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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense


1) Psycho Killer; 2) Heaven; 3) Thank You For Sending Me An Angel; 4) Found A Job; 5) Slippery People; 6) Burning Down The House; 7) Life During Wartime; 8) Making Flippy Floppy; 9) Swamp; 10) What A Day That Was; 11) This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody); 12) Once In A Lifetime; 13) Genius Of Love; 14) Girlfriend Is Better; 15) Take Me To The River; 16) Crosseyed And Painless.

General verdict: Excellent live album, but listening to it without watching the movie makes about as much sense (no pun intended) as reading the collected edition of Bob Dylanʼs lyrics on paper.

If you have never listened to Stop Making Sense as the second live album by Talking Heads, this is not a tragedy — it will never hope to surpass the monumentality of The Name Of This Band. If you have never watched Stop Making Sense, the concert movie, what you need to do right now, this very instance, is drop everything you are doing (and at this moment, you are obviously wasting your time reading this review anyway, rather than pulling people out of burning buildings or something) and go watch it immediately, because, well, chances are that you might not truly understand anything about Talking Heads, New Wave, intelligent dance music, or post-1975 artistic values in general until you have been properly worked over by the movie.

I am not exactly sure if the two shows in question from which Jonathan Demme drew the material for his movie, held in December ʼ83 at one of the theaters in Hollywood, were typical of that particular tour — there must have been specific elements, conceived exclusively for the cameras; however, they were definitely a lot different from all previous concerts by the band, with a lot more emphasis on the visual / choreographic side of the business. Even on the 1980 tour, when the Heads had first padded themselves with tons of side musicians, the main reason for that was to be able to reproduce all the growing complexities on their studio albums. On Stop Making Sense, the swarms of side musicians continue to almost overwhelm the main core of the four band members — but this seems to be much more skewed toward a general effect of fussiness and camaraderie: the movie shows very well how all those extra people were needed on stage not just (and not so much) for their playing, but rather for their kick-ass behavior.

Above everything else, though, this is David Byrneʼs show: every single song, with the natural exception of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ, belongs to him 100% of the time, even when he is neither singing nor playing. Speaking of playing, he has dropped his guitar for more than half of the songs on here — now that there are so many side players, he really does not need it that much — in favor of jumping, running, mugging, rolling around, playing games with Big Suits or Electric Lamps, setting up slideshows, you name it. This is Rock Theater in a way that you probably have not seen since the heyday of Alice Cooper and Peter Gabrielʼs Genesis, only with an updated and mdernized sensitivity that (unlike elements of Aliceʼs and Peterʼs shows) has not aged one day even thirty-five years later: rewatching the movie recently, I was struck by how not a single frame, not a single movement by anybody in the picture could make me go «oh, thatʼs a bit of Eightiesʼ corniness out there». Was the movie ahead of its time? Probably not; but no other experience has managed to catch up with it in all the time thatʼs elapsed since then.

As good as the audio soundtrack is, it does not convey the almost perversely manipulated excite­ment that grows and grows as you watch the show slowly unfold before your eyes. Life begins from an egg hatched inside Byrneʼs boombox as he gives you the most minimalistic performance of ʽPsycho Killerʼ ever (and no audio track can give you the spazz moves he makes at the end of the song, as if being pummelled over and over again by an invisible enemy). Life goes on as Tina joins him on bass for an almost equally stripped down rendition of ʽHeavenʼ; life gallops on as Frantz hops onstage for a short, but rousing take on ʽThank You For Sending Me An Angelʼ; life becomes a familiar guitar-weaving pattern as Jerry joins David for ʽFound A Jobʼ (again, far from the best rendition aurally — the coda is much too short and simplified — but impossible to look away); and then life ascends to properly climactic heights on the next three songs. The backup singers, Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry, grinning demonically and playing air guitar like a mirror image to David on ʽSlippery Peopleʼ; David and Alex Weir running on the spot and tearing up the strings on ʽBurning Down The Houseʼ; and, of course, Byrneʼs aerobics in (and particularly the little snake dance on the second verse of) ʽLife During Wartimeʼ — these are all iconic images that cannot be erased from oneʼs memory.

Many people correctly latched on to Byrne in their original assessments of the movie, but not always for the right reason — Roger Ebert, for instance, simply commented on his "physical presence", saying that "he seems so happy to be alive and making music", a description that would be more apt for, I dunno, Freddie Mercury. Most of the time Byrne is, of course, giving us his paranoid act — always true to himself, this is a show about the challenges of the modern world and the common manʼs reaction / adaptation to those challenges. He plays a whole number of different personas, from the shitless-scared jogger on ʽLife During Wartimeʼ to the confused intellectual on ʽOnce In A Lifetimeʼ to the clueless socialite on ʽGirlfriend Is Betterʼ, he might even become a little Hitlerish on ʽSwampʼ, but it always comes down to the same issue — what the hell am I doing here, and how the hell am I supposed to carry on? Every single gesture, every single vocal inflection redirect you to that question; and although you could certainly say that David is very happy to be able to ask it, Stop Making Sense is, well, about a life that has pretty much stopped making sense, rather than about a happy and understandable kind of life. Which is, perhaps, one more reason why the movie — paradoxically — makes even more sense today than it did back in the movie theaters in mid-ʼ84.

