Thursday 18 January 2018

One of the most influential Heads of our times...

John Meagher

John Meagher

The word 'influential' is bandied about with wearisome regularity. It is usually attached to bands who, quite frankly, have nicked all their best ideas from other people.

When it comes to Talking Heads, however, it's an adjective that's particularly appropriate. In fact, it is difficult to overstate just how influential the four-piece have have been.

They may have formally split in 1991 and their heyday was the three years either side of 1980, yet they have inspired legions of today's most talked-about acts.

A disproportionately high number of them either sound like Talking Heads clones or boast frontmen whose vocal jittery vocal style resembles that of Talking Heads' leader David Byrne. Take, for example, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - the Brooklyn quintet whose acclaimed debut album is out this week. Listen to their song Over and Over Again (Lost and Found) and you'll be absolutely convinced that it's Byrne who's singing.

Other bands, like the Arcade Fire, have taken Talking Heads' eclectic approach to music and made something truly remarkable. The Montreal group's wondrous album Funeral has clearly been inspired by Talking Heads, yet offers something completely new. David Byrne no doubt approves and last year he joined them on stage for a rendition of one of his old band's finest tunes, This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).

Local talent Bell X1 are picking up new fans after going all Talking Heads on their latest album, Flock. Radiohead called themselves after a latter Talking Heads song. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers have frequently expressed their debt to Byrne and his art-school cohorts, guitarist Jerry Harrison, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth.

This month, appreciation of Talking Heads can begin all over again as their first four albums - Talking Heads: 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light - get re-released in superduper remastered surround-sound with additional tracks and DVD content. Released in quick succession between 1977 and 1980, they're all still vital. And what a roll-call of top tunes: Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town, Psycho Killer (boasting the most memorable bass-line ever), Found A Job, Take Me to the River, Cities, Heaven, Once in a Lifetime.

Filler is kept to a minimum on each of these albums, with the Brian Eno-assisted Remain in Light perhaps the most essential acquisition of all. Eno has made a significant impact in the Talking Heads story, having produced a handful of albums, starting with More Buildings About Buildings and Food. In 1981, he and Byrne would collaborate on the pioneering sample-heavy world music album, My Life In the Bush of Ghosts.

The band's funky, bass-driven, often danceable compositions - embracing virtually all strands of popular music from CBGB's punk and art-rock to reggae and African polyrhythms - have stood the test of time very well indeed.

And then there's Byrne's nerdy, jerky vocals, high-pitched yelps and disjointed lyrics that sound like snatches of conversation from a shrink's couch.

His nervy stage presence made him one of the most charismatic frontmen of the late 1970s and early 1980s - as the celebrated Jonathan Demme-directed film of their live show, Stop Making Sense - makes abundantly clear.

Since the band's demise (the group, minus the frontman, reconvened in 1996 and released the patchy No Talking Just Head album), David Byrne has continued to release envelope-pushing material - not least 2004's slow-burning Grown Backwards, with its Verdi arias. And he can still dent the charts as Lazy - 2002's deliciously playful dancefloor workout with X-Press 2 proved. Oh, and age has not withered his live outings. A performance at the Ambassador in Dublin a few years ago still burns brightly in the memory.

Rumours persist that the band will get back together again. Their new wave Manhattan contemporaries, Blondie, are still touring, and releasing new material, after all. Yet, re-formed bands almost always sully their reputation.

Anyway, right now, we can enjoy their music vicariously through bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Bell X1 - and revel once more in the splendour of their early albums.

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