“Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” says gangster Nick “Pretty Boy” Romano in the 1949 Humphrey Bogart crime drama Knock on Any Door, and as bands go, Talking Heads recording career is the embodiment of that notion. From 1977 to 1988, Talking Heads – David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison – made few artistic mistakes and by the time they ultimately announced their breakup in 1991, they had left behind a back catalogue of seven studio albums, plus various live and solo recordings, that not only defined their era but influenced the next generation in a way that only a true “source band” can.
From their primitive, minimalist approach on early independent single “Love → Building on Fire,” and their subsequent landmark debut album, ‘77, this band of art school chums steadily developed a sculptural approach to studio craft that further flourished when they met producer and likeminded conceptualist Brian Eno. Eno and Talking Heads together created a trio of fresh and inventive records, beginning with More Songs About Buildings and Food in 1978,
They continued with Fear Of Music in 1979…
…until finally the record that would bend the river of popular music, Remain In Light in 1980.
With funk, afrobeat and open ended song structures now supplanting their initially Velvet Underground-ish rock band beginnings, the band had turned a corner and it seemed that they had a choice to make about how far they could next take it. As Byrne and Eno would demonstrate on their side project My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Talking Heads, while experimental for a pop group, were less happy about purely esoteric wanderings.
They shed Eno for on their next records, Speaking In Tongues (1983), Little Creatures (1985) and True Stories (1986), the latter an accompaniment to Byrne’s foray into feature film.
Having done almost everything they had set about to do, the band made one more studio album in 1988, but far from going out with a whimper, Naked, co-produced in Paris with Steve Lillywhite was as good as anything they had achieved in the previous eleven years.
In 1991, Byrne, Harrison Frantz and Weymouth went their separate ways – Byrne as the Andy Warhol of his generation and a leading proponent of worldbeat, Harrison as a successful record producer in his own right while married couple Frantz and Weymouth with the wildly successful dance project, Tom Tom Club and productions with Happy Mondays and others – replete in the knowledge that they had indeed left behind a beautiful collection of recordings.
One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we do tend to judge a band by its box set, and Talking Heads Brick compilation, released in 2005, makes a strong case for a band whose journey through sound represents a once in a lifetime event, and quite a story in itself.