Toronto, 1978, and the venerable Horseshoe Tavern at Queen St. W. and Spadina Ave. is packed to the gills. Old-timers wouldn’t recognise it as the place where Stomping Tom Connors shot his movie a few years back. Oh there might be a few ducktails still around, and there is definitely a lot of black leather, but the patrons aren’t here to hear Hank Snow, or any of the other Country and Western favourites who have graced the old stage.
Nope, tonight they’re all here to check out the latest hot band to come up from New York City via the Mudd Clubb and C.B.G.B. A change of management meant a change of format, and the Horseshoe has become a Mecca for punk and new wave bands from both Toronto and afar.
After a warm-up set from a local group that’s left the audience’s ears bleeding from the noise, anticipation is high, and so when three rather normal-looking guys and a girl walk out on to stage, nobody pays them much mind until they pick up their instruments and approach the microphones. When the first words out of the lead singer’s mouth are: “Can we get the volume turned down” they know they’re in for something different than the usual three-chord punk assault on the senses.
That was the Talking Heads; different from the word go. From gawky, geeky-looking David Byrne on lead vocals and guitar, normal-looking Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboards, Chris Franz on drums, and a rarity in the rock world a woman, Tina Weymouth, on bass, they hardly looked like a rock band, let alone the writers of songs like “Psycho Killer” and “Life During War Time”
Throughout their life as a band, the Talking Heads continually defied expectations. Whether in the stripped-down, minimalist four-piece band of the earliest incarnations, or in the nine-piece funk band from mid-career, they were always a couple of steps ahead of both their audience and the music industry. You knew it was only a matter of time that the creative energy that fuelled that innovation would become constrained by popular music and need to move on.
But technology is a wonderful thing, and Rhino records have done the world a great service by re-releasing some of their best albums on dual disc CD/DVDs. One side features the original CD plus some bonus tracks, and the other side is the music remixed in 5.1 surround sound for audio DVD players. Each DVD also includes copies of the original music videos that were released with the albums.
The CD that somehow struck me as being their most popular in terms of airplay was Speaking In Tongues. Recorded with the full nine-piece funk line up, and featuring a special guest vocal by Nona Hendryx on “Slippery People”, and Bernie Worrell of Funkadelic playing synthesiser on “Girlfriend is Better”, this disc makes you move whether you want to or not.
Filtering through the dance beats, sliding into your brain without you really noticing, David Byrne’s stream of conscience, oddball, but emotionally evocative lyrics, work their magic on your corpuscles. I haven’t heard these songs in over ten years but I knew the lyrics like I had just heard them yesterday. Most amazing, is that I don’t actually remember ever sitting down and listening to the record once.
On first listen this sounds like a simple funk disc; grooves and beats pulsating up the spine and loosening up the whitest of asses, but listen again and you’ll notice there’s more to this disc than dance tunes. Layers of sound are built on the foundation of the beat. From the swirls of synthesisers to the background vocals, everything has been skilfully engineered and produced to create an energy specific to a song.
From the frenetic drive of “Burning Down The House”, with its almost tribal rhythms that come pounding out of the opening synthesiser, to the sentiment of “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” every tone, every sound, is fitted exactly into place. Listen to what could be a throw away vocal at the end of the later song; a simple “Ooh” sung by Byrne; it’s precisely timed to fit into the finishing swirl of the rest of the instruments.
True Stories was a solo David Byrne project, a movie he made about the strangeness of super market tabloids and life across America. In the movie, the actors sang all the material. The album True Stories was released after the fact, and featured the Talking Heads performing the songs from the movie. Confusing matters even more, Sire Records released a soundtrack from the movie that featured the original cast performing the same material that was on the Talking Heads album.
Although released in 1986, which meant that it wasn’t there last album, True Stories has always felt like a parting of the ways to me. The band felt like an afterthought to a David Byrne project, and although musically it sounds fine, there has always felt, to my ears, that something was missing.
After the fun of Little Creatures, their previous release, there is almost a sterility to this disc, which when it was released made it one of my least favourite Talking Heads’ albums. Certainly, songs like “Wild, Wild Life” and “Love For Sale” sound like Talking Heads’ songs, but there is a formulaic quality to them that prevented me from ever really getting excited about them.
Listening to it again ten years down the line, what strikes me the most is how it seems not to have the same level of thought and commitment that had been the trademarks of the band until that point. In a very roundabout and polite way, I guess I’m saying it was boring.
Thankfully two years latter they redeemed themselves in my ears with the release of Naked. According to bassist Tina Weymouth, they decided to record in Paris to take advantage of the large émigré African musician population that lived there. They wanted to capture a very specific sound for this album, one they knew couldn’t be reproduced by the musicians at hand in the United States, so they went to where they could find the people they needed.
The Talking Heads were never what you would call an overtly political band. Although there was a large element of social commentary to David Byrne’s lyrics, they weren’t ones for the anthem-type standards of The Clash, or other members of the Punk generation. But on Naked they made some of their strongest political statements of their career.
It sounds strange to say this but Naked always felt like a more international album than any of their previous releases. I don’t mean musically, because obviously they had utilized a great number of sounds from all over the world before, but thematically it seems they looked beyond the borders of New York City for the first time.
I remember listening to “The Democratic Circus” when the album was first released, and literally a half-mile away from where I was sitting the G-8 leaders were meeting in Toronto. The eight leaders of the biggest economies in the “Free World” had rolled into town to talk about whatever it is they talk about at these meetings, and it was just like a three-ringed circus.
It was like being in Paris had given Byrne a perspective on how North America was seen, and saw, the world at that time. To this day, the song, “Mr. Jones” feels like an updating of Bob Dylan’s song about Mr. Jones not knowing what’s happening. He still doesn’t know, but now it’s not just at home; he’s deaf and blind to the whole world.
Musically speaking Naked also recaptured some of the adventurous atmosphere that had been missing on True Stories. Not only was it more musically diverse, but the production values and arrangements created thematic foundations for Byrne’s lyrics.
Naked was the last Talking Heads album I ever bought, and fittingly it was a reminder for me of why I had liked them in the first place. Intelligent lyrics and interesting music that combined to elevate pop music beyond its usual mundane expressions of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
They were a band that was never afraid to take risks, and disavowed complacency. The concert film Stop Making Sense released in the early 1980′s gives a good indication of just how far the band had travelled up to that point in time. From their raw energy as a quartet, to the nine-piece funk band and various stops on the way the Talking Heads were a unique musical experience that happens far to infrequently in pop music.
Intelligent, and ever evolving they distinguished themselves from their contemporaries with each album they put out, and concert they gave. How many other bands do you know that have asked to have their sound system turned down?