Sunday, February 7, 2010

#1: Talking Heads: "More Songs About Buildings and Food"

I picked this one semi-randomly from the top of the pile, but it's as good a place to start as any. Its existence in my collection is indicative of how I developed my musical preferences.

Some of you grew up in homes with great record collections, with parents who from the time you were virtually out of the womb were pushing the grooviest sounds on their progeny, trying to mold you into listeners of impeccable taste. (I should know; what do you think I'm doing with my 2-year-old son right now?) Perhaps some of you pushed back against this as you grew older, only to discover that perhaps they did have your best interests in mind, after all.

This was not my experience. The music played on the records, cassettes and 8-tracks in our home fell into three categories, and three categories only: 1. cornball country; 2. cheesy, swellingly romantic orchestral music; 3. gospel. Pop and rock music was something I had to seek out on my own, and when I did, around 8 years old, the experience was liberating and immensely satisfying, even if I didn't really think about why I was so affected by my discoveries.

I started with purely Top 40 music. I remember exactly how it all started: 2nd grade, Mrs. Fronebarger's class, walking back from lunch to our trailer (Woodridge Elementary was overcrowded), some of the boys would start singing: "Dum, dum, dum, another one bites the dust! Dum, dum, dum, another one bites the dust!" I found out that this was a popular song that could be heard on a radio station called Z93. I started listening and was instantly the beats, to the catchy melodies, to the idea that this was music designed in part for enjoyment by young people. I can't stress enough the newness of all this at the time. Yes, it was just Top 40, but to me this was cutting edge. And besides, I don't care what anyone says, 1984 and 1985 were fantastic years for mainstream pop. And it was, in my mind, perfection: I had not yet experienced the first time hearing Beatles music. (Yes, this is really how I first heard them.)

For the next four years I was a very close follower of MTV and Casey Kasem's American Top 40, but once I finally discovered the Fab Four during the summer between 6th and 7th grade, I began actively collecting music that wasn't necessarily heard on the radio. The Beatles obsession was immediate and intense. And once word of my new love got out, people -- older cousins; my friends' parents and older siblings -- started suggesting bands to check out. Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin. The Doors. The Classic Rock phase was underway.

1987 was the crucial year in so many ways. It started in March -- the same month my parents split up -- with the release of U2's "The Joshua Tree." I momentarily forgot my Beatles preoccupation and fixated completely on U2. Sure, Bono might be a washed-up, pompous ass now, but then? He was, to this 13-year-old boy, believably messianic, the very embodiment of kicking righteous butt armed with nothing more than "three chords and the truth." I was besotted with every song on "The Joshua Tree" (co-produced, coincidentally, by Brian Eno, who also co-produced the album about which this post is supposedly about -- I promise this is all leading to that), waited for MTV to play the videos for "With or Without You," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" (damn, look how young they are!) and considered it an affirmation of all that I thought was right and proper that "The Joshua Tree" spawned two #1 singles and sold many millions of copies. More important, it encouraged me to seek out cool bands that weren't just from the past, but were working right then. Someday, after all, I'd be allowed to actually attend a real rock concert.

The next big event happened in September, 1987. I had just turned 14 and for my birthday had been given, per my specific request, gift coins from Turtle's Records and Tapes, since virtually every dime that came into my possession was promptly spent on music. I had enough for a tape and decided to take a chance on the new album by this one Georgia band I had heard so much about. I used the change to buy a magazine. Looking at the rack, I found this issue of Rolling Stone. This was exciting, because the music experts at ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE were going to tell me exactly what constituted "great" music, the albums that I had to buy.

1967-1987. Think about that span. "Sgt. Pepper" and "Are You Experienced" were only 20 years old at the time. (By contrast, "Nevermind" will be 20 years old in 2011. Mind: blown.) At the time I got the RS issue, the music on the list was, in a sense, totally contemporary and not just for hippies wanting to feel nostalgic for the days of "real" music. Sure, I look at the list now and see plenty wrong with it (It's a list dominated by the sensibilities of older white men; Sex Pistols #2?; Roxy Music's "Siren" instead of "For Your Pleasure" or "Stranded"?; Southside Johnny? What?), but at the time, more than just providing a shopping list, it opened a curtain on a world of limitless pleasure. This issue is how I found out about the Velvet Underground. The Clash. Neil Young. The Ramones. Television. The New York Dolls. Captain Beefheart. That David Bowie put out music before "Let's Dance." And the Talking Heads. Four Heads albums made the list. In late '87, I bought just one of them. For whatever reason -- I think I just liked the title the best -- I got #57, "More Songs About Buildings and Food," from 1978.

