The 10 Best Talking Heads Deep Cuts [Deep Cuts Week]
November 13, 2011 1 Comment
I’m wrapping up this Deep Cuts Week with an incredible band, Talking Heads. They have been one of my favorites since forever, and the more time I spend listening to them, the more I respect, appreciate and enjoy their awesome music.
Dissecting this band’s impressive catalogue is no easy task, so I once again called in artillery support from the highly knowledgeable DJ Walls of Sound.
Let’s start with the story of Talking Heads, and quickly move on to the outstanding music.
David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth attended the Rhode Island School of Design together, and after graduation and the breakup of a band that Byrne and Frantz were in called The Artistics, they all moved to New York to seek their fortune. Byrne and Frantz tried to find a good bassist but came up empty, so they persuaded Weymouth — Frantz’ girlfriend, now wife — to pick up the instrument. It wasn’t long before she ruled at it.
Their first gig was opening for the Ramones at CBGB. Their unique style, clever name and Byrne’s amazing songs quickly became popular, and they were battle-tested by regularly playing bills that included such great bands as Television and Blondie. The band got even better when David Byrne ran into Jonathan Richman and found out that the original lineup of the Modern Lovers had split up; Byrne & co. quickly tracked down keyboardist & guitarist Jerry Harrison and signed him up to be the band’s fourth member.
After recording the post-punk classic 77, Talking Heads took a huge leap forward when they began working with producer Brian Eno, who challenged Byrne to step outside himself and create otherworldly compositions, while encouraging and augmenting the musicians in the creation of incredible grooves and rhythmic masterpieces. Two increasingly massive albums followed: More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music.
At that point, the band teetered a bit — the other band members, Weymouth in particular, chafed under Byrne’s controlling leadership. Frantz held the band together, though, and eventually summoned everyone to the Bahamas to record the next album. Eno came along begrudgingly, thinking the band might have stalled out, but soon found that they had expanded on the ideas in the song “I Zimbra,” the last recording done for Fear of Music, and crossed over into a new terrain of sonic ideas. A crew that included everyone from guitar wizard Adrian Belew to camp-follower Robert “Addicted to Love” Palmer (they let him play some percussion) created Remain in Light, the band’s best album. Quite possibly, the human race’s best album.
Talking Heads went on to make many great songs and videos, the best concert film ever (Stop Making Sense), a passel of other hits like “Burning Down the House” and “And She Was,” and establish themselves as first-ballot rock Hall of Famers (I mean that literally, they were inducted in the first year they were eligible). Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth played a key role in the early stages of hip-hop; he drummed on “The Breaks” and her “Genius of Love” groove was one of the most-sampled songs ever. Jerry Harrison is one of the few people who can say that he changed music as part of two different bands, playing on both the Modern Lovers’ hugely influential debut and all the Talking Heads classics.
And David Byrne? Just one of the preeminent geniuses of modern times.
For their many great songs, their classic albums, their outstanding album covers and videos, and the astonishingly good live bands they put together — Talking Heads are the best ever.
Best-Known Tracks: They had a pretty good track record of releasing the songs with the most popular potential as singles, and here’s a rundown of those releases: “Love → Building on Fire,” “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” “Psycho Killer,” “Pulled Up,” “Take Me to the River,” “Life During Wartime,” “I Zimbra,” “Cities,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Houses in Motion,” “Burning Down the House,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” “Slippery People” (Live), “Girlfriend Is Better” (Live), “The Lady Don’t Mind,” “Road to Nowhere,” “And She Was,” “Wild Wild Life, ” “Love for Sale,” “Hey Now,” “Puzzlin’ Evidence,” “Radio Head,” “Blind,” “(Nothing But) Flowers.”
Although this outstanding collection of songs does much to explain the continuous critical and popular acclaim for the Talking Heads since the late 70s, it does not adequately do justice to their abilities as a live band. Hopefully, this list of deep cuts will demonstrate just how amazing this band was, both on record and on stage.
#10. “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” from More Songs About Buildings and Food
This awesome song opens More Songs About Buildings and Food. It’s a total dynamo.
Chris Frantz drives the beat forward as Byrne, Harrison and Weymouth lay down a dense groove. Brian Eno’s production is great on this, particularly the guitar tone on the verses, with a warm, powerful F-C-G ringing out. A great description from a guitar tab I checked out reads, “In the background, a guitar is picking extremely fast.”
At a mere 2:10, Byrne pulls up stakes, demands “Show me what you can do!” and the song ends. UNHH!! Song over, fools! That’s how you open an album.
(An interesting alternate mix of this song called “Country Angel” is worth checking out.)
