The Talking Heads were one of the biggest and most influential musical groups from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, essentially a decade of mostly innovating and provocative music.
Once again, we get into labeling issues because this band mixed several genres and infused their own style. Post-punk, New Wave, indie, world music – it was all of that. The Talking Heads were contemporaries of bands like the B-52’s, Ramones, Patty Smith Group, Television, Blondie and the Velvet Underground. Members of Talking Heads played the same clubs and toured with these bands. They walked the same gritty streets of New York City and crashed the same parties when each was trying to get record deals and quit their day jobs. These were the mid 1970s, when NYC was a hotbed of raw, loud frenetic music, and not so underground anymore.
Chris Frantz was authored an interesting look inside this scene and his career in music. The drummer and co-founder of Talking Heads, Frantz’s Remain in Love (2022, St. Martin’s Press) is his story of the Heads and his love for bandmate Tina Weymouth. I stumbled across this book by accident, but it fit into the period of music I’ve been writing about lately, the post-punk, New Wave era. Past blogs have covered R.E.M. U2 and The Police, with Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry coming up.
I was a Talking Heads fan early on as their sound quickly grew from a basic post-punk, stripped-down groove into creative textures and a heavily influenced World Music soundscape of beats and synth-rhythms. Remain in Light (1980) was the band’s creative apex, its a masterpiece of funk, ambient pulses and quirky rhythms.
The following albums were more variations on their previous creativity, not necessarily new strides. There was a nod toward a commercial sound and more David Byrne in the spotlight. Byrne was the primary rhythm guitarist and vocalist, and the one who forced disbanding Talking Heads, and resisting any reunion, according to Frantz and Weymouth.
The description of Byrne in Frantz’s book is less than positive, although the book is Frantz’s story, not Byrne’s. What comes out early in the band’s history is what began mostly as a group effort, soon became Byrne and the others. Byrne insisted on being the only lyricist because he couldn’t relate to words written by someone else. This was before they had even recorded an album. Frantz writes that songwriting credits are a continuous disagreement, with Byrne taking the lion’s share of credit for band compositions. Had I been Frantz, songwriter credits would have been settled straightaway. He never explains his reluctance to engage Byrne legally.
Frantz address the growing riff with Byrne early in the book and his approach to relating it in the context of pertinent events, not to focus on it as a means to create drama for book sales. He certainly could focused more on the battle with Byrne, but he chose not to, giving enough to show the fracture that ultimately brought the band to an end.
“I tried to keep it the way I felt, which is that Talking Heads was a wonderful band,” Frantz said in an interview. “Yes, not everything went according to plan unfortunately, but some of the records we made together were great and we can look back on them and be proud.”
“She (Tina) was concerned about David’s behavior. It seemed Ike the more successful Talking Heads became, the more cold and dyspeptic David became. He was never a great personal communicator, so if you asked him if everything was okay he would just clam up and pout.”
Frantz met Weymouth at the Rhode Island School of Design. Byrne at one time was a student there too. Jerry Harrison joined during the recording of the first album. Frantz and Weymouth were seeing other people at the time, but the chemistry between them slowly drew them together. He invited her to be in the band he wanted to form, and learned to play the bass. In the early 1970s, there were a few female vocalists in rock, but few were primarily musicians. Weymouth had a formidable challenge to be accepted, even in her own band. Managers, promoters and producers were slow to treat women as capable or equal. Frantz relates some of Weymouth’s journey, but he respectfully does not try to tell it for her.
Frantz recounts the early tours, Europe with the Ramones, then after the first album, Europe with XTC and Dire Straits. These were not the huge, first-class travels, these were budget and daily per diem tours with lots of driving, austere accommodations and wide-eyed views of the world. These were incredible times, Frantz and Weymouth would drink it in, not believing their good fortune.
Brian Eno, who was at the start of his tremendous producing career (after working with Bowie), came aboard to helm their second album and would stay for several more, helping to create Talking Heads’ unique otherworldly sound. Frantz describes the creative process of building grooves and soundscapes, a different approach to recording songs. The group added musicians like Bernie Worrell (Parliament Funkadelic) and Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Bowie) in the studio. The result, Remain in Light, elevated the Talking Heads’ game. The resulting tour required additional musicians and vocalists to stage, an expensive undertaking, so The Name of the Band is Talking Heads (1982), a two-disc live recording was released. The songs with the enlarged band is the best part of the recording, it’s full and funky, and even improves on the swagger of the studio version. I still own my vinyl copy.
Given the Byrne and Harrison planned solo albums, Frantz and Weymouth managed to interest Chris Blackwell in a new project of theirs. Making their base Blackwell’s Compass Point studio in the Bahamas, the Tom Tom Club was born. The resulting album, The Tom Tom Club was the first gold record any member of Talking Heads had received.
After the success of Remain in Light, the creative and personality differences magnified. Speaking in Tongues arrived three years later and it’s lighter, brighter tone seemed in sync with New Wave audiences. “Burning Down the House” became their only top ten single. The goofy, playful vibe of the album resulted in commercial success. Eno had already moved on. Little Creatures was a change in styles, I’ve heard it described as Americana, and it seemed well-accepted. True Stories was the soundtrack to Byrnes’ film. The band was there to assist. Naked was more of a return to their Remain in Light World Music and hypnotic grooves. The band didn’t record together as a quartet again.
Frantz’s book is an entertaining trip through the 1970s and 1980s musical scene. Talking Heads were part of the surging wave of musicians who bypassed the conventional music establishment and pipeline to success. Whatever you called their music, they appealed to a younger generation who connected to their music more viscerally, and wanted a looser structure and less polish. Ironically, Talking Heads through their success, became the target. They were torn by side projects, lost their forward momentum as a band. They were still successful after Remain in Light, but their time was slipping away. Music does not stand still, blink and someone new is at the top of the chart and is the music flavor of the moment.
MTV was the force that kept music changing. Today it’s social media and internet platforms that drive popularity and changing sounds.
Back to Frantz’s book, his journey is told like wide-eyed kid at the circus. It’s a fun read. Although it’s a musical story, it’s really a love story between Frantz and Weymouth, who survived and thrived, together.