This album, unlike much of what I will write about from the Tape Box, is very much a classic pop album. Yet compared to other Talking Heads records (especially "Remain in Light" and "Speaking in Tongues") it's not that well known. It doesn't have "Psycho Killer" or "Once in a Lifetime" or "Burning Down the House." Its best known track is an Al Green cover. But it is the purest, funkiest and gleefully strangest manifestation of early Talking Heads spazz pop, and that makes it my favorite album of theirs.

I don't think "More Songs" has substantially better songs than those found on the Heads' debut, which came out the previous year. What's different is the sound: Brian Eno was very smart to de-emphasize David Byrne's paranoid, acquired-taste vocals in favor of his band's chief calling card: its uncanny, crazy sense of rhythm. The husband-and-wife team of Chris Frantz (drums) and Tina Weymouth (bass) is utterly fantastic all the way through -- bouncy, melodic, always in the pocket and completely danceable. In fact, Frantz is so deft that you might not even notice the four-on-the-floor time that dominates "More Songs." These are disco beats. Byrne's and Jerry Harrison's chicken-scratch guitars, and Harrison's plinky keyboards (though Eno's keyboard sound definitely is a highlight on "Stay Hungry"), don't ride the beat as much as reinforce it: listen to "With Our Love," "I'm Not in Love" (not a cover of the 10cc song) and "Found a Job." And if Eno sequenced the album, he did it brilliantly: Side 1 is uptempo, exhilirating dance music with only the tiniest pauses between songs for catching one's breath; Side 2 transitions from slightly more dissonant rock jams to the slow-burn funk of "Take Me to the River" and then to an unexpectedly expansive country-rock song ("The Big Country") that evokes the American heartland while Byrne's dismissive lyrics pour acid on the whole concept.

The hilarity of Byrne's words need a lyric sheet to discover, but if you listen closely you hear self-deprecation, defensiveness, the usual paranoia and plenty of satirical jabs at relationships, gender roles, the media and normal American living. My particular favorite is the prescient "Found a Job," in which a couple named Bob and Judy fight boredom and their failing relationship by creating what appears to be a kind of reality TV show:

"Damn that television ... what a bad picture!"
"Don't get upset, It's not a major disaster."
"There's nothing on tonight", he said, "I don't know
what's the matter!"
"Nothing's ever on", she said, "so ... I don't know
why you bother."

We've heard this little scene, we've heard it many times.
People fighting over little things and wasting precious time.
They might be better off ... I think ... the way it seems to me.
Making up their own shows, which might be better than T.V.

Judy's in the bedroom, inventing situations.
Bob is on the street today, scouting up locations.
They've enlisted all their family.
They've enlisted all their friends.
It helped saved their relationship,
And made it work again ...

Their show gets real high ratings, they think they have a hit.
There might even be a spinoff, but they're not sure 'bout that.
If they ever watch T.V. again, it'd be too soon for them.
Bob never yells about the picture now, he's having
too much fun.
So think about this little scene; apply it to you life.
If your work isn't what you love, then something isn't right.
Just look at Bob and Judy; they're happy as can be,
Inventing situations, putting them on T.V.

This song, and the entire "More Songs" album, have aged amazingly well; really, they sound even better today, considering that this music certainly has influenced current bands - really good current bands.

I guess those Rolling Stone writers steered me in the right direction.

Postscript: This 1980 live version of "Stay Hungry," with Adrian Belew playing some truly mind-bending guitar, is too good not to include here. Wow!


  1. That's my favorite Talking Heads album, too.

    David Byrne's new songs and live shows are just as great as they were 30+ years ago. Now *that* is mind-blowing!

    As for the two bands you chose who are derivative of Talking Heads, I guessed even before clicking on them that one of them was Vampire Weekend. I never heard them until their new album, but I can't get over how they sound so much like Talking Heads and Paul Simon (and not nearly as good as either).

  2. Hold it right there -- Southside Johnny's "Hearts of Stone" is a great record and a nifty bookend to that same year's release of Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town".

    I'll be bookmarking this page. Nice column!

    - Bob

  3. Don't feel embarrassed that you discovered the Beatles from a movie. What's even worse is that I, like many of my generation, discovered classic rock through a video game.