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Talking Heads - More Songs About Buildings and Food CD (album) cover


Talking Heads


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3.84 | 144 ratings

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4 stars Burying the Hatchet in a Severed Head

'I was a peculiar young man, borderline Asperger's, I would guess' (David Byrne)

I used to have a recurring dream where I was trapped in a phone booth with someone who looked uncannily similar to David Byrne from the Once in a Lifetime video. What expensive Freudian analysis would have made of my repeated pleas for Dumbarton's most celebrated son to stop punching Tina's buttons ! is anyone's guess. (My ex-wife is called Tina for any Prog loving psychiatrists out there but has never been to the abattoir of mirth that is Dumbarton in Scotland) Byrne left the 'wee country' when he was just 2 years old and I think we can safely dismiss that tenuous claim of his lineage being Scottish as flimsy at best. He remains a British citizen on paper still, but has an American upbringing and cultural vantage point unequivocally from that of Uncle Sam's roomy yet precarious lap. We were puzzled by the Talking Heads in the UK when they appeared. The hateful NME luvvies described them as 'Noo wave R'US' for which we translated as 'Punk with fries' but found none of the bludgeoning aggression or buzz-saw rhetoric that animated the cartoon genre from our side of the pond. These critters were erm.... articulate and sensitive without a trace of PVC, solvent abuse or diaper fasteners to be seen. Like Television and Patti Smith they had a bohemian artistic bent that the likes of the UK Subs, the Clash and the Vibrators distinctly lacked. Being but spotty callow youths we naturally concurred those from CBGB's gave us the heebie-geebies and dismissed stateside new wave as slumming hippy apostates who had dropped out of college but remained in the barber's chair. Shame really, as we missed out on some of the finest music to escape from the arse-end of one of the most dyspeptic decades in cultural history. (Burp...pardon)

This is brilliantly off kilter but plain vanilla rawk that despite the vaulted ambition of the honcho 'Head' is never allowed to lapse into conceptual art-wank. Byrne is protected from this fate rather paradoxically by the limitations of his collaborators i.e. Chris Frantz was a drum machine before there were drum machines and Tina Weymouth thinks and plays bass like a contrapuntal soul reeds-man. (She also appears to have a mild intonation problem in the upper mid range of her chosen Hofner axe, but that might just be my ears playing up) All of this really ain't a bad thing as it can't be an accident that when the husband and wife rhythm section became increasingly marginalised during the 'world music' phase of Talking Heads, David's song-writing retreated behind a mask of inane ethnic contraband. Harrison was recruited from the Modern Lovers and his contribution to the textural consistency of much of this material cannot be overstated. His guitar and keys are always unobtrusive but help put some flesh on the skeletal songs and soften those jagged edges that came across as 'disjointed amateurism' rather than the intended 'edgy' from the debut album.

If there is one thing that the American psyche seems to lack, it's an appreciation and utilisation of irony as an artistic device. David Byrne bucks that trend in spades on most of the early Head's output (see Don't Worry About the Government for one of the most inspired instances of its use) There is a subtle and stealthy irony throughout More Songs About Buildings and Food that always struck me as one the main reasons this band were viewed with such cautious enthusiasm by the rank and file anti-establishment. The latter want to smash the system Man, the Talking Heads advised us you ARE the system Man.

The Byrne voice is a remarkable phenomenon to be sure being alternately: neurotic falsetto, Linda Blair baritone or whining nerd excoriating the jocks for their tormenting as if his bruised tonsils roamed a huge cranium on giant crutches with eyes on stalks. He sounds skinny, in the same way Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith's art is borderline bulimic or like the dweeb bookish loner, almost paralysed with shyness who bought a subscription to Charles Atlas with the sole intention thereafter, of beating up Charles Atlas. Even Byrne's love affairs are conducted in a white lab coat and clipboard to hand:

Stay Hungry, move a muscle, pull it tighter, make a motion, double beating, palpitation, stay hungry

