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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