By taking a shortcut between Africa and cybernetics, Talking Heads revolutionised pop music. In 1976, three former art students, David Byrne (guitar/vocals), Chris Frantz (drums) and his girlfriend, Tina Weymouth (bass), intrigued audiences at the famous New York nightclub, the CBGB. Their preppy style (short hair, clean polo shirts) was the opposite of the ‘destroy codes’ then in vogue. Their songs sounded like the skeletons of songs – a dry sound with rigorous composition and spare arrangements, yet with an omnipresent groove. Too cool to be punk, too cerebral to be pop, thus was born Talking Heads, a band whose style and humour transcends the anxieties of our modern life. Often taken over by mock spasms during a gig, David Byrne exorcised his paranoia, evoking everyday life as one might invoke demons during a voodoo ritual.
In December 1976 their first single, “Love -> Building on Fire”, was released, before Jerry Harrison (former keyboardist of the Modern Lovers) joined them as second guitarist, backing vocalist, and keyboardist – a move that allowed them to start creating more elaborate arrangements. Although uncomfortable in the studio (they were first and foremost a live band), they recorded their first album, soberly named after the year of its recording: 77. The ‘Fa fa fa fa fa’ of “Psycho Killer” has become one of the most famous refrains in rock music.
During a European tour where they opened for The Ramones, Brian Eno came to meet them to confess his admiration. Back in New York, the band naturally called on him to produce their second album, More Songs About Food and Buildings (1978). Thus began the famous ‘Eno era’ (1978-1980). Galvanised by the latter's creativity, the band abandoned the minimalism of their beginnings in favour of more complex, revolutionary arrangements. From Fear of Music (1979) onwards the experimentations intensified and the whole album feels claustrophobic, without ever letting go of the groove.
The masterpiece Remain in Light (1980) followed, a sort of cybernetic tribute to Fela Kuti. Various instrumental loops were superimposed using studio techniques to generate densely layered rhythms. To write the lyrics, David Byrne relied on the sounds and rhythms of language before searching for meaning. He was also inspired by the style adopted by religious preachers, demonstrated on the hit “Once in a Lifetime”. Add into the mix a few guitar solos by Adrian Belew and you get an album that hasn’t aged a bit in 40 years, one that marries avant-gardism, technology, and music from the African continent.
For future concerts, the band hired additional musicians and David Byrne continued to play with the staging. During the Stop Making Sense tour of 1984, the gigs merged with theatre. Costume, choreography, lighting, staging – everything was thought out in order to create a real spectacle.
From Speaking in Tongues (1983) to Little Creatures (1985), the band stopped experimenting so much in order to return to the pop style of their early days. They followed these up with worldwide hits – “Burning Down the House”, “And She Was”. In 1987, the group returned to a sound more inspired by African music with Naked, the fruit of improvisation sessions with various musicians at a studio in Paris. Their final project together was playing for a short Wim Wenders film (Sax and Violins) before they split up in 1988. They’ve not spoken to one another for a long time and will likely never play together again.