The mood on the Big Country is a carefully and ingeniously crafted juxtaposition of ironic affection and dispassionate loathing but couched in a vocal that is perhaps the most overtly sincere on the album:

I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean I guess those people have fun with their neighbours and friends Look at that kitchen and all that food, look at them eat it I guess it tastes real good I wouldn't live there if you paid me, I wouldn't live like that no Sir-ee I wouldn't do the things the way those people do, I wouldn't live there if you paid me

The fact that Byrne does live there and is afforded this objectivity from his fleeting vantage point (from an aeroplane) merely serves to heighten both the desperation and frustration imbued in a disaffection with consumerism and 'mall mentality' which pains him to acknowledge he is a product of. The chord progression used here is the same as that of As Tears Go By but slowed right down to a sleepy Nashville slope utilising prairie slide 'geetar' and all manner of other sly American cultural audio clues embedded in a very cinematic sound picture.

That Byrne is keenly aware of his public persona as being the 'thinking man's' madman is manifest in Warning Sign where I suspect he betrays his guilt at feeling secure behind the mask but fears being trapped forever in the same role like a method actor with amnesia:

Warning Sign, warning sign, I hear it but I pay no mind Hear my voice, hear my voice it's saying something and it's not very nice pay attention pay attention I'm talking to you and I hope you're concentrating I've got money now, I've got money now, c'mon baby, c'mon baby

For me this is a band at their creative and emotional peak. After Fear of Music the internal harmony between the Heads shrunk in direct inverse proportion to the groups global sales figures. Weymouth and Byrne were often dubbed 'the loggerHeads' and you suspect that the squabbling partners stayed together to avoid imparting lasting psychological damage on 'the kids' a.k.a. their lucrative back catalogue. Even by the standards of Rock's many bitter partings of the ways, the Talking Heads split was perhaps even more acrimonious than most as illustrated by Tina's look back in anger:

'a man (Byrne) incapable of returning friendship'. (ouch) 'Cutting off attachments when a thing/person is perceived to have served its purpose or there is a perceived threat to ego is the lifelong pattern of his (Byrne's) relations' (ouch x 2) 'It's not about nice with David. He's a very controlling person, and it wasn't until our third record, Fear of Music, that I just said, "David, leave me alone. Please!" I never minded what Chris would tell me, because even though he could make me mad as hell, we could communicate and work it out. But with David it's all or nothing, total aggression or total meekness. So I always tried to act like a very gentle older sister with him. I could yell at Chris, but I could never yell at David. I often kept Chris from punching David, which I now regret because I think David could have used a good spanking' (seconds out)

Although the foregoing remarks were made against the backdrop of litigation being served by Byrne on his remaining band-mates which forbade them from touring and recording as 'the Heads', it does seem readily apparent that David often gave cause to be viewed by those closest to him as an incredibly driven, stubborn, cold and autocratic artist:

Pretty Soon now I will be bitter (You can't see it till it's finished) I don't have to prove that I am creative, all my pictures are confused and now I'm going to take me to you

For the sake of balance here it should be borne in mind that neither Weymouth or Frantz are exactly 'squeaky clean' either as Adrian Belew, uncredited and unpaid for songs that appeared on the Tom Tom Club's debut album, will testify (or rather won't - to their unacknowledged relief he chose not to pursue legal action)

There is scarcely any filler or weak tracks on this enduring album and it's hard to imagine post-punk without the significant contribution of the Talking Heads. Their prescient influence can be discerned in XTC, Magazine, Devo, Wall of Voodoo and even further into the future with the likes of the Pixies.

Yeah but is it 'Proggy' matey?

Not strictly no, but when Byrne's menu still had a healthy selection of art-rock on a bed of R'n'B sourced dance music to choose from, it was one of the best places to eat in town (before the waiters started to outnumber the diners that is: see Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues)

ExittheLemming | 4/5 |


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