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Talking Heads Biography

Last updated: 07/18/2012 12:00:00 PM

Talking Heads was a band of smart, self-conscious white musicians intrigued by the rhythms and spirit of black music. They drew on funk, classical minimalism, and African rock to create some of the most adventurous, original, and danceable music to emerge from new wave - a movement Talking Heads outlasted and transcended in their accomplishment and influence.

David Byrne and Chris Frantz met at the Rhode Island School of Design, where they were part of a quintet called, variously, the Artistics and the Autistics. With Tina Weymouth, Frantz’s girlfriend, they shared an apartment in New York and formed Talking Heads as a trio in 1975; they played their first shows at CBGB that June. Their music was never conventional punk rock; it was more delicate and contrapuntal, and their early sets included covers of the ’60s bubblegum group the 1910 Fruitgum Company. Jerry Harrison, a Harvard alumnus who had been a Modern Lover with Jonathan Richman until 1974 and had also backed singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy, completed the band in 1977.

Talking Heads toured Europe with the Ramones before recording their first album, and once it was released they began constant touring of the U.S. and Europe. Their first album contained “Psycho Killer,” which typecast them as eccentrics, an impression confirmed by Byrne’s nervous, wild-eyed stage presence. The album reached the Top 100, and every subsequent album reached the U.S. Top 40.

With More Songs About Buildings and Food, Talking Heads began a four-year relationship with producer Brian Eno, an experimentalist who toyed with electronically altered sounds and shared their growing interest in Arabian and African music. More Songs included a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” which was the band’s first hit (#26, 1978). Fear of Music (#21, 1979) was a denser, more ominous record, but its followup, Remain in Light (#19, 1980), was an almost complete shift in tone. It used rhythm tracks improvised by Eno and the band in the studio that were layered with vocals and solos, a mixture of African communalism and Western technology (an approach signaled by “I Zimbra,” the opening track on Fear of Music).

After Remain in Light, Talking Heads toured the world with an expanded band: keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic, guitarist Adrian Belew (who had played with Frank Zappa and David Bowie), bassist Busta Cherry Jones, percussionist Steven Scales, and singers Nona Hendryx (formerly of Labelle) and Dollette McDonald.

Band members then turned to solo projects. Byrne has explored electronics, performance art, and world music, and scored music for films and the stage. Harrison made The Red and the Black; and Frantz and Weymouth recorded as the Tom Tom Club, scoring a major disco hit with “Genius of Love,” which made the album go platinum. In 1982 the Heads ended their association with Eno; they released a compilation of live performances by all versions of the band and toured the U.S. and Europe as an eight-piece group.

Speaking in Tongues, the first album of new Heads songs in three years, was released in 1983. (A limited edition release of 50,000 copies featured a complex cover designed by artist Robert Rauschenberg. Subsequent copies boasted a simpler design by Byrne.) It was their highest-charting album ever (#15, 1983) and yielded their biggest hit single, “Burning Down the House” (#9, 1983), which was also featured in an eye-catching video that MTV had in heavy rotation. They toured with an expanded band including Alex Weir, a guitarist with the Brothers Johnson. The tour was documented in the acclaimed movie Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme. The soundtrack (#41, 1984) spent nearly two years on the pop albums chart.

The Heads returned to their core lineup, and simpler song forms, on Little Creatures (#20, 1985), which included the Cajun-flavored single “Road to Nowhere” and “Stay Up Late,” a sardonic commentary on parenting (which Frantz and Weymouth, by then married, were doing). That album, like its predecessor, went platinum (the only two to do so). In 1986 Byrne directed the feature film True Stories (#17), a seemingly sincere look at small-town American eccentrics; the soundtrack album, on which Talking Heads performed straightforward versions of songs sung by various characters in the film, yielded a hit single in “Wild Wild Life” (#25, 1986).

Naked (#19, 1988), produced in Paris by Steve Lillywhite (U2, Simple Minds) and reggae/world-beat keyboardist/producer Wally Badarou, featured guest performances by assorted African and Caribbean musicians living in Paris. After producing the hit album Conscious Party for Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Weymouth and Frantz got Byrne, Harrison, and Lou Reed to guest on Tom Tom Club’s Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, for a version of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” In 1990 Tom Tom Club and Harrison’s band Casual Gods (which included Alex Weir) toured the U.S. with the Ramones and Blondie singer Deborah Harry.

The long-rumored dissolution of Talking Heads was made official, sort of, in December 1991, when Byrne told the Los Angeles Times the band was finished. A month later Harrison, Weymouth, and Frantz issued a statement of their disappointment, adding that “Talking Heads was a great band.” The band’s final four new tracks were released as part of the Popular Favorites box-set retrospective.

In 1996 Byrne, citing “wrongful use,” filed a lawsuit against the members of his former band and Radioactive Records head and former Talking Heads manager Gary Kurfirst to halt the release of a new, Byrne-less album, No Talking Just Head, and to prevent the musicians’ use of the name “Heads” for a tour. The suit was settled out of court, and plans for both album - with a variety of guest vocalists including XTC’s Andy Partridge and former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee - and tour proceeded. All four original members did manage to reteam in 1999 for the release of a 15th-anniversary edition of Stop Making Sense (which coincided with the film’s release on DVD and a brief theatrical run). And in 2000 the Tom Tom Club was back with a new album, The Good the Bad and the Funky, which featured covers of tunes by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Donna Summer.

from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)