This is a poster for a Los Angeles-area show I did not see. But I did get the poster.

An entry on Metafilter about the movie Stop Making Sense led to one thing after another and before I knew it I was wasting time last night watching YouTube clips of a Talking Heads concert recorded in Rome back in 1980. Inspired, I put More Songs About Buildings and Food back on the iPod and listened to the entire album as I walked this morning. It got my blood moving.

1980! That was, unless I miss my guess, 31 years ago. Thirty-one years! Maybe time is after us after all. Count back 31 years before the band played that Rome  concert and we reach the year 1949—and that means that today we are as far removed from the Heads in Rome as they were from Frankie Lane hitting the charts with “Mule Train.” Sinatra had yet to team with Nelson Riddle and there was no such thing as Beatles—in fact, there was no rock and roll yet. Music sure did change over those years and the rest of the world along with it.

I didn’t see Talking Heads until 1982. I saw them a total of three times—once at the Greek Theater in Hollywood, a second time on the same tour at the Hollywood Palladium, and once at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine. All of the performances were memorable and the ones at the Greek and in Portland were downright transcendent. They gave me a feeling that must feel something like religious ecstasy. The two Hollywood performances were in support of the live album, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. When I saw them in Portland it was in support of Speaking in Tongues, the same tour that Jonathan Demme captured on film for Stop Making Sense. I have to say, though, that the 1980 performance looks like it was just as good and maybe even better. They had Adrian Belew on guitar for that one, plus a crack band that included Dolette McDonald on vocals, Steve Scales on percussion and Buster Jones on bass (plus the core of David Byrne,Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth). Someone should release the whole thing on DVD.

Once I began YouTubing the night away I also watched an early performance of the core four doing “Psycho Killer” on a British TV show, probably around 1978 or 1979. That’s back when they wore polo shirts and looked like slightly off-kilter preppies (and when Tina Weymouth could have passed for a boy). Byrne looking like he was singing something autobiographical. He looked intense, like someone who may have really believed his bed was on fire.

It’s a little hard to believe, though, that a mere two years separated that performance from the one in Rome. The great joy of Talking Heads was the way the band gradually threw off the appearance of buttoned-down repression and surrendered to their inner funk. From the start they had been danceable in their spiky, new-wavish way, even when the guitar parts sounded like Morse code and Byrne displayed all the coordination of an alien just getting accustomed to its host body. I always liked the fact that they titled one of their albums Speaking in Tongues because in effect that’s what they began to do. Once the band embraced the joy of rhythm, expanded, and began creating their own brand of intellectual dance music, it was as though they had become possessed—musical Pentecostals. And it was better for them that they began speaking in tongues instead of handling rattlesnakes.

One other great thing about Talking Heads—something many people don’t seem to notice—is their sense of humor. They are a funny band in a deadpan, “are they kidding or not” kind of way. Their name is funny. Calling an album More Songs About Buildings and Food—that’s funny. The lyrics are funny. “Don’t Worry About the Government” cracks me up every time I hear it. (“Some civil servants are just like my loved ones. They work so hard and they try to be strong.” Not a sentiment, I suspect, that would go over well in Tea Party circles.) David Byrne’s Big Suit is a stitch on film in Stop Making Sense and also when I saw it live in Portland. The vein of geeky humor that runs throughout the Talking Heads canon helps save the band from falling into the pitfall of art school pretension.

Thirty-one years! As I watched the songs from that Rome concert I got no sense that the music had dated at all. The band sounded great—big, thumping bass lines from Weymouth and Jones, high-energy rhythm from Frantz, chugging guitar underpinnings from Harrison, a great, squealing menagerie emanating from Belew’s guitar. Everyone in that band was in to form and Dolette McDonald was a revelation. What a band! What a night! I get excited just thinking about it.

Advertisements