A Brief History of Talking Heads: How the Band Went from Scrappy CBGB’s Punks to New Wave Superstars

We could split hairs all day. Are Talking Heads punk? Are they New Wave? Are they “art rock”? Why not all of the above. Consider their cred. Two art students, David Byrne and Chris Frantz, move to New York in the late 70 with their three-chord, two-piece band The Artistics. With minimal musical ability and no experience in the music business, they thought, said Byrne, “we’d have a serious try at a band.” Unable to recruit new members in the city, they asked Frantz’s girlfriend, fellow art student Tina Weymouth, who did not play bass, to be their bassist. Soon enough, they’re playing their first show as Talking Heads at CBGB’s in 1975, opening for the Ramones and Television.

What could be more of a prototypically punk origin story? But then there’s the evolution of Talking Heads from jangly, nervous art rockers to confident re-interpreters of funk, disco, and polyrhythmic Afrobeat in their 80s New Wave epics. Their ability to absorb so many influences from outside of punk’s narrow repertoire made them one of the best live bands of the decade, and Frantz and Weymouth one of the most formidable rhythm sections in modern rock. Their experiments with Brian Eno, Adrian Belew, and Robert Fripp lent them a progressive edge that made Remain in Light an unlikely New Wave classic among Phish fans; they made one of the most beloved concert films of all time with Jonathan Demme in 1984….

How did all this come about? You’ll get a very good explanation in “A Brief History of Talking Heads,” above. Suffice to say they were an instant hit, arriving in “the right place at the right time,” a still-astonished Byrne remembers years later in an interview clip. After their first gig, they appeared on the cover of The Village Voice, in a 1975 article by James Wolcott calling punk “a conservative impulse in the New Rock Underground.”

Seeing them for the first time is transfixing: Frantz is so far back on drums that it sounds as if he’s playing in the next room; Weymouth, who could pass as Suzy Quatro’s sorority sister, stands rooted to the floor, her head doing an oscillating-fan swivel; the object of her swivel is David Byrne, who has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who’s spent the last half hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk from Mars. The song titles aren’t tethered to conventionality either: “Psycho Killer” (which goes “Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce c’est? Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa”), “The Girls Want to Be With the Girls,” “Love is Like a Building on Fire,” plus a cover version of that schlock classic by ? and the Mysterians, “96 Tears.”

Wolcott would go on to identify all of the qualities that made them “such a central ‘70s band,” including Weymouth’s bass playing providing “hook as well as bottom” and the “banal facade under which run ripples of violence and squalls of frustration.” As for what they should have been called, Byrne is matter of fact, as always. “I don’t think anyone liked being called ‘punk rockers,’” he says, “even though being lumped together and having this kind of handle made it easier for us all to be thought of as a movement.”

It was a movement of bands all deciding to do their own thing in their own way, but to do it together, restoring what Wolcott called the “efficacious beauty” of rock as a “communal activity.” The critic wondered at the time whether “any of the bands who play [CBGB’s] will ever amount to anything more than a cheap evening of rock and roll?” Learn above how one of the “most intriguingly off-the-wall bands in New York” in the mid-70s exceeded the expectations of even the most devoted of early punk connoisseurs.

Related Content: 

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

Chris Frantz Breaks Down How He Crafted Songs for Talking Heads & Tom Tom Club: A Nakedly Examined Music Interview

Watch Phish Play the Entirety of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (1996)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • WW says:

    I saw them in concert, decades ago, and wanted to like them, but I couldn’t. Byrne came-off as being aloof, sanctimonious, and pretentious about his beliefs concerning “the little-people”; average folks who worry about paying the bills, and just not being hassled by people looking down their noses at them for believing what they believe.

  • IB says:

    spare us the sanctimony

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