The Talking Heads

They weren’t the most influential band to come out of the New York City punk and new wave scene that exploded out of CBGB’s in the mid 1970s. That would have been The Ramones. Nor were they the most commercially successful. That title would go to Blondie.

Talking Heads was simply, beautifully and brilliantly, the best band to emerge from this phalanx of musical groups which, for a short time, changes musical history. The newly remixed and reissued Heads catalog from Rhino Records, on DualDisc with bonus tracks, videos, photo galleries and updated liner notes, only reinforces how innovative the band was.

The Heads’ career can be split into two phases, with “Burning Down the House” being the dividing line. Before 1983, the Heads were somewhat known to listeners of alternative radio stations and to MTV viewers, thanks to their inventive “Once in a Lifetime” video, but their record sales didn’t exactly set the world on fire. (In fact, the Tom Tom Club, a side project by Heads drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth, scored a Gold album and a Top 40 hit with “Genius of Love” two years before the Heads finally broke.) But the timing was right for the Heads when “Speaking in Tongues” was released in June of 1983. New wave music was king, and the Heads rode “Burning Down the House” to the forefront of that movement, with the song charting in the Top 10 and the album making it to #15 on the Billboard charts. Marshall Brickman would borrow “Swamp,” a funky blues-style number, for the memorable brothel scene in his “Risky Business” film, and the Heads would end the year with two Gold records, for “Speaking in Tongues” and 1978’s “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” which found a new and appreciative audience thanks to their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”

Looking back, though, the Heads were one of those bands that seemed to be more popular than they really were. “Tongues” would end up being their highest charting album (“Little Creatures” and “Naked” would chart in the Top 20), and only “Wild Wild Life” from the “True Stories” album would make it into the Top 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart with “Burning Down the House” (although some songs like “And She Was” and “Sax and Violins” would rise to as high as #1 on secondary Billboard charts like Hot Dance Music/Club Play and Modern Rock Tracks). And one would think those who love the Heads already own all the albums, and those who have always been on the fence wouldn’t be tempted by a few bonus tracks or 5.1 remixes.

I don’t know if its irksome or just jarring, but after listening to these songs on a regular basis for fifteen to thirty years, it is strange to hear sounds you expect to hear simply from the left or the right now come at you at different directions. It’s meant to create a sonic wall that can engulf the listener, but like George Lucas continually tinkering with his movies many years after the fact, the changes seem to mean more to the artist than to the consumer. The overdubs that have been added for this release betray what originally made the songs so great when they were first released, and thankfully the main CDs for these new releases sound more like those initial recordings.

As for the bonus tracks, the best album for previously unreleased materials is Remain in Light, which features four “unfinished” outtakes, Fela’s Riff, Unison, Double Groove and Right Start, all of which, like the other “unfinished” outtakes on the remaining albums, sound very complete, but still not quite in the same league with the songs that did end up being released. The remaining bonus tracks are padded with alternate versions of your favorite songs or songs previously released on the Sand in the Vasoline compilation. But what does make these DualDisc releases worthwhile are the music videos. Starting with a 1976 performance of “I Feel It in My Heart” and running through to the end of their career with the very Byrnesian (he was to 1980s MTV what David Lynch was to cinema) video for Sax and Violins, it’s fascinating to see how these four art school punks evolved into the music iconoclasts for their generation, and to hear how fresh and vibrant the music remains in an age when the shelf life for new songs can be measured in weeks.

1980s music was and still often is vilified for being disposable, but the Talking Heads showed us that the boundaries of music were unlimited if you had the imagination to go anywhere and everywhere, and the talent to make it happen. If you don’t already have these Heads albums, or are a true Heads completionist, these are the discs to get. If you never got into the Heads, this just might be the perfect time to rediscover them for the first time.

To learn more about these releases, please visit The Rhino Records Talking Heads artist page.

Rating: A-