"I think suburban life is something that almost any American can understand," says Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz near the beginning of The South Bank Show's 1979 episode on the band. "They might dislike or like it, but they can relate to it. It's a nice metaphor, or whatever, for modern life." That observation functions as well as any as an introduction to the band who, after having debuted as openers for the Ramones just four years earlier at CBGB, went on to build a worldwide fan base enthralled with the way their music, their performances, and even their self-presentation rendered American normality and banality new and strange.
Originally called "The Artistics," the band found its true name through a dissolution, reformation, and glance at the pages of TV Guide. "All of us could immediately relate to that name," says bassist Tina Weymouth. "We also thought it could have many connotations, the most important of which was that it had no connotation with any existing music form. It's TV, video — supposedly the most boring format." This ethos extended to the songwriting procedure of lead vocalist and guitarist David Byrne, who deliberately used language and references "that were no more interesting than normal speech and no more dramatic and yet somehow, in the song context, might become more interesting."
The result: albums like 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food. From a distance of nearly forty years, the Talking Heads of those days look a bit like pioneers of "normcore," the fashion, much discussed in recent years, of deliberately looking as aesthetically average as possible. "I'm glad we don't have to dress up in uniforms every day," says Frantz of their refusal of the dueling "punk" and "glam" modes of dress sported by so many rockers at the time. Byrne speaks of originally wanting to wear the most normal outfits possible, as determined by observing people out on the street, but it turned out that "a lot of average clothes require more upkeep than I'm willing to do. Like, they need ironing and things like that."
The idea of normcore draws its power from the contradiction at its core, and Talking Heads never feared contradiction. "We write songs that have a particular point of view, and we're not worried if the next song has the opposite point of view," says keyboard and guitar player Jerry Harrison. "We feel that people have different ideas, feel different at different times of the day as well as at different times of their life, and we don't really want to have a manifesto or, you know, an ideology." ("We've gone through so many ideologies lately," he adds.)
Despite that, Talking Heads always seemed to adhere to certain principles: "I believe a lot of those moral cliches," admits Byrne, "like 'Two wrongs don't make a right' or 'There's no free lunch' or 'If you do bad things it'll come back to you,' and all those sort of stupid things." But they never really inhabited mainstream America; culturally hyper-aware urbanites made up much of their audience, and the band members themselves — players, one says, of quintessentially "city music" — were very much denizens of pre-gentrification Manhattan. "It's stimulating to go out and see dirt everywhere and people falling over," says Byrne. "I lived out in the suburbs and had a nice place with a big lawn or whatever — although I can't afford that — if I did live somewhere like that, I would be afraid that I would get too comfortable and wouldn't work."
But work they did, so diligently and wholly without the extravagances of the rock star lifestyle that Frantz, after describing his early-to-rise lifestyle, says he sometimes considers himself "just a glorified manual laborer, and that if anybody it's the other members of the band that are that artists. Another day I'll think, wow, these people, the Talking Heads, working together — some day it's going to be remembered in music history, and I think it's a very artistic thing we're doing. I'm not trying to sound highfalutin', but this is the way I really feel sometimes."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.