December , 1980
By David Huff
Again, Everyone's Talking About the Heads
One of the most fascinating things about the music industry and the musicians and groups that make it up, is the diversity in sound that they all possess. Each in their own right believe they have found that certain musical formula that will capture the listening publics' attention, thus throwing themselves into the limelight.
Is it game! You bet it is. There are winners and there are losers. And then there are those who don't even play the game at all. They are the ones that take the chance of changing their music not because they have to, but because they want to. They are musician’s first, artist’s second, and perhaps business people third. They are the Talking Heads.
There is no group that has shook up the music industry and critics •alike as much as the Talking Heads have since the groups' formation five years ago.
They have drawn critical acclaim and praise from around the world on every album they have done, but that was when they were a four piece band with an incredibly unique sound. With the release of their fifth album, Remain In Light, the Talking Heads have swollen to a nine piece band and that incredible sound that brought them to the fore—front in the latter part of the seventies has fallen to the wayside for a sound far more exciting.
"I didn't feel we were in a musical rut after Fear of Music," explained guitarist, keyboardist Jerry Harrison. "We all felt that we wanted to do things a little bit differently, but you see, that wasn't a rut. There was just a feeling that we had completed certain ideas and it was time to move on to some of the other ones."
"People expect us to change and we do change. I think that Fear of Music is one of my favorite records that we made. It wasn't 'the end of the line' or anything like that. I think that in many ways what we did was took the direction "I Zimbra" implied."
The Heads new album, Remain In Light, has already entered the charts Top 25 and is steadily climbing. With the addition of five more musicians and a female vocalist, their sound is unlike anything you have ever heard before. Harrison admits the Talking Heads' new musical venture was a bit chancy, but he believes that it was a logical step for the band.
"Oh, I think that there were lots of risks in doing an album like this," admitted the former Harvard professor, "and I think that there was a risk in adding more people. I wouldn't call it musical suicide if it didn't work because I guess I just don't think so negatively."
"I always think that our fans are smart enough and they well bear with us even if we make a mistake. We have always tried to be a band that did change, and the people expect us too change. It is not like they go, 'They are not like they used to be.'"
"You see, so many bands spend three or four albums establishing an identity that when they finally get bored with that identity and change it, that is when everyone goes, 'Well, that is not the same band.' With us, we always created an idea that this was going to change, that it was going to be constantly changing, and that that was going to be an exciting possibility. Everyone should flow with it."
You would be hard put to say that what the Heads have done with Remain In Light was a sort of musical suicide. Change is the name of the game, and it's the ones that do it successfully that survive and thrive...not fade away.
"Actually, I think that we are the most political band in the world right now," stated Harrison. "I don't think that we are sedentary as far as change goes, but, I am not going to tell you how. You are going to have to figure it out for yourself."
"I don't think we are looking for some formula. That is one thing that we never did. If we were looking for a formula, we would have done a repeat of "Take Me To The River." We have built our audiences up despite airplay. We build an audience in every city we go to regardless whether we got airplay or not. The small places we had to play starting out, if there was only going to twenty people there the first time, we played and had a-great time because we were playing for our fans."
"We never opened for anybody and because we did it that way, we recognized that we were...there was no audience, no already created audience. There was only our fans."
Harrison attributes much of the Talking Heads' success to that grass roots following the band created for itself in the beginning.
"We could put out ten records in a row," continued Harrison, "that never got any airplay and maybe we would have to retreat a little, but still, there would be fans that would understand and would appreciate it because we are really honest in what we do."
"Someone like Steven Forbert who has had sort of semi-hits and things like that, is much more dependent on that radio airplay pattern. It is just like any band, and there are many, many bands that it's almost a disadvantage to them to have a hit because people expect you to follow it up."
"You are only as good as your last hit, and that is not our intention to write hits.. Our intentions are to write good music and if it becomes a hit, that is great. But, as I said, that is not our intention. Some groups can get caught up in that hit cycle."
