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Talking Heads

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 19, 2014
Category: Rock

A post-it note: Listen to Talking Heads!

I never do.

And this is dumb, because of all the bands that made New York home base in the late 1970s and 1980s, they’re my favorite. Yours, too, perhaps, if you can remember that wonderful blend of art school attitude, a distinctive dance beat, and lyrics wrenched from everyday American life, then twisted into taut, blank, surrealist absurdity. The New York Times described what the Heads did as “intelligent music for a mass audience.” If you’ve ever tried to produce smart anything for a mass audience, you know it’s easier to pass Donald Trump’s ego through the eye of a needle.

And these were these preppy white kids.

Let’s look at two videos. First, the great Al Green, singing one of his big hits, “Take Me to the River.”

Next, the Talking Heads do their version.

Taking nothing away from Green, but did you not find your feet moving more to the Heads?

And yet we tend not to think of Talking Heads as a party band. Their music is a dizzying blend of funk, minimalism, African and Brazilian music that both sounds familiar and disconcerting. Their stagecraft plays with your head — remember Byrne in the “big suit?” And their lyrics, though ironic, are also mega-serious.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now

Transmit the message, to the receiver
hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, a couple of visas
you don’t even know my real name

High on a hillside, the trucks are loading,
everything’s ready to roll
I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nightime
I might not ever get home.

“The Best of Talking Heads” will cure you of whatever resistance you have to this group. There are other compilations — I’m sparing you the one that costs $30 — but this, with 18 songs going for $7.38, is reasonably definitive.  [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here]

“The Best of Talking Heads” has an exceptionally high ratio of winners to filler. Like:

The band took its name from a term used by TV producers to describe a head-and-shoulder shot. The “talent” sits behind a desk, not moving, just talking: “all content, no action.”

It’s just this kind of wit that marked the decade-and-a-half of this group. Very contemporary wit, don’t you think? And while you’re at it, don’t you think this music has nothing to do with nostalgia? I mean, if these songs we released today, we’d pretty much go nuts for them.