In terms of lively eclecticism and independent pop music spirit, perhaps no other American band active during the '80s comes close to matching New York's original punk/new wave pioneers Talking Heads. A sense of exploration, discovery and yearning consistently defines the group's output from its mid-'70s inception throughout its critically acclaimed and commercially potent '80s career. David Byrne's leadership and songwriting brilliance remain unmatched, just as the creative input of his three bandmates remains unsung. Here's a look at my painstakingly and painfully derived list of Talking Heads' finest '80s efforts.
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 as a single through the live version that peaked at No. 80 in 1984 when included on 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 societal dissolution. Nervous, frantic and immediate, it stands proudly as one of the group's finest punk/new wave recordings.
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.
World music began to infiltrate the 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."
The mark of any great band is when you try to compile a list like this and find it 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.
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 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.