#9. “A Clean Break (Let’s Work)” [live] from The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads
Here’s the original four-piece incarnation of Talking Heads, tearing it up live. This is basically the CBGB version of the band, back when they made their bones playing for tough lower Manhattan crowds. The recording was made in 1977 in Maynard, Massachusetts by radio station WCOZ (for Boston peeps, this is the station that later became JAM’N 94.5). Songs from that recording were released as the first side of the band’s first live album, with the second side featuring the Remain in Light-era band that we’ll hear from later on.
The most incredible part of this song for me happens around the 1:52 mark. The band makes an awkward transition that initially seems like the song is losing its juice, only to have David Byrne dig deep and unload some outstanding vocals, and the radness quotient rachets up significantly.
With Jerry Harrison recently added to the fold, the Talking Heads in late 1977 were an extremely potent combo that brought Byrne’s post-punk compositions to their fullest possible expression, letting him go nuts vocally while they locked down some tight rhythms behind him. But the band’s best live work was still to come.
#8. “Sugar On My Tongue” unreleased demo (1975)
Flashing back here to when the band was a three-piece and recording demos, trying to get a record deal. This recording dates back to 1975. Tina Weymouth had only recently picked up the bass and she is already a pretty essential and funky complement to Chris Frantz’s martial drumming. Byrne lays down a strumming rhythm that blends well with the rhythm section.
David Byrne’s genius is already evident at this stage. He slyly twists a comment about borrowing some sugar from a neighbor into a sleazy tale of lust. His vocals are profoundly odd and idiosyncratic, bursting with slightly inappropriate energy, playing off the three instruments to create a pretty excellent blend of weirdness and funk. It’s basically “Pour Some Sugar On Me” for people with taste.
#7. “Air” from Fear of Music
There are several deep cuts from Fear of Music that I debated including. “Animals” is an amazing spasm of anxiety in which Byrne asserts that all animals are in league to make human beings look foolish. “Paper” complains of an inability to express an idea in concrete form. “Mind” is about the frustration of unsuccessfully trying to persuade another person. They are all outstanding songs that are the very antithesis of cliched songwriting.
But in the end, I’m going to go with “Air.” One of the best ideas for a song I have ever heard of, this song expresses paranoia through a rant about the very air as a threat to existence. “Some people say not to worry about the air,” Byrne warns, but “Some people never had experience with air.”
As great as the lyrics to this song are, the musicianship is even better. After Byrne concludes his public service announcement regarding air, an amazingly-good-sounding guitar (thank you Brian Eno) sails in and initiates an extremely dank jam. Tina Weymouth issues some ominous backing-oohs as Frantz blasts away on his drums and the guitars ring out; Jerry Harrison and Eno lay down some tasty synths that lift the song high atop the mountain of greatness. Just an amazing song.
#6. “Making Flippy Floppy” [live] from Stop Making Sense
Not only were Talking Heads an amazing band, they were also talented visual artists. The cover of More Songs (at the top of this article) was composed of a mosaic of Polaroids. The cover of Remain in Light was done with cutting-edge computer graphics in the labs at MIT. Talking Heads made great music videos (an example is in the Bonus Material of this post). The band’s main concert film, Stop Making Sense, showcases that eye for compelling visual material. Its presentation isn’t pretentious or overblown, just interesting — most notably, building from David Byrne playing acoustic guitar with a tape-recorder beat on an empty stage to a epic finale with full stage set and a nine-piece band shredding on “Crosseyed & Painless.”
“Making Flippy Floppy” was a great call by DJ Walls of Sound — it really showcases how nasty this band was in the early 80s, at the crest of their success. The core four are ridiculously awesome, of course — Byrne stammering out his idiosyncratic lyrics, Frantz keeping a steady beat, Weymouth laying down some excellent bass, and Harrison bouncing around and grooving to the rhythm. The other musicians add so much value — Alex Weir rocking out on guitar and charisma, Steve Scales, my favorite percussionist ever, knocking out some nice polyrhythms. Bernie Worrell, a bona-fide inventor of funk, drops unbelievably great solos and unleashes a stank tornado.
#5. “Warning Sign” from More Songs About Buildings and Food
One of Tina Weymouth’s best basslines, set against a stellar Chris Frantz beat. When the guitar and synth waft in, this song goes to an amazing place. Byrne intones lyrics like “Hear my voice…move my hair…I move it around a lot…I don’t care what I remember.”
The music seems to come from deep within Brian Eno’s bush of ghosts. It reflects not only the tight, 70s-Manhattan style of the band’s debut, but foreshadows the nervousness and paranoia of Fear of Music, and even the rhythmic explorations of Remain in Light and beyond. This is the sound of a band making the leap from good to great.
And as usual, a truly killer jam is wrapped up neatly and abruptly with a flourish.
#4. “Book I Read” from 77
This is one of the first songs that DJ Walls and I pulled out when we started discussing good options for this list. I probably sound like a broken record when I say HOW DID HE COME UP WITH IDEAS LIKE THIS?!?! An evocation of the powerful desire that overcomes you after meeting someone who wrote an amazing book that you read and thoroughly enjoyed. Yup, just another basic song trope like broken hearts or crying in the rain.
