Years removed from a key role as pioneer of the mid-'70s punk rock scene, Talking Heads continued to break new pop music ground throughout the '80s. Along the way, frontman David Byrne's leadership and songwriting brilliance remained unmatched, just as the creative input of his three bandmates remained relatively unsung. Here's a chronological look at Talking Heads' finest '80s songs, taken from a series of the most critically lauded, conceptually challenging rock albums of the early MTV era.
Although this song originally appeared on 1979's Fear of Music and actually charted quietly on the Billboard Hot 100 late that year, it arguably made as much of an impression through the live version from the concert film soundtrack Stop Making Sense. Regardless, it was a song that enjoyed a long '80s shelf life, spawning a new wave catch phrase from its lyric, "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around." Musically, the track is a wonderfully herky jerky romp expressing Byrne's paranoia and deep sense of unease with society's ongoing dissolution. Nervous, frantic and immediate, it stands proudly as one of the group's finest punk/new wave recordings.
I'm going to cheat a bit again by including this underrated 1979 gem, also from Fear of Music, but this time I'm going to justify that decision by pointing to the brilliant cover version that introduced the tune to me: Living Colour's rich rendition released on that band's 1988 debut, Vivid. In all sincerity, I'll never be able to enjoy the original version half as much as that cover, for various reasons but mostly because Corey Glover's passionate vocals overshadow Byrne's purposefully mechanical, distant studio performance. No matter how you enjoy it, this is a brilliant composition that encapsulates modern confusion so well in its typically direct pessimism: "Don't look so disappointed, it isn't what you hoped for, is it?".
Perhaps in part because of Brian Eno's involvement as producer, the rhythmic experiments that had always been a part of Talking Heads' sound rose to an even greater prominence on 1980's Remain in Light. Although the constant groove favored by the band becomes irritatingly repetitive at times, this is quite simply a hypnotic track that announced immediately that the group was not just another new wave outfit trading in glossy post-punk. Byrne's plaintive vocals explore a sense of distrust and fear once again, eventually melting into a repeated line ("I'm still waiting") that sums up the band's generally worried worldview. This may be dance music, but its unpredictability helps it maintain a solid rock and roll appeal.
Though I've never been a great fan of this tune or its too-familiar video clip featuring many shots of David Byrne seemingly convulsing, I have to admit that it's a first-rate modern world freak-out that continues to deliver, three decades after its release, an accurate assessment of the unease central to American culture. Many of its lyrical proclamations have aged all too well, including the chanted "Same as it ever was," "How did I get here?" and "You may say to yourself, 'My God, what have I done?". The bouncy chorus belies Byrne's jittery, befuddled musings in the verses, a contrast that deftly expresses the confusing emotions, contradictions and pitfalls of the American Dream that have always interested Byrne as a songwriter.
For kids like me still glued to American Top 40 at the time, this moody track was probably an introduction to Talking Heads and the band's funky, electronic grooves of the early '80s. Of course, I had no idea what the song was about, and I probably still can't say with any certainty. All I know is that the combination of the brooding arrangement with Byrne's vague but affecting lyrical observations remains hard to shake even today, after years of airplay saturation. Whatever one may say about Byrne's eccentricities, his skill as a cryptically prescient lyricist has always been apparent, making this tune a deserving if extremely unlikely Top 10 hit in 1983. The song's menace and threat may have been lost on some but not its melodic accessibility.
World music began to infiltrate Talking Heads' music in a particularly audible way on this reggae-influenced, soulful track that spotlights the versatility and key contributions of the entire band. Yes, Byrne always got most of the attention as creative linchpin, but Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz were always more than a mere backing band. The precise arrangements favored by Byrne, especially now that Brian Eno was no longer producing, may have obscured that fact a bit, but the hypnotic rhythms of the track never hide the unique, permanent melodies. And what a marriage of intoxicating lyric and melody: "Home is where I want to be, but I guess I'm already there. I come home, she lifted up her wings, I guess that this must be the place."
One mark of any great band is that in the course of an attempt to compile a list like this, it becomes extremely difficult to leave off songs that upon fresh listen feel as essential as ever. That's certainly a good description of my experience here, as I've elected to take two songs from each of Talking Heads' five studio albums released between 1979 and 1986, before Byrne completely transformed the group into essentially his solo vehicle (as on 1988's Naked). Through the years I've become a bit complacent about this tune from 1985's Little Creatures, but it's an undeniably sublime slice of musical fusion, riding in confidently on Byrne's amazingly evocative if opaque lyrics and the band's exquisite presentation of singular rhythm and melody.
At his best, Byrne transports the listener and transcends genre simply with his vocal style. Everyone knows the detached, nasal and often nerve-addled sound of Byrne as a singer, but perhaps fewer music fans recognize the pure beauty of many of his performances. I know I've been shortsighted about this, especially when the man's reclusiveness and apparently passionless recollection of his Talking Heads days conspire to annoy me to an extreme. But let's give credit where it's due, as Byrne's vocals consistently match the beauty of his central melody on this tune. Even better, as is often the band's tendency, the song manages to meld the apparent pessimism of its title with a joyous, communal performance that ultimately feels inspirational.
I realize I'm quite biased when it comes to this snarling rocker, mostly because the generally dismissed True Stories was the first cassette I purchased after I officially entered my rock music phase at 14 years old. Admittedly, it provides a slightly skewed impression of the nature of Talking Heads, leading me to believe I'd started in a prime place for edgy guitar rock. Upon buying the tape, I certainly became aware of all the other directions in which the band tended to go, but I still love the straight-ahead guitar attack and killer riff upon which this anthem is based. Although Byrne apparently never wanted to record the songs himself from his film of the same name, I detect some serious passion and punkish defiance in his performance here.
10. "City of Dreams"
Stepping back into the realm of accessible pop loveliness, this song, a short-list, all-time favorite of mine, again distinguishes Byrne as a contemplative, sensitive and mournful lyricist of the highest order. In addition to a straightforward rock arrangement, the track communicates one of Byrne's least befuddling lyrics that clearly laments the continuous loss of innocence that has so long characterized world and American history. This kind of direct emotional and intellectual impact may be rare in pop music but certainly not impossible, as conveyed by the haunting chorus: "We live in the city of dreams, we ride on this highway of fire. Should we awake to find it gone, remember this our favorite town." Unshakable stuff.