Talking Heads’ First TV Appearance Was on American Bandstand, and It Was a Little Awkward (1979)

“I guess he’s…organically shy.”–Tina Weymouth

As Talking Heads went from CBGBs (see some vintage video) to college radio to a European tour opening for The Ramones in 1977, the band was slowly making its way out of New York City poverty while their art school rock was seeping into American culture at large. When “Take Me To the River,” their airy, nervous but still funky Eno-produced cover of the Al Green song became their first Billboard Top 30 hit, the band took a step towards national recognition.

And that leads us to this awkward March 17, 1979 appearance of the band on ABC’s American Bandstand, their first on American TV. Longtime host Dick Clark was pretty square–rock critic Nik Cohn described him as “a disc jockey who looked like an all-American choirboy”–but American Bandstand was a prime opportunity. In 1979, the New Wave and Post-Punk scenes were raging at the show’s doors. Talking Heads were one of the few acts that year from NYC’s creative cauldron of a music scene, apart from Blondie and Grace Jones, to make it onto Bandstand.

In the above clip, Clark apologizes for getting Tina Weymouth’s name wrong, then jumps in to interview David Byrne, who responds to Clark’s questions by shutting them down with embarrassed looks and matter-of-fact answers. Clark then turns back to Tina for some psychoanalytic help. “Is he always this enthusiastic?” he asks. It crumbles from there.
Weymouth remembered it slightly differently in this recent (2014) interview in New York Magazine:

I couldn’t explain to the record-label people why David’s behavior could be so incredibly odd. He had a freak-out on our first television appearance, on Dick Clark, on American Bandstand. David sort of froze, and Dick Clark sort of whirled around, and hands the microphone to me. And there were other things going on, too. I don’t think any person is one thing, or defined by a condition that they might have.

It’s not exactly freezing, but it is odd…for rock frontmen. And asking Byrne “Do you flog yourself into this?” tells you a bit more about Clark’s state of mind than anything else.

You can see the mimed performance of their hit here:

The other song they performed on the broadcast “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” has not popped up on YouTube…yet.

Parting note: The other guest that night on Bandstand was twee, blue-eyed disco act Brooklyn Dreams with their single Make It Last.

Related content:

Hear the Earliest Known Talking Heads Recordings (1975)

Talking Heads Live in Rome, 1980: The Concert Film You Haven’t Seen

Jim Jarmusch’s Anti-MTV Music Videos for Talking Heads, Neil Young, Tom Waits & Big Audio Dynamite

The Talking Heads Play CBGB, the New York Club that Shaped Their Sound (1975)

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (8)
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  • Chuck Pirtle says:

    This was not their first American TV appearance. They were on Saturday Night Live on Feb. 10, 1979, five weeks before this.

  • Steve says:

    I think I must be missing something.

  • Helen Waldron says:

    Was this really their first tv appearance? So late? Maybe it was their first live US tv appearance. I remember seeing them on British tv when I was a schoolgirl (playing Psychokiller). I’d left home by 1979 and had no access to a televion set, so couldn’t have mixed the dates.

  • Jason says:

    Talking Heads appeared (playing live) on the UK’s Old Grey Whistle test in 1978.

    Here’s Psycho Killer ….

  • Neil Bradley says:

    Psycho Killer!!!!!
    Fa fa fa fah
    Fa fa fa fa fa fahnks Jason…..

  • marcos says:

    So true about David Byrne being organically shy.

    In 1982 the Talking Heads were playing a show in Dallas, at the Bronco Bowl. Several of us Heads Heads hung out at the stage entry door in the afternoon hoping to catch a glimpse of them. We got more than that. Chris, Jerry and a very pregnant Tina came in with their instruments and stayed at the back door for like half an hour chatting with us.

    Towards the end of our audience with the three, a David Byrne who was trying very hard not to be seen slunk in, ignoring us. Several of us told him how much we enjoyed their music, he murmured a thanks and disappeared inside.

  • GuyManDood says:

    Not “mimed” at all — about as live as you can get, and not usually the way bands played when they were on American Bandstand. Almost always lip-syncing to the recording.

  • Rho says:

    The video of the song is not from the interview video appearance.

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