It all comes down to one thing, radio. Many consider it a necessary evil, and well it may be.
"I think that as far a radio goes, that a lot of things have been assimilated," said Harrison. "A lot of things that were once thought of to be sort of outlandish or outside of the ordinary experience was sort of assimilated, like Elvis Costello. He is sort of a singer/songwriter, one of a lot of them. Even the Clash is sort of heavy metal now."
"I think that what has happened is the old categories have sort or reasserted themselves and because of that, radio is far more boring now. It is the triumph of MOR, or something like that. I think that actually music is in really a dire place. There are not too many bands that I feel are taking great steps forward. To take a step forward you have to take a chance. It seems that now everyone is like consolidating their position which is somehow a dull idea, you know."
Harrison stands by his statement that the Talking Heads are the most politically important band in the world today. If you can't see it right off through the Heads' music, they won't hesitate to tell you in person.
Jerry didn't get a chance to vote Nov. 4 because the band was touring, but he says he would have voted for Barry Commoner, the citizen's anti-nuclear candidate. Harrison is also against the use of nuclear energy, but not its complete shutdown.
"I am not of the school that would dose them all down at this moment and create havoc by not having them. I don't think that they are quite as dangerous as all of that. I do think that the potential for disaster is immense, but yet, if you multiply .09 odds a hundred times…"
"But, by having more nuclear energy, there is more nuclear material in the world, there is the problem of waste disposal, and it makes it easier for anyone to make an atom bomb and all of those things. That means we have more and more potential for disaster and all of those things I am concerned about and against."
And, as for voting for Barry Commoner...
"I just couldn't stand to vote for any of the candidates that were there," confessed Harrison. "I do think that Reagan will be less harmful than everyone thinks he will be. What I actually think is going to happen is the failure of American industry is going to be perpetrated for another four years by false means, and the crash that comes is going to even be that much bigger."
"As far as the music industry goes, some people think that because Ronald Reagan is president, it is going to be just like when Nixon was president, and that it will create a counter culture against the government that will be very active. I am not so convinced of that because it takes money to create a counter culture, and I think that there is just no money. There used to be money, but there isn't anymore."
It will be quite interesting to see how high the Talking Heads new album gets into the charts. If their gamble, or musical growth if you will, continues to pay off, it will be quite interesting to see if other bands follow their lead. Stuff like that usually happens. Whether it will be accepted by the media and the listening public is another story.
"I don't like or dislike critics," answered Harrison. "I have been in bands that have got great reviews, I mean they were the critics favorites—the Modem Lovers and the Talking Heads. If you had to chose two bands that sort of consistently got good reviews, you would have a hard time picking out two others that were better than those two."
"We are all critics. I do think that it is harder to say something positive than it is negative. I am much more willing to believe someone when they say they like something than when they say they don't. I went through a period with the Modem Lovers when I thought they were the only band in the world that played any music that was worth listening too."
"I thought that everything else In the world was terrible, and that is rather drastic, you know. It was important for me to say that I suppose at the time, but having gone through it. I realize the limitations of negative description."
There is no denying the power of the press, but sometimes that written word can abuse more harshly than it can inform.
"Any press is good press, no matter what it says," conceded Harrison. "There have been certain bands, like the Urban Verbs, that are really hurt by bad press, and I mean really hurt. They weren't selling as well perhaps as they would have, and they got screwed because they were in America."
"It took them nine months to record their album, and by that time, Gary Numan and all those synthesizer bands had come out. Suddenly, they looked more old fashioned even though what they had come up with they did originally and it had nothing to do with the others. Maybe Gary Numan and those synthesizer bands were the ones influenced by the Urban Verbs. In England, a band comes out so much quicker that they can be discovered just like that and next week they have a record. "
"Here in the United States, it is not that way. The Urban Verbs really suffered because reviewers had a whole new thing to be looking at. By comparing them to all of these people who came before them, critics say that you are copying when actually you aren't. That is the real problem for all American bands."