The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
he name of its leader is David Byrne. Until 1987, when U2 and R.E.M.’s declamatory arena moves flexed the populist muscle Byrne could never manage, his band Talking Heads was the biggest alternative band in the world—back when “alternative” signified a hell of a lot more beyond gormless marketing. Two double platinum albums, not a single year in which the band didn’t place an album in year-end polls and a Time magazine cover story—all for a band whose evolution from buttoned-up preppies to gonna-see-you-sweat synthesists of Afrobeat rhythms and art-school detachment should have confounded any commercial aspirations.
It was Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense that cemented Talking Heads’ mainstream acceptance. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, which remains the band’s biggest selling album, is a bit redundant, whether in its original configuration or in 1999’s expanded edition. The music was inseparable from Demme’s sustained flowing takes, as much dependent on how textures and images interweave as the Heads’Remain in Light in 1980. The soundtrack fails because Byrne’s gonzo athleticism, otherworldly mugging, his sheer weirdness, is missing.
The 1982 The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was always the better live document; too bad not many people heard it. Out of print for at least 20 years (if you were lucky you’d find it in a good used-vinyl store), Rhino Records has reissued it with 12 previously unreleased tracks, a booklet of photos and a collection of press clippings (all of which prove how a band’s originality can make decent writers struggle for colorful adjectives). But this is no cynical cash-in; every new track adds gestalt to an album which in its original incarnation was pretty damn great to begin with. Versions of “Born Under Punches” and “Drugs” in particular disembowel the originals.
On its 1980-1981 tour, Talking Heads expanded its original quartet (singer/guitarist Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison) to include keyboardist Bernie Worrel (of Parliament fame), guitarist Adrian Belew, backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald, second bassist (!) Busta Jones, and percussionist Steve Scales. The result was glorious—as bustling, loud, funky and unhinged as Manhattan itself. Byrne especially was a revelation: the original Boy with Perpetual Nervousness reincarnated as Iggy Pop; he gave hope to every white guy who dreamed of being dorky and sinuous at the same time.
The Name of This Band… is gratifyingly looser than the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. You’ll hear this lithe10-piece trying to assimilate the polyrhythms the band and producer (and by now co-composer) Brian Eno constructed so painstakingly on Remain in Light, and it’s a little touching to discover that the parts don't always mesh (that’s the chance you take when you construct polyrhythms with Brian Eno). Byrne’s pig grunts on “Animals” and elongated vowels on “Mind” are either appropriate or mannered or both, depending on your mood; Belew’s borrowed Robert Frippisms matches him, screech for screech.
The album also vindicates Tina Weymouth, a notorious troublemaker whose run-ins with her neurotic leader have soured her contributions to this day. Two bassists in a band are like six wheels on a car: not only unnecessary, but dangerous. But Weymouth’s steady bottom on the early uptight classics “The Book I Read” and “Pulled Up” encouraged her to experiment with the looser dynamics of “I Zimbra” and “Born Under Punches.” The same goes for underrated utility man Jerry Harrison, whose lead work on “Found A Job” serves as effective counterpoint for Byrne’s chaka-chaka attack, while his synth fills on “Stay Hungry” are as eerie as intended.
Radiohead and Wilco get undeserved credit these days for “stretching the boundaries”, whatever that means. Talking Heads may have been just as pretentious, but for Byrne and his mates their nerd-pop origin wasn’t a boundary; it was a starting point, a Year Zero, from which the next 12 years were a refinement, a man shedding clothing styles until he’s comfortable. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads reminds us that there’s no shame in being white so long as you’re willing to embrace it.