“Oooooh I’m living in the future. I feel wonderful. I’m tipping over backwards. I’m so ambitious. I’m looking back, I’m running a race and you’re the book I read.” The more non-linear and bizarre David Byrne’s lyrics get, the more righteous they become.
You’ll be shocked to learn that the instrumentation is incredible, again. The synth that comes tromping in for the song’s third minute plays perfectly against the guitar/bass/drum groove, and when the African-style guitar chimes in around 3:40, Caucasian funk is achieved.
#3. “Drugs” [live in Rome, 1980]
This might be the best thing ever, and if it was on a record it would easily be #1 on this list. Taken from a 1980 European tour to promote Remain in Light, this recording shows Talking Heads performing at an incredibly high level. I don’t even think my paltry words can explain to you how good this is. It’s at moments like this that I truly pity the deaf.
“Drugs” is a weird, trippy track from the back end of Fear of Music. I never paid it much mind until I saw this version of the song. Let’s run down how good everyone involved in this is. David Byrne is himself, a genius. Chris Frantz throws down a superb beat. Jerry Harrison, a HOTT looking Tina Weymouth, and the legendary Bernie Worrell lay down intense synths. Dolette McDonald unleashes her upper register to create creepy vocal effects. Busta Jones funks out like the professional that he is. Steve Scales is going absolutely nuts on the congas and other perc fx. Stealing the show is Adrian Belew, the King Crimson mastermind who played on Remain in Light and toured with TH afterwards.
The first three minutes of the song will exceed your expectations. The next two will melt your face. If your face is still attached after seeing this clip, your subscription fee to ROTI will be refunded. Steve Scales cues things up with some amazing conga slapping, then Adrian Belew burns the fucking place to the GROUND.
I think when they play “The More You Know” clips where they tell kids not to do drugs, they should play this in the spirit of equal time.
#2. “Don’t Worry About the Government” from 77
In a great Metafilter thread discussing the Rome concert I just mentioned, user localroger stated aptly, “Byrne managed to capture and even celebrate the banality of ordinary existence in a way that wasn’t a shriek of rage, but an acceptance of the quirky and weird beings that we are.”
I believe that “Don’t Worry About the Government” is the perfect example of that aspect of Byrne’s songwriting. This ingenious song is written from the point of view of a well-meaning politician, going about his day and his job with a simple appreciation of life and the people around him, and an earnest belief that he is helping improve the world.
I suppose you can read more into this about the “banality of evil” and yadda yadda, but I don’t think this song is really that cynical or ironic. It’s quite simply a great track written from a perspective that you have literally never encountered in rock music before. The striking originality of this lyric coupled with the tune’s ability to walk the line between gaiety and edginess is truly fantastic.
How can you not love a song with the lyrics, “I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods/ I see the pinecones that fall by the highway”??
#1. “The Great Curve” from Remain in Light
For my money, this is the ultimate Talking Heads deep cut. One of the high points of the brilliant Remain in Light, it has everything that makes this band awesome within it.
Byrne unleashes a puzzling and dense lyric that’s more effective as a sequence of auditory syllables than as an information-conveyance system. Chris Frantz leads a rhythm posse that is dropping five kinds of beats at once. Tina Weymouth is laying down some tasty bass. Jerry Harrison and Brian Eno are firing up insanely good synth and rhythm guitars that lend all kinds of texture to the mix. Sessionman Jon Hassell adds some really, really great horns. Once again, Adrian Belew is on hand to boggle minds with his guitar/synth skills.
The vocals might be my favorite part, though. Sick harmonies, funky rhythms, tribal chants, and mind-expanding tone poems. At some point I think I hear them singing “Night must fall now…dark earth, dark earth.” Damn!! From Byrne’s cry “The world moves on a woman’s hips!” at about 2:45, a vocal maelstrom is loosed upon the listener that does not let up for three incredible minutes, at which point Belew rolls back in and mows down anyone left alive.
One of the most original musical acts ever, Talking Heads made amazing records, put on the ultimate live show, and had a knack for inventive visual artistry. I personally think they are the best New York City rock band of all time.
This one’s for GoGoMrPoPo and everyone else who’s been enjoying the Spotify love! Here are 30 great Talking Heads songs to rock out to, longtime.
Here is one of the best music videos EVAH and I know many of y’all are with me on this. Trivia item: this was directed and choreographed by Toni Basil, of “Hey Mickey” fame.
Another great video. I had no idea Jerry Harrison was such a chameleon and satirist of mid-80s musical stars. John Goodman nearly steals the show in an orange blazer.
Finally, Local Natives’ incredibly great cover of “Warning Sign” from a KCRW session.
Thanks for supporting ROTI and Deep Cuts Week!
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