Michael Aron – “Talking Heads: Beyond Safety Pins” (1977)

November 15, 2009 at 6:54 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, Talking Heads)

An early article on Talking Heads by Michael Aron from the Nov. 17, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone

 

After touring Europe with the Ramones, opening at the Bottom Line for Bryan Ferry and selling out CBGB’s regularly for two years, it should be a bit of a bringdown for a group to be here in suburban White Plains on a rainy Saturday to play a club that is essentially an annex of Beefsteak Charlie’s restaurant – but Talking Heads don’t seem to mind. While guitarist and lead singer David Byrne walks around in a London Fog raincoat, clutching a copy of a book entitled Musical Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia and wondering aloud whether the rain outside is carrying “fallout from the recent Chinese A-test,” bass player Tina Weymouth is disarming a table of women friends with candid talk about David’s penchant for farting.

“He did it during a photo session for our album. That’s why he’s looking away in this shot on the sleeve,” Weymouth says. “Maybe men do it more than women.”

“He really does shovel his food down, you know,” adds an English woman.
“Yes, and he’s still eating junk food,” says Tina.

At a nearby table, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz (the group’s drummer) and ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison (keyboards and guitar) are explaining for the nth time why Talking Heads are not a punk band.

“The big difference between us and punk groups is that we like K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Funkadelic/Parliament,” says Frantz. “You ask Johnny Rotten if he likes K.C. and the Sunshine Band and he’ll blow snot in your face.”

“What I thought was healthy about punk rock was that it was a reaction to over-professionalization and technique replacing meaningfulness in music,” says Harrison, who went to Harvard. “I think in a way what punk rock means is intensity of expression, intensity of meaning, and I think that’s what we share…although we convey emotions not exactly limited to anger and aggression.”

A few minutes later, Talking Heads take the stage for a sound check. With the possible exception of Harrison, they look too straight to be rock & roll musicians. But, of course, they look this way on purpose. “Normalcy” is part of their pose – a way of saying hipness is passé and safety pins are irresponsible. As soon as they begin to play, you realize you’re in the presence of a stunningly original rock ensemble whose roots go back to such classicists of abnormality as the Velvet Underground, David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars and Harrison’s old group, the Modern Lovers.

Byrne, 25, writes all the material: a kind of syncopated hard rock, richer in texture than most New Wave music and lightened by riffs that seem to come from pop and disco. The lyrics are deceptively simple and utterly cracked. Like Randy Newman, whose songwriting he admires, Byrne is putting across a sensibility as much as a song. Consider these lines from “Don’t Worry About the Government”:

My building has every convenience
It’s going to make life easy for me
It’s going to be easy to get things done
I will relax, along with my loved ones…
Some civil servants are just like my loved ones

And these lines from “Psycho Killer” (written, by the way, two years before anyone had heard of David Berkowitz):

We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they’re not polite
Psycho killer, q’est-ce que c’est?

Talking Heads may be the only rock band around whose members could all have had legitimate careers as painters. Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth were classmates at the Rhode Island School of Design, a prestigious asylum for the artistic that also spawned Martin Mull. Weymouth and Frantz painted; Frantz played in a rock band with Byrne, and Byrne flitted between painting, photography, video and poetry before settling on the writing of
questionnaires as an art form. (“I tried to design a Nielson ratings system for the arts, but it never worked out.”) Harrison, a latecomer to the band, painted as an undergraduate and had returned to Harvard for graduate studies in architecture a few months before Talking Heads lured him back to music.

I first saw Talking Heads two years ago when they were breaking in as a trio at CBGB’s. The music was more raw then, more hard-edged, and the lyrics more pessimistic.

Talking Heads usually played on the same bill with Television (a coincidence in that “talking heads” is a name lifted from TV terminology), and those were special nights. Each band had a cult following: Television drew the punks and rowdies, Talking Heads the young professionals, college students, and the critics – in particular, John Rockwell of the New York Times, who used the term “art rock” to distinguish Talking Heads from New York’s 8000 other punk bands, and James Wolcott of the Village Voice, who raved about a band still a year and a half away from cutting its first record.

Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth are so serious about their music and so careful about controlling their careers that for the next year they rebuffed half a dozen management offers and resisted the temptation to deliver themselves up to a large record company.

Instead, they worked on their musicianship, built their repertoire beyond fourteen songs and began searching for a fourth musician who would, in Weymouth’s words, “make us sound more like a band and take some of the pressure off of David.” After finding Harrison, they signed a deal with Sire – “a small, independent company that’ll always take your calls,” says Byrne – and in mid-September released an album, Talking Heads ’77.

Although the album has been received with excitement, it can’t possibly be as rousing as what 150 people witnessed at Beefsteak Charlie’s on a rainy night the week of the Chinese A-test. Having not seen the band in more than a year, I had almost forgotten how incredible David Byrne is onstage.

Everything about him is uncool: his socks and shoes, his body language, his self-conscious announcements of song titles, the way he wiggles his hips when he’s carried away onstage (imagine an out-of-it kid practicing Buddy Holly moves in front of a mirror). But it only makes you love him as you laugh at him – or at the concept he presents.

Byrne is aware of his effect but has, he says, “really no idea what I look like onstage. I know people talk about me as being a gone cat, wacko, and I guess in the context of rock & roll bands that’s valid. But if I cultivate it, I’m completely unaware. My only effort is to play well, sing the lyrics with conviction, on pitch and so they can be understood.”

Still, sitting in the audience you’re never sure whether Byrne’s persona is real or if it’s brilliant satire. Eventually, you stop wondering, because all the while he’s blasting extraordinary music at you, playing and singing with an intensity rarely seen this side of drag-queen cabaret bars and having more fun than anyone else in the room.

As I heard one suburban kid say to another between sets, “Wait’ll you see this guy.”

Michael Aron

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