November , 1979
By David Huff
Talking Heads, A Challenge, Not An Oddity
The Talking Heads. Who are they? What are they? How did they get here? Where did they come from? Where are they going?
Those questions can be answered very simply with one word: Music.
The Talking Heads, a la David Byrne, lead vocals and guitar; Chris Frantz, drums and vocals; Tina Weymouth, bass and vocals; and Jerry Harrison, keyboards and vocals, are no ordinary group. They won't dazzle you with electronic wizardry or a sophisticated light show. But, they will challenge you, not physically, but mentally. "I think the music does challenge the audience," said Harrison as he relaxed backstage after the group’s recent performance in Norman, OK.
"I think that it could be listened to in a way that you don't get too involved and you just sort of enjoy it. Now, I don't think that you can listen to it in a far more precise manner, or someway to--let's put it this way--challenge you, because it makes you think about it a little more.”
"I don't believe it is easy-listening music. I don't think that it is the kind of music that you would really want to put on to much in the background. I know that people in record stores say that ours is one of those records, that when people start getting depressed when they are working, they put it on. Especially the second side, it cheers people up. So, the good thing is that it makes people want to work."
The Heads music is different to what anyone's conception of normal rock n' roll is. Then again, in the times that we live in, how do you define normal?
"I think that any strong statement, whether it is music or lyrics, can carry a song," elaborated Harrison. "For instance, with great country and western songs, you know almost all of the lyrics, but the music is completely standard. There is something unique about the lyrics and in particular, the way it sounds.”
"Generally, I think the music is more important. I believe a lot of people, including myself, don't even listen to the lyrics. They don't even bother. Without music to excite you, it doesn't matter what it says. I don't mean that in some sort of ideological way. I just mean that there's a musical language and you get into a very hard problem on how you discuss what that means.”
"The music doesn't sound like anything else that I know of. That in itself makes it like a statement, sort of defining an area that wasn't defined before."
Byrne and Frantz have known each other since they were freshmen at the Rhode Island School of Design. That's where they also met Tina. They formed their first band, the Artistics, in the fall of '74 with Tina joining later to make a trio. They remained that way until 1977 when Harrison's talents were added to round out the group
"I joined the group because it sounded so good when we played together," explained Harrison, who studied architecture at Harvard before devoting full time to music.
"I was in one other band (the Modern Lovers) that had something that this one had, but it broke up. This band has some sort of belief in itself, some sort of identity, some sort of direction. It's not just a sort of follow-type band.”
“After the first session, I had that feeling inside that this was it. We all knew it, but it took about four or five months to make sure. When I joined the band, most of the songs for the first two albums had already been written. I was involved more on this album (Fear of Music) than I was on the others. I haven't gotten involved in writing words so far, but I have composed a lot of the music and arranged it."
The Talking Heads first album was entitled, 77. The follow-up. More Songs About Buildings And Food, drew critical acclaim from the nations press and topped out on the charts at number 29.
A single off of that album, "Take Me To The River" became the band's first major radio hit.
"There are things that we didn't want to do when we started out," said Byrne. "We didn't want to wait in the wings in support of some other bands. We didn't want to come across like rock stars or wear all kinds of fancy outfits and stuff.”
"A lot of times a group will come out and they'll have one hit single on their album. Everybody will just know that one song and a lot of people will come out and see them just to hear them play that one song. That is sort of a false success. It means people only want to hear the one song they've already heard on the radio.”
"If the group doesn't have another hit single after that, that is as successful, then the group just drops right back to where they were before. It is sort of better I think, if groups do what we have been doing, and that's to gradually build up. People will know a lot different songs in their albums and they will have a little bit more of a broader perspective about what the group is about. People just don't come and want to hear what one song is and fall asleep for the rest of the set."
Most of the songs are penned by Byrne himself. He feels that the type of music that the Talking Heads do allows him to reach out in different directions with his music. "I can do just about anything," says Byrne. "I would be willing to give just about anything a try. I think that we have been pretty lucky that way.”
“We haven't been too boxed in. Nobody expects us to play exactly like this, or exactly like that. We can play anything that we want and people would say, 'Oh, that's okay.' As long as we did it so that it was interesting.”
"You can't presume to know what people are going to like. I think if you try to do that, you end up being wrong. Personally, I don't think about what people are going to like when I write songs. If I say people aren't going to like this, most of the time I end up being wrong, they like something else."
It's been a busy year for the Talking Heads.
In February they performed two songs on "Saturday Night Live" that drew rave responses, A month later saw them on Dick Clark's American Bandstand before they went into the studio to cut their third LP, Fear of Music, which was released in August.
“I don’t think of Fear of Music as being a phenomenal success," says Harrison. "I think that it is very amazing that we have managed to make three albums where we haven't gotten to the point where people aren't saying, 'Well, they were good, but, I remember when I saw the band at the Roxy, or I saw them at this, and they were so much better...”
"We haven't gone to the point where the press hasn't turned against us and is trying to remember the past. So, I think that really shows that we have been quite successful in changing, and sort of continuing to challenge people, and not sort of resting on whatever laurels you might say we had, or resting on any success we had before.”
"We certainly have something that is continuous. Every album that you make, there is going to be pressure to make the best one you can. So far, we have been making better and better records, and I believe that our last one is certainly the best, in my mind. Hopefully, you get better and you grow, but other pressures come up. And other things come up, so perhaps a simpler statement that you made earlier ends up being better. You can only try." There are several things that are unique about the Talking Heads. And certainly the name of the group is one of them. It comes from a TV term for close-up.”