A few words, I suppose, should still be said about the music. The new, 2.1 expanded version of Talking Heads (as opposed to the 2.0 version of the Remain In Light tour) still sounds brilliant: no matter how much emphasis is placed on the visuals, the Heads could allow nothing less than absolute perfect discipline from all the players. But since the lionʼs share of the playlist falls on material from Speaking In Tongues (six out of its nine songs are performed), this means that the chief strength of classic live Heads, the insane math-rockish interplay between David and Jerry, is largely eliminated — that teeny bit of guitar fencing at the end of ʽFound A Jobʼ is but a whiffy reminiscence of how it used to be. Meanwhile, the place of Belew is occupied by Alex Weir, a swell guy having a lot of fun and looking like heʼs been best friends with the Heads forever, but not quite the futuristic sonic wizard of Adrianʼs caliber. This might be one of the reasons why Remain In Light is so snubbed with this setlist — they still manage to end the show with a convincing take on ʽCrosseyed And Painlessʼ, but on the whole, the band was hardly up to the challenge (additionally, it is possible that the ambitiously cosmic aspirations of Remain In Light were a bit outside of Davidʼs scope of intentions for that evening).

That said, as is usual for the Heads, almost every single performance of the Speaking In Tongues songs is superior to the studio original — more energy, more sass, more sweat, and, yes, the visuals: ʽGirlfriend Is Betterʼ takes on a whole new life with Byrne turning on autopilot in the Big Suit, and ʽThis Must Be The Placeʼ features the tenderest handling of an electric lamp ever known to mankind, worthy of being enshrined together with Charlie Chaplinʼs globe. The lone­some inclusion from Byrneʼs solo Catherine Wheel soundtrack, ʽWhat A Day That Wasʼ, also fits right in with its frenetic pace and paranoid verse / joyful chorus contrast.

The only thing that never truly fits in — and I am pretty sure they all knew it from the start — is the Tom Tom Club spotlight with ʽGenius Of Loveʼ. Not because the song itself is not very good (itʼs okay, I got used to it), and not because Frantzʼs invocations of James Brown still sound silly (itʼs just a couple of bars), and not even because Tinaʼs dancing moves are comically gross (at one point, she is squatting as if suffering from severe IBS), but mainly just because it has no place in the middle of Byrneʼs overriding, egotistical, despotic, but fully cohesive and coherent artistic vision. It certainly gives him enough time to change into the Big Suit, but I am not sure if we really needed such a strong reminder of why Talking Headsʼ music is genius, while Tom Tom Club is an endearing one-time joke. It is a bit of a mood breaker, and I am always tempted to skip the track, no matter if itʼs audio only or the movie itself.

By the time we get to end the main part of the show with ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ, the song has truly earned its cleansing power — now it has been turned into the last act of David Byrneʼs personal confession, a prayer for salvation and redemption whose appearance in the Talking Heads catalogue now seems like an act of Providence rather than some strange, unexplainable accident. The expanded band, with all the African-American performers on stage, provide an authentic gospel-soul glossing, but they do not transform the song back into an Al Green cover, because Byrne is still wearing the Big Suit on his shoulders and on his vocal cords; he is still being the same old nervous big city dweller, to whom the act of being taken out to the river and dropped in the water means something radically different from what it used to mean to the black son of an Arkansan sharecropper. Whatever it is, it is the perfect conclusion to a perfect show where so many talented men and women, each with his or her own identity, come together to complete the fractured personality of one creative genius.

In conclusion, I can only repeat that, to me, Stop Making Sense (the movie) symbolizes every­thing that can be exciting, involving, and deeply meaningful about modern art (a little ironic, of course, to be calling a thirty-five year old performance «modern art», but I guess weʼre stuck with the term for good now anyway). The best thing about it is that you can refrain from overthinking and just dance like crazy along to everything that is going on, giving in to the excitement without a second thought; or you can actually sit and watch, sucking in each golden frame of the movie and coming up with your own interpretation of what it is all supposed to mean — interpretation that will make sense, no matter how much the title tries to convince you of the opposite. The only thing that truly stopped making sense to me ever since I got the DVD (or, at least, permanent YouTube access) was listening to the audio album without the accompanying picture... although I do believe that I got most of the frames memorized anyway.


  1. Byrne opening the SMS setlist with his solo Psycho-Killer confirmed a feeling I had that Speaking in Tongues represented a kind of follow up visit with our paranoid, autistic pal from Psycho Killer -- perhaps after a few years, after accepting some needed therapy and (sort of) efficacious meds. Ok, so he may or may not be meaningfully socializing with anyone yet, but at least he seems to be dancing around and among people who are. So... that's positive!

    I wouldn't dare assert this hunch on academic grounds though; it's probably purely subjective, since it too closely mirrors my own journey from point A on the autism spectrum to point B over a similar time period.

    Byrne's Asperger's-ish, battle-cry phrasing, "I'm! an! or! din! ar! ee! guy!" still gives me chills for all it can mean. That's one of the songs that made me want to go dance myself nuts along with actual people, not just the figurative (or was it literal?) lamppost in my room.

  2. thanks for the positive review, george

    1. If you're David Byrne, then I'm Ian Curtis.

    2. Speaking of Rock Theatre, strange that you didn't mention David Bowie, possibly a more direct influence over Byrne than Alice o Peter Gabriel.

    3. We can mention other artists too. But I agree with you that Bowie could have been the main influence. And, even if the connection is not so direct, there are other Shock Rockers such as Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix and Iggy Pop.

  3. Take me to the river
    Drop me in the water
    Push me in the river
    Dip me in the water
    Washing me down
    Washing me