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Friday, January 4, 2019

Talking Heads: The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads


CD I: 1) New Feeling; 2) A Clean Break (Let's Work); 3) Don't Worry About The Government; 4) Pulled Up; 5) Psycho Killer; 6) Who Is It?; 7) The Book I Read; 8) The Big Country; 9) I'm Not In Love; 10) The Girls Want To Be With The Girls; 11) Electricity (Drugs); 12) Found A Job; 13) Mind; 14) Artists Only; 15) Stay Hungry; 16) Air; 17) Love > Building On Fire; 18) Memories (Can't Wait); 19) Heaven.
CD 2: 1) Psycho Killer; 2) Warning Sign; 3) Stay Hungry; 4) Cities; 5) I Zimbra; 6) Drugs (Electricity); 7) Once In A Lifetime; 8) Animals; 9) Houses In Motion; 10) Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On); 11) Crosseyed And Painless; 12) Life During Wartime; 13) Take Me To The River; 14) The Great Curve.

General verdict: Hard work, adventurous innovation, boundless energy, constant evolution — you know you have yourself the gold standard for live albums when you somehow manage to combine all four.

More than any other classic live album aside from, perhaps, The Whoʼs Live At Leeds, this chronological retrospective of the evolution of Talking Headsʼ live sound from 1977 to 1980 is a living monument to the benefits of the CD format. Originally released in 1982 as a (relatively) humble double LP that could have easily fitted onto a single laser disc, twenty-two years later The Name Of This Band was lovingly doubled in length, clocking in now at an impressive one hundred and fifty-six minutes and containing live versions of approximately two-thirds of the band's entire catalog up to Remain In Light — preserving the correct chronological order, and only including duplicate recordings for a small handful of tunes, many of which had evolved almost beyond recognition anyway (ʽPsycho Killerʼ).

Was this behemoth mutation necessary, or was it merely another case of archival overkill? I have no idea how to answer this objectively; all I remember from my own experience is that the very first notes of ʽNew Feelingʼ got me hooked so much that I munched through the entire 156 minutes in one sitting, and that The Name Of This Band is still one of the very few live albums from post-1975 artists for which I have a very, very special (if no longer exactly ʽnewʼ) feeling. Not only that, but it is also one of the very few live albums from post-1975 artists that might arguably be better than the respective studio records — more accurately, I think that, if I had to choose, I would have easily traded ʼ77 and More Songs for the first of these two CDs, and that the only reason why Fear Of Music and Remain In Light would have to remain is Brian Enoʼs production, some aspects of which understandably could not be recaptured on stage.

One thing that we often overlook, if not forget, about Talking Heads is that behind all the show­manship, all the weirdness and eccentricity of their art used to lie an insane amount of harsh self-discipline — it is totally not a coincidence that out of all the New Wave acts, it was the Heads that were selected by Robert Fripp, the hardest working man in progressive rock, as the role model for the Eightiesʼ reinvention of King Crimson. Their early formative years at CBGB were spent not in merely trying to find and define their artistic niche, but, perhaps even more im­portantly, in turning themselves into a perfectly churning four-headed machine of funk-pop-a-roll that could find no equals or even similars. Like, the first thing you obviously notice about David Byrne when watching the bandʼs early videos are his jerky antics — the second thing is that behind these antics, the man actually manages to be complex, precise, and super-expressive on his guitar, even when singing and dancing at the same time. Without all that grueling, exhausting disciplinary action there would be no Remain In Light — whose polyrhythmic perfection could only be achieved after years and years of training.

What is even more astonishing, though, is that the results of this training are even clearer felt on the band's live recordings than in the studio. Of course, the tracks that constitute The Name Of... were culled from a variety of shows, ranging from small gigs broadcast live in radio studios before a very small audience to much larger venues (culminating in a major performance in New Yorkʼs Central Park) — but even if we cannot guarantee that every night in the bandʼs history of live performing sounded like that, what difference does it make? All the way through, Tinaʼs bass typically sounds louder, grumblier, heavier than in the studio; Chrisʼ drums sound imbued with more energy and precision than in the studio; and the Byrne/Harrison guitar interplay seems to be locked in even more complex and well-timed grooves than in the studio. Admittedly, this might be an illusion that is primarily caused by technical aspects — differences automatically stemming from production techniques employed in different environments. But I am sure that it also has everything to do with the same old dilemma that, for instance, used to transform The Who into two absolutely different bands: one hunting for a more melodic, polished, nuanced sound in the studio, another one going for an all-out kick-ass energy ball in the concert venue.

In the New Wave era, this differentiation was largely abandoned, as one half of the new artists simply sought to reproduce their studio sound onstage as carefully as possible (which makes live albums by bands such as The Cure fairly redundant, since it was technically impossible to transfer all their studio complexities to the stage), while the other half, on the contrary, were bent on reproducing the wildness of their live shows in the studio (which is why punk rock usually works better live). Talking Heads were one of the very few new acts who remembered the old perks of having yourself a studio avatar vs. a live avatar — all the more charming for one of the most innovative / progressive acts of the decade — and this is why hearing all your old favorites in these live versions, instead of being predictably boring, ends up breathing new life in them. (For the record, I never even began to properly differentiate between all the different-but-similar numbers on More Songs before being introduced to their counterparts here).

