Feature

Road To Nowhere

If ever a pop group was destined to be boxed for posterity, it's Talking Heads. It's no surprise that Once In A Lifetime arrives spiffed up in hardback, warm with the words of novelists and academics, and augmented by DVD like some handsome Upper East Side gallery catalogue. Greil Marcus once wrote, disapprovingly, that in New York "most punks seemed to be auditioning for careers as something else". Talking Heads, néThe Artistics, may well be who he had in mind.

It's odd to think of the early Talking Heads as part of this scene—these neat-freaky art students playing bubblegum jitterfunk. Odder still to think that, of all the oddballs who rolled up on the stage of CBGB's, this was the band who would ride the new wave all the way from East Village in-joke to MTV spectacle, from metropolitan neurosis to fourth-world funk, from the modern to the postmodern.

The Once In A Lifetime box set tells the story through 54 tracks and 13 videos, from the 1976 demo "Sugar On My Tongue" to "Sax And Violins", composed for Wim Wenders' 1991 Until The End Of The World. Speed through it all on fast forward—in the style of that time-lapse life-story from the video for Road To Nowhere—and you see a nervy, art-damaged garage band magically blossom into a cosmic avant-funk troupe, dance across the screens of the world as a multimedia art project, and finally dissolve in acrimony.

Disc one showcases Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings And Food. Had they stalled at this stage they might have been no more than a footnote, the missing link between Jonathan Richman and Devo: post-Modern Lovers remembered for "Psycho Killer", Byrne's Hitchcock-eyed idea of an Alice Cooper song. Talking Heads in '77 were an efficient three-piece, tightened by relentless rehearsal, figuring out how to best incorporate Jerry Harrison. But they had already hit on a distinctively brittle garage-funk, setting them apart from the gabba-gabba-hey of the day. Above all, there was David Byrne. If Richman was a charming idiot-savant, Byrne seemed genuinely schizo. Even at his most chipper—on debut single "Love › Building On Fire"—he could sing of his "two loves"that go "tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, like little birds", but...these loves are his face, which is a building, which is on fire.

When Brian Eno attended the band's first London gig in 1977 and fell in love at first sight, he began one of the great troubled romances in pop history. If the first album had been aimed at Top 40 radio, Eno, drafted in for 1978's More Songs..., allowed the band room to breathe—to best effect on Al Green's "Take Me To The River", where the space in the original Willie Mitchell production is warped through an aquatic dream of dub.

The romance (with Eno playing both George Martin and Yoko Ono) flourished across two records—Fear Of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980)—which remain unsurpassed in post-punk pop. They deserve to be heard in full, ideally in a fantasy box set along with Bowie's Lodger and Eno and Byrne's maverick My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. "Cities" and "Drugs" revisit the neuroses of the early records, but "I Zimbra"and "Life During Wartime"mark a real advance. Spurred by Eno, the band were composing for the first time in the studio, fired up by new possibilities. "This ain't no Mudd Club or CBGB's"sings Byrne with survivalist urgency on "Life During Wartime", closing one chapter. "I Zimbra", meanwhile, is the beginning of a new story, the marriage of Dadaist poetry and the newly Eno-ised Heads, opening irresistible vistas of adventure. So irresistible, in fact, that Byrne and Eno set out for the territory themselves, bringing back My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.

By the time of Remain In Light, it seemed that Talking Heads might simply become the backing band for the producer and singer. But, despite fractious group relations—credits were keenly contested—the record was a triumph. Building on their innovations and discoveries, layering rhythmic loops and multi-tracking vocal lines, the group stewed up a dense, uncanny, sci-fi world music. Remarkably for songs over 20 years old, "Born Under Punches", "Crosseyed And Painless" and "Once In A Lifetime"still sound like they are being broadcast back to us from some voodoo World Service of the future.

Emboldened by their achievement, the band entered their imperial phase. Realising the futility of performing the songs as a four-piece, they mutated into an expanded Heads, a kind of post-punk Funkadelic incorporating Bernie Worrell, Nona Hendryx, Busta Jones and Adrian Belew, the line-up that recorded live album Stop Making Sense. By 1983, with Speaking In Tongues and the crossover success of "Burning Down The House", they were, weirdly, a bona fide pop group. The hit was largely thanks to the dawning of the age of MTV, and you can't help but conclude that this success led the group astray.

As if bearing out Marcus' dismissal, Byrne's multimedia ambitions in the '80s—from theatre to film to modern dance—garnered the acclaim of Time but dissipated the group's energy. The third disc in this set, covering Little Creatures, True Stories and Naked (also documented on the accompanying DVD), shows a remarkable decline. The videos were innovative (though few have aged well—it's hard not to provide your own Butthead commentary), but the songs are blankly ironic genre pastiches, addressing issues with some wit but little mystery. "Love For Sale" may be the ugliest hit record of the '80s—no mean feat. These songs cemented Byrne as a kind of Mr Bean of postmodernism in the popular imagination, and sadly still seem to obscure the group's real achievements. At a time when all things punky or funky with an NY zip code are the peak of chic, Talking Heads ought to be lauded as authentic pioneers. That they're not is our loss as well as theirs.


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Very taken with Africa Express' version of "In C", by Terry Riley, this week. I have a few takes on the piece (50 years old this month, incidentally), the latest being one by Portishead's Adrian Utley from a couple of years back, though I still probably default to what I think is the original...