"I think that it was chosen," said Harrison, who hails from Milwaukee, "because it seemed amusing and it didn't call up any images. At the time the Talking Heads was formed, glitter rock was sort of the most on everyone's tongue with the music around, so, we wanted to avoid that, "We wanted to avoid blues bands, country bands, soul bands, all of those things. Talking Heads didn't call up any images like that, and I guess that the sixties were far enough back it didn't call up head to much, so..."
Women hold a very dominant position in some of the top rock groups in the world. When you think of Fleetwood Mac, visions of Stevie Nicks or Christie McVie prance through one's mind. Mention Heart, and Ann and Nancy Wilson come to the foreground. And then there is Blondie and the ever imposing figure of Deborah Harry. The Talking Head's Tina Weymouth doesn't worry about images or even think about it. She is content with the role she plays in the band. She doesn't worry about surprising people with her prowess on the bass, or the feedback she may get from the audience
"I don't provoke feedback from males in the audience." said Weymouth."' don't get it the same way as female singers who wear real sexy clothes and sing sexy lyrics get it. "I try not to think about surprising people when I'm on stage. It is sort of like being a monkey that can type. That's a surprise and it’s not very flattering. Maybe for the monkey it is. I like it best when people don't realize that I am a girl the whole way through the show, and then compliment me. Not because they are surprised that I am a girl that can play or something like that."
When Harrison joined the group, it didn't shock or amaze him one bit to find a woman playing the bass in a supposed male dominated area.
"I just thought about the way she played bass," said Harrison, "and not the fact she was a woman. I thought of it being nice because it is sort of the difference between co-educational schools and boys schools. You know what I mean?”
"There is no question that some people have noticed this band because Tina is in it. As for male ego, I don't think of it as that, I mean, who can criticize anyone's playing. The fact is, as a unit, it works. And actually many bass players were tried out and at the time Tina joined, there wasn't really anyone interested, and she was the person that was interested. At the time she wasn't very experienced, but what it was is that she understood the conceptual feeling of the band that made her seem like the appropriate choice of the band as opposed to anyone else.”
"I have been in a lot of bands where the girls were better than men. That's fine. I think that it's sort of nice to think of, you know---anyone can do something. People make a lot of distinctions that are really sort of unnecessary. I think that the most modern part of it is she is just a working member of the band. No focus particularly was put on the fact that she was a woman or anything like that.”
"It's not like Suzie Quatro, where emphasis was placed on her being a woman. It wasn't anything like that or even Blondie, the traditional kind of woman singer, front woman, excuse me, front person. When people talk about women's liberation, I think that was sort of in the best sense of the idea. It is sort of like getting around all of the false differences. All that matters is if people can do the job that they are doing."
For this tour, the Heads have kept their concert dates down to small clubs, auditoriums or theaters. Weymouth says the reasoning behind it was not so the group could claim they played a sold out tour, or even create a following.
“Well, we thought we would rather play clubs because we would rather headline shows where we know people are coming to see us. We didn't see any other kind of music that was being made whose audience would readily understand, you know, or get off on what we were doing," she said.
"For example, we thought that Roxy Music had a bad break when they first came over from England. They were playing new music and they opened for bands like YES and Jethro Tull and it was terrible for them. I think that it made them break up initially. We just didn't want to do that, so we thought, 'Let's aim our audience from the roots up playing small clubs.”
"I think that our band is pretty unique. I don't mean just the music, but just the way that we go about doing things. Some other bands are starting to think that is a good idea to do it the way we have done. To keep a low profile and not try to sell yourself really big because you end up being misunderstood anyway."
There's nothing elaborate about the Talking Heads. They don't try to outsmart you or wow a crowd with musical artistry. They let their music do the talking for them. "We always said that the audience was smarter than people give them credit for," points out Weymouth. "It you start putting on something, they will figure it out. You may as well just do it and be yourself, be spontaneous, but be for real, not for the effect.”
"It is too easy to make a dramatic gesture when you play a chord with your hands, or throw yourself on the ground. We figure that's too easy. Our audience just doesn't go for it anyhow.”
"We just do what is interesting to us. If we were to do something that we thought was commercial. I guess that we could do it. Of course, it might prove to be too easy and therefore we would get bored. We try to do things that make us get excited and to play things that are maybe difficult to play so that accidents might happen, or something unpredicted would come out of an experiment that would make you curious, get excited or more interested. That is what we do when we get together and think about music."
There is something about the Talking Heads that make paying seven or eight dollars to see them in concert trivial. Or is it?
“Well, compared to what else you would spend money on, it seems like a good deal to me,” joked Harrison. "I mean, people would actually spend $15 dollars to see Fleetwood Mac. You could see us twice, and you would probably be a lot closer. I don't think that sounds bad at all."
It doesn't bother the Heads when people refer to them as New Wave or punk. After seeing and listening to them in concert, it is hard to see where the terms apply.
“We have been thinking about something funny," remarked Harrison. "I think that there is--it is sort of middle New Wave, or new New Wave, or high New Wave. We'll just start our own trend. High Wave, I think, or New Low Wave.”
"I believe that it is a pretty tired question now because I think that those phrases have very little meaning. I think that the bands at CBGB's (in New York) started it and they became lumped under the term punk rock. And then England, well the English bands, really picked things up from the Ramones and they took a solid identity. All of the bands were so similar that it was easy to label it.
"I think that we share certain things with bands in New York, a sort of commitment to the audience, statement, technique. The sort of laser oriented rock n' roll that was prevalent at the time. Maybe it wasn't the most well executed music, but it was music that people believed in what they were saying.”
"I think that we share that, and I am very happy to be associated with bands that share that. I don’t think that our sound is like those other bands. There is some sort of common terms applied. It throws people off. That's one of the reasons we have toured so much, particularly in the beginning. We felt that it was important for people to hear us as we were, not as some sort of a label plot. I think that we have an image that is us. Any label that puts us in with a lot of the other bands is really not fair.”