusch.  No one was happy with the result, so it has been rarely seen since.  The most celebrated video at the time was Byrne’s “Road To Nowhere,” which won the Video Vanguard Award from MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMA).  MTV’s opinion notwithstanding, the best video the Heads ever made was for the single “Stay Up Late.”  Conceived by Frantz, the band is dressed in white jumpsuits, hanging and bouncing on bungie cords.  This simple conceit of irresponsible adults perfectly captures the approach to child-rearing Byrne takes in the song’s lyrics.


The release of True Stories was the beginning of the end for the band.  While Byrne was away promoting his career as a filmmaker, the rest of the Heads pursued side projects.  Harrison produced other artists and began work on his second solo album, 1988’s Casual Gods (his first was 1981’s The Red and the Black).  Frantz and Weymouth expanded their family with a second son, continuing to play and record with The Tom Tom Club (e.g., 1988’s Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom). The album True Stories is too much a retread of Little Creatures, only with the Heads sounding like they were covering Byrne’s songs.  Indeed, the songs come across much better with the actors’ onscreen versions (most notably, Papa Staples’ take on the voodoo-tinged “Papa Legba”).  Regardless, the single “Wild, Wild Life” reached #25 on the Hot 100, doing better than “And She Was.”


The band’s last hurrah came with Naked (1988), a re-expansion of the lineup to include guitarist Johnny Marr (ex-The Smiths), a horn section led by trumpeter Angel Fernandez, and a host of percussionists.  The expanded lineup was not geared towards Africa this time, but the traditional music of the United States, so called Americana.  The folk instrumentation of the dobro, pedal steel guitar and spoons can be heard on some of the songs.  Despite this new direction producing the most underrated and ill-considered of all their albums, the best cut is probably the one closest to Speaking in Tongues.  The single, “(Nothing But) Flowers” flopped on release, but its thick bass line and layers of rhythms would not have been out of place one of the earlier releases.  As a eulogy for the demise of cities, the song ironically serves, in hindsight, to comment on the end of a band known for its attachment to such man-made artifices.


Byrne had been drifting away from the others throughout the late 1980s.   In addition to his movie, he had written music for avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson’s CIVIL warS, won an Osc ar for his, Ryichi Sakamoto and Cong Su’s score to Bernardo Bertoluci’s The Last Emperor, and released a solo album, Rei Mono (1989).  He even had his own record label, Luaka Bop, with which he could release the various forms of world music he enjoyed, as well as his own.  Basically, Byrne had no desire left to negotiate his music with a band.  He finally announced the end of the Talking Heads in a New York Post interview at the end of 1991.  Their last new release as a band was “Sax And Violins,” a song recorded during the Naked sessions that made its way into Wim Wenders’ film, Until the End of the World (1991).  That only Byrne and Harrison appeared in the video was a pretty good indication of group dynamics at that point.  Byrne subsequently had a falling out with his remaining ally when he sued the other three in 1996 over their use of “The Heads” for the album and tour that year, No Talking Just Head (featuring a variety of vocalists, such as Michael Hutchence, Richard Hell and Deborah Harry).  They settled out of court, but the improbability of a future reunion album or tour was determined by the embroilment.  The members did manage to bury – or, at least, stop using – the hatchet long enough to promote the fifteenth-anniversary of Stop Making Sense, as well as play a set together for the band’s 2002 induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Otherwise, they continue along their own separate paths – Byrne as a solo artist, Harrison mainly as a producer, Franz and Weymouth in Tom Tom Club.



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