Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



New wave group formed '74 in NYC by design-school grads David Byrne (b 14 May 1952, Dumbarton, Scotland), vocals, guitar; drummer Charlton Christopher 'Chris' Frantz (b 8 May 1951, Fort Campbell KY) and his girlfriend Martina 'Tina' Weymouth (b 22 November 1950, Coronado CA) on bass. Frantz and Byrne had played together in the Artistics, now played a celebrated gig at CBGB's, where a trio with acoustic guitar backing Byrne's quirky high-pitched voice marked them down with Jonathan Richman as one of USA new wave's more unusual sounds. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison (b 21 February 1949, Milwaukee WI) came from Richman's Modern Lovers, doubling on guitar and adding new textures. Frantz and Weymouth married '77, the year that Talking Heads' first single 'Love Goes To Building On Fire' established a yearning, wistful quality reinforced by Talking Heads, an album of delicate pop with an occasional uneasy edge (as on 'Psycho Killer', an early single choice). Second album More Songs About Buildings And Food '78 parodied Byrne's obsessions in its title (as 'Psycho Killer' had been parodied by the Fools as 'Psycho Chicken'). Quirkily rough edges were smoothed out, Harrison's keyboards added to the sound (i.e. his organ on a hit cover of Al Green's 'Take Me To The River', revealing their interest in black music). Fear Of Music '79 like its predecessor was produced by Brian Eno, and brought African sounds to tracks like 'I Zimbra', whose nonsense lyrics derived from a poem by Hugo Ball; intense, paranoiac 'Life During Wartime' continued Byrne's lyrical acuity. Fear had featured session musicians (African drummers and guitarist Robert Fripp); Remain In Light '80 went further, with Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx guesting on vocals, requiring nine pieces to play the music on stage including Belew, Busta Cherry Jones (bass, ex-Sharks), Bernie Worrell (keyboards, ex-Parliament), Dollette MacDonald, vocals, Steven Scales, percussion: their best synthesis yet of black and white pop. Some thought that the Talking Heads' music was always as much R&B and funk as avant-rock; critic Michael Sragow called them The Mamas and the Dadas. 

The Eno/Byrne collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts '81 was dominated by 'found' voices from radio etc, e.g. an American evangelist preacher vying with Islamic chants to hypnotic and disturbing effect. Harrison made solo The Red And The Black '81; Frantz and Weymouth formed spinoff Tom Tom Club with Tina's sisters Loric, Lani and Laura, their light, summery music recorded at Compass Sound in the Bahamas, and rewarded when their eponymous album charted '81 with no. 7 single 'Wordy Rappinghood'; they opened for the Heads on later tours, and Tom Tom Club's later albums were Close To The Bone '83, Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom '88, Dark Sneak Love Action '92.

Byrne produced the B-52s and Fun Boy Three; the Heads returned from sabbatical to embrace their former pop style: Speaking In Tongues '83 was stripped to basics, fascination with black sounds lessening with Eno's departure and exorcized by live stopgap two-disc The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, one of the discs showcasing an expanded band. Songs of this era were influential, covered by Simply Red, Decoys, Staple Singers. Unusually, another live LP followed, Stop Making Sense (accompanied by acclaimed video) on new EMI America label (previously on Sire). Little Creatures '85 took them once more in a pop direction, impressive hit singles included 'Road To Nowhere' with award-winning video and 'And She Was'. Byrne did The Catherine Wheel '82, composed for Twyla Tharp ballet co., and Music For The Knee Plays '85 to link scenes from an opera by Robert Wilson. His film True Stories '86 was an affectionate look at fictional people in Texas, the stories taken from items in the media (which then foolishly assumed he was patronizing his subjects) and accompanied by an album of that name with versions of the film's songs sung by different artists (a soundtrack was also issued); the tale of US musics in the Ry Cooder mould was acclaimed, ranging from Tex-Mex ('Radio Head') to gospel ('Hey Now'), Byrne predicated as the cinematographer of the future. Byrne has also produced a TV film about Candomblé, a voodoo-style Brazilian religion, and written a symphony (it says here). He didn't stick to anything very long, unwilling for example to do what you have to do to become a full-time film-maker, and confessed that 'All I'm ever looking for is just another kick.' But the influence of his eclecticism was great.

The Heads were influential in bringing naíve, acoustic pop back into fashion after punk (cf. Orange Juice, etc), having taken the Velvet Underground etc as a model; then their tribal rhythms bagged another set of fans, many of whom then moved on to 'world music'. From art-school pop they had graduated to that rare phenomenon, rock for grownups. Byrne wrote most of Little Creatures '85, also staged his own multi-media solo show that year, The Tourist Way Of Knowledge. Harrison produced The Naked Leading The Blind '85 by Milwaukee's Violent Femmes and the second album by Waukesha's BoDeans, Outside Looking In '87, released his own The Casual Gods '88 (the name of his large backing group) and Walk On Water '90. Meanwhile he also shared an Oscar (with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su) for the score to The Last Emperor '87. Naked '88 was the first album by Talking Heads under a new EMI contract and their last album with Byrne, though nobody knew it then: Byrne refused to 'leave' the band and also refused to record with them; EMI sued them for breach of contract. Byrne released Brazilian-flavoured Rei Momo '89 on his own Luaka Bop/Sire label (as well as compilations of stuff he liked, such as Cuban Classics), to Luaka Bop/WB for The Forest '91, Uh-Oh '92 (with Hendryx on three tracks) and David Byrne '94, having finally announced the end of Talking Heads late '91. Byrne's cerebral frigid-soul Feelings came out '97 on WB: he had been the first to mix pop with a cocktail of exotic influences, but now seemed to be mellowing, his bandwagon slowing down. He also wrote a book called Biographi, about the Albanian who was Enver Hoxha's double and who, having had plastic surgery and his own existence erased, was out of work after Hoxha died. Harrison had become a very busy producer; Mariah Carey covered Tom Tom's '81 track 'Genius Of Love' '95 (with her own new words, and now called 'Fantasy'), which brought the others some much-needed income. Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison began performing as the Heads and Byrne tried to stop them in court, but No Talking Just Head '96 on MCA was the original lineup's first album without Byrne, with guests Debbie Harry, Maria McKee, Shaun Ryder etc successfully reviving '80s rock in the teeth of fashion: their shows on tour opened with the Talking Heads' 'Memories Can't Wait'.

Chris Frantz published Remain In Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina in 2020, in praise of his happy marriage, but also giving us a great many snapshots of the epochal band. Tina was said to be writing her own book.