Speaking in terms of highlights and lowlights makes no sense for an album like this, so I will just mention a couple of special moments to illustrate my general points. For one thing, the scary intro to ʽMemories (Can't Wait)ʼ is made just a bit scarier when Harrison brings in more diversity to his lead guitar countermelody, playing scragglier, jaggier, angrier chords butting against Davidʼs steady rhythm playing (for some reason, in this arrangement the songʼs main melody reminds me even more of one of Iommiʼs riffs from Black Sabbathʼs ʽWar Pigsʼ — coincidence or not, this is the main source of the creepy vibe). The slightly extended intro to ʽPsycho Killerʼ, with David and Jerry playing in different tonalities, the former doing his chunky-funky thing and the latter weaving in a bit of a blues-pop guitar melody, adds delicious tension as you wait with bated breath for them to «come together» for the main twin riff. And the crescendo coda to ʽFound A Jobʼ, with both guitar players, perfectly aware of each other's presence, laying on extra volume and intensity with every next few bars, just makes it all so much more real than the studio version, where the idea of mutual competition was nowhere near as well-pronounced.

Special mention should be made of ʽA Clean Break (Letʼs Work)ʼ, one of the bandʼs best early songs which, for some unknown reason, never made it onto any of the studio albums — a true funk-pop thunderstorm and an excellent showcase for Byrne/Harrison «guitar dialogue» tech­niques, with Byrne, as usual, providing most of the funk and Jerry compensating for this with poppy licks and occasional blues-rock explosions, all taken at top speed and seasoned with some more trademark vocal hysterics (although the song is so fun that it is hardly possible to take David's "in a minute I'll wash that love away!" close to serious).

The second disc, whose tracks were all taken from the Remain In Light tour, is a much different affair: this was the «deluxe» version of Talking Heads, the expanded ultra-special show with a grand entourage, adding backing vocalists (Nona Hendryx in particular), extra keyboard and percussion players, and, most significantly, Adrian Belew on third (or second, depending on whether Byrne was playing or clowning) guitar. This partially justifies the inclusion of alternate versions of some of the songs — the coda to ʽPsycho Killerʼ, for instance, is completely trans­formed under Adrianʼs maniacal influence as he single-handedly turns the song into ʽPsycho Arcade Game Playerʼ; but it also makes possible to render sufficient justice to all those Remain In Light masterpieces like ʽThe Great Curveʼ that would have been nowhere near as impressive without Adrian or the extra singers supplying the kaleidoscope of vocal melodies and counter­melodies. Unfortunately, the second disc is still just a tad less effective than the first one because there is less space left for improvisation and individual touches — nevertheless, Belew never plays the same solo twice, and the disclaimer is really only valid for Remain In Light material that occupies less than half of the discʼs running time. (In contrast, this live version of ʽLife During Wartimeʼ kicks the shit out of the studio original — in no small part due to Bernie Worrellʼs added clavinet solos that complement the songʼs paranoid mood admirably).

Regardless, one of the great aspects of this retrospective is that it is... well, a retrospective. Some of those «watch-me-through-the-years» spectacles end up relatively disappointing, like Bruce Springsteenʼs Live 1975–85, where you see the artist, while consistently retaining the same level of energy and professionalism, gradually succumb to more and more arena-rock clichés. Here, on the contrary, you see Talking Heads grow and develop from a local club phenomenon to a massive force of nature without ever losing a single inch of adequacy — the bigger they get, the harder they work at justifying that bigness. The distance traveled from the humble-subtle opening of ʽNew Feelingʼ to the grand mother-Earth finale of ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ and ʽThe Great Curveʼ is enormous, but it feels so natural and logical that you will probably not even sense the transition if you listen to the whole record in one go. All in all, this is the single greatest story of musical evolution from the «Silver Age» of rock music unfurling here before your ears over two and a half hours, and, needless to add, one of the greatest live albums of all time.


  1. This version of "Take Me to the River" is in the running for my favourite live track of all time. The combination of the gospel vocals and megalithic bass work makes it sound like the end of the world.

  2. Still waiting for Def Leppard reviews.

    1. And Bachman-Turner Overdrive, one of the great heavy pop bands.

  3. Just wanted to say I'm glad to see you back to reviewing George, you've been missed!

  4. The boy is back in town.

  5. Thank God you are back! We thought Putin kidnapped you or something..

  6. Your old site is what turned me onto in in the first place (I believe it's the second newest album you gave a 14 too). It's still one of my favorite album, I can listen to 'Electricity' forever.

  7. Comment - the main attraction of this live album is that, prior to the Speaking In Tongues era (and that live "act" was made even more theatrical in the Stop Making Sense film), Talking Heads defied post-punk musical politics by putting a substantial amount of improvisation into their performances.
    As did the Cure (which is why we still need a warts-and-all Cure live album from the '80s and '90s with one of those ten minute Forests or Forevers...I should've put this comment on another page!)