1977 - Talking Heads: Beyond Safety Pins Print
Written by Michael Aron   

From: Rolling Stone, 11/17/77

WHITE PLAINS, NY--After touring Europe with the Ramones,
opening at the Bottom Line for Bryan Ferry and selling
out CBGB’s regularly for two years, it should be a bit
of a bringdown for a group to be here in suburban White
Plains on a rainy Saturday to play a club that is
essentially an annex of Beefsteak Charlie’s restaurant--
but Talking Heads don’t seem to mind. While guitarist
and lead singer David Byrne walks around in a London
Fog raincoat, clutching a copy of a book entitled Musical
Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia and
wondering aloud whether the rain outside is carrying
"fallout from the recent Chinese A-test," bass player
Tina Weymouth is disarming a table of women friends
with candid talk about David’s penchant for farting.

"He did it during a photo session for our album. That’s
why he’s looking away in this shot on the sleeve,"
Weymouth says. "Maybe men do it more than women."

"He really does shovel his food down, you know," adds
an English woman.

"Yes, and he’s still eating junk food," says Tina.

At a nearby table, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz (the
group’s drummer) and ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison
(keyboards and guitar) are explaining for the nth
time why Talking Heads are not a punk band.

"The big difference between us and punk groups is
that we like K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Funkadelic/
Parliament," says Frantz. "You ask Johnny Rotten if he
likes K.C. and the Sunshine Band and he’ll blow snot
in your face."

"What I thought was healthy about punk rock was that
it was a reaction to overprofessionalization and
technique replacing meaningfulness in music," says
Harrison, who went to Harvard. "I think in a way
what punk rock means is intensity of expression,
intensity of meaning, and I think that’s what we
share...although we convey emotions not exactly
limited to anger and aggression."

A few minutes later, Talking Heads take the stage
for a sound check. With the possible exception of
Harrison, they look too straight to be rock & roll
musicians. But, of course, they look this way on
purpose. "Normalcy" is part of their pose--a way
of saying hipness is passé and safety pins are
irresponsible. As soon as they begin to play,
you realize you’re in the presence of a stunningly
original rock ensemble whose roots go back to such
classicists of abnormality as the Velvet Underground,
David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars and Harrison’s old
group, the Modern Lovers.

Byrne, 25, writes all the material: a kind of
syncopated hard rock, richer in texture than most
New Wave music and lightened by riffs that seem to
come from pop and disco. The lyrics are deceptively
simple and utterly cracked. Like Randy Newman, whose
songwriting he admires, Byrne is putting across a
sensibility as much as a song. Consider these lines
from "Don’t Worry About the Government":

My building has every convenience
It’s going to make life easy for me
It’s going to be easy to get things done
I will relax, along with my loved ones...
Some civil servants are just like my loved ones

And these lines from "Psycho Killer" (written, by
the way, two years before anyone had heard of David
Berkowitz):

We are vain and we are blind
I hate people when they’re not polite
Psycho killer, q’est-ce que c’est?

* * *

Talking Heads may be the only rock band around whose
members could all have had legitimate careers as painters.
Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth were classmates at the Rhode
Island School of Design, a prestigious asylum for the
artistic that also spawned Martin Mull. Weymouth and
Frantz painted; Frantz played in a rock band with Byrne,
and Byrne flitted between painting, photography, video
and poetry before settling on the writing of
questionnaires as an art form. ("I tried to design
a Nielson ratings system for the arts, but it never
worked out.") Harrison, a latecomer to the band,
painted as an undergraduate and had returned to Harvard
for graduate studies in architecture a few months
before Talking Heads lured him back to music.

I first saw Talking Heads two years ago when they were
breaking in as a trio at CBGB’s. The music was more raw
then, more hard-edged, and the lyrics more pessimistic.
Talking Heads usually played on the same bill with
Television (a coincidence in that "talking heads" is a
name lifted from TV terminology), and those were special
nights. Each band had a cult following: Television
drew the punks and rowdies, Talking Heads the young
professionals, college students, and the critics--in
particular, John Rockwell of the New York Times, who
used the term "art rock" to distinguish Talking Heads
from New York’s 8000 other punk bands, and James Wolcott
of the Village Voice, who raved about a band still a
year and a half away from cutting its first record.

Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth are so serious about their
music and so careful about controlling their careers
that for the next year they rebuffed half a dozen
management offers and resisted the temptation to
deliver themselves up to a large record company.
Instead, they worked on their musicianship, built
their repertoire beyond fourteen songs and began
searching for a fourth musician who would, in Weymouth’s
words, "make us sound more like a band and take some
of the pressure off of David." After finding Harrison,
they signed a deal with Sire--"a small, independent
company that’ll always take your calls," says Byrne--
and in mid-September released an album, Talking Heads ’77.

Although the album has been received with excitement,
it can’t possibly be as rousing as what 150 people
witnessed at Beefsteak Charlie’s on a rainy night the
week of the Chinese A-test. Having not seen the band
in more than a year, I had almost forgotten how
incredible David Byrne is onstage. Everything about
him is uncool: his socks and shoes, his body language,
his self-conscious announcements of song titles, the
way he wiggles his hips when he’s carried away onstage
(imagine an out-of-it kid practicing Buddy Holly moves
in front of a mirror). But it only makes you love him
as you laugh at him--or at the concept he presents.

Byrne is aware of his effect but has, he says, "really
no idea what I look like onstage. I know people talk
about me as being a gone cat, wacko, and I guess in the
context of rock & roll bands that’s valid. But if I
cultivate it, I’m completely unaware. My only effort
is to play well, sing the lyrics with conviction, on
pitch and so they can be understood."

Still, sitting in the audience you’re never sure
whether Byrne’s persona is real or if it’s brilliant
satire. Eventually, you stop wondering, because all
the while he’s blasting extraordinary music at you,
playing and singing with an intensity rarely seen
this side of drag-queen cabaret bars and having more
fun than anyone else in the room.

As I heard one suburban kid say to another between

sets, "Wait’ll you see this guy."