Talking Heads - Chronology
“David Byrne, all neurasthenic nettles pointing inward. He looked like someone who’d just OD’d on Dramadine – all cold sweat clammy and nerve net exoskeleton… just looked like some nut just holidayed from the ward with a fresh pocket of Thorazine, that’s all. There was something gentle, shy, reflective and giving about his hideous old psychosocial gangrene.”
That’s Lester Bangs, in full flow, recalling the first time he saw Talking Heads live, around 1976, in a rambling, sometimes flashing essay written in 1979 as a review of the Fear Of Music album, but only published for the first time now, as accompaniment to this superbly conceived DVD.
In fact, given Talking Heads’ particular concern for objects, the things we surround ourselves with and get surrounded by – buildings, food, electric guitars, lampstands, paper – it’s worth mentioning the packaging here. The DVD case itself is a little hardback book (the feel of the cover brings on instant sense memories of Ladybirds), with Bangs’s piece spilling across 20 pages or so, illustrated with rare photographs, facsimiles of old fliers, and the original hand-scribbled lyrics to holy texts like “Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Heaven”. Simply put, even before you remove the DVD, it’s a nice thing.
When you play the disc, it just gets better. Chronology is an aptly named collection, gathering up snapshot fragments of live footage to collage together a portrait of the band that works on a couple of levels. Taken individually, each performance here is an exquisite timecapsule of the version of Talking Heads that existed at a certain moment: say in 1975, as captured on warm, intimate, black-and-white video tape, when they were still this lean, unsmiling, drivingly awkward anti-rock three-piece, huddling close on CBGB’s’ surprisingly clean stage, looking and sounding like the wide-eyed, herky-jerky children of Anthony Perkins and The Modern Lovers (Of this period, in the accompanying commentary, Tina Weymouth recalls Dictators singer Handsome Dick Manitoba asking them: “What are ya, a buncha lesbians?”).
Taken as a whole, meanwhile, these 17 performance clips, spanning 1975-83, when Talking Heads did their Beatles thing and stopped touring, offer a compact summary of the incredible, unlikely (though, in retrospect, it keeps making sense) evolution the group went through: mutating from a compact wire-thin, (nerve-) jangling and very white NYC artrock combo, to that full, world-roaming, weird-dancing rhythm monster of the early-80s, when Fear Of Music and Remain In Light delivered odd, ominous, fractured news you couldn’t quite understand but couldn’t stop moving to, laying down challenges for pop that were never really picked up.
Chronology does a valuable job in unearthing Talking Heads as a ceaselessly brilliant live band. This might seem an odd thing to say, when one of their most famous artifacts, Stop Making Sense, is a contender for the best concert film of all time. But that was a carefully designed, directed and edited movie, and by the time it was released, the band had given up playing live, almost disappearing from view behind the famous videos of the Little Creatures era.
The performances here, drawn from early VHS recordings by fans and venues, from TV shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test and Saturday Night Live, have little flash. No big suits or stop-motion. It’s just the facts, drenched in sweat: how intensely tight the original trio were; how Weymouth and Frantz found it impossible to do anything but the right thing at the right moment; how chopped and vicious Byrne’s guitar was back then; how just insanely correct the original 1980 “big-band” Talking Heads sounded when Adrian Belew’s noise was added to the mix. The disc ends with a poignant flash-forward to grey hair and 2002, when the group briefly got back together to play for their induction to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, sadly as close to a reunion as we’re ever likely to see.
If there’s one quibble, it’s that the clips leave you hungry to see the full performances they were culled from. Complete recordings certainly exist; different songs from some of these same concerts were previously used as the DVD extras on the 2006 Talking Heads album remasters; meanwhile, bootlegs videos are in circulation. But that’s beside the point: Chronology does what it sets out to do beautifully, and then some, psychosocial gangrene and all.
EXTRAS: All four heads – David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison – assemble for a highly worthwhile commentary, full of stuff about old days at CBGBs and dental work. There’s also a 1978 video interview with Byrne. Best of all, though, is the entire 1979 South Bank Show special on the band, an excellent, impressionistic cut-up profile that’s worth the price of admission itself.
Rating: 10 / 10