Talking Heads Featured on The South Bank Show in 1979: How the Groundbreaking New Wave Band Made Normality Strange Again

“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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Watch Talk­ing Heads Play Live in Dort­mund, Ger­many Dur­ing Their Hey­day (1980)

Watch Talk­ing Heads Play a Vin­tage Con­cert in Syra­cuse (1978)

Hear the Ear­li­est Known Talk­ing Heads Record­ings (1975)

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

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

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.

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  • Ted Mills says:

    One of the stand­out scenes in this doc is the only footage, that I know of, of “Tina and Chris’ Loft” as cred­it­ed in the lin­er notes of Fear of Music. Hav­ing grown up with that album I had many images of what that loft must have looked like, as many of the tracks were record­ed there. (In my head it was very dark and dingy, like a grimy Sid­ney Lumet film.) Instead it turns out to be this very sun­ny place.

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