By Jeremy Guto
Talking Heads was one example in rock music where the band’s sound literally expanded exponentially record by record. The jittery yet non-dynamic sound of their debut album in 1977 sounded nothing like the Afrobeat poly-rhythms and world music influence of their final album Naked twelve years later. The first step towards this more expansive sound came with the sophomore album “More Songs About Buildings and Food” (1978).
The songs were for the most part from the same set that populated their debut. Written by David Byrne and performed by himself, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth around the New York City clubs four years or so previously when the Heads were just a skeletal trio.
Ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison beefed up the sound on their debut, but the biggest change came from record producer Brian Eno who would guide the direction of the band for their next three albums.
With Eno’s background of ambient music and recording experimentation came a more expansive and ultimately more danceable sound. Eno was a widely sought producer at the time, since he was known for emphasizing the strengths of the artist and bringing that out in their record. He had highlighted the inherent subversive weirdness of Devo’s debut album in 1978 and the isolated European sensibilities of David Bowie’s “Berlin” trilogy of albums around the same time.
In Talking Heads, Eno recognized rhythm powerhouse and married couple Frantz and Weymouth as the core of the band’s sound, and brought that to the forefront. Songs like “The Good Thing” and “Warning Sign” retain the cold, mathematical songwriting of their debut, but given a little guitar reverb and echoed drums, make them danceable and soon-to-be live staples. How else could a seemingly throwaway cover of “Take Me to the River” (originally by Al Green) hit the U.S. Top 30 and make Talking Heads a commercial band overnight?
The album’s title too, while being a tongue-in-cheek joke by the band about their seemingly bland subject material, betrays the ultimate appeal of Talking Heads, particularly around this time of their career. Songs like their debut single “Love Goes To Building on Fire” would soon evolve into a literal manifestation of the romanticism of boring suburban life during their performance of “This Must Be the Place” during the Stop Making Sense tour, complete with lamp dance.
Which makes the final song of the album “The Big Country” all the more jarring. Byrne as a songwriter could be cold, dismissive or paranoid of certain topics, but rarely was he outright mean-spirited as he is here. A song that at first seems to show a yearning for American rural living, instead comes crashing down to earth with the final line “It’s not even worth talking / About those people down there.” Is it genuine New York snobbery or simply sour grapes? It’s an example of the love-hate relationship Byrne has with the flyover states of America that would come to a head in his 1986 film “True Stories.”
“More Songs About Buildings and Food” established Talking Heads as a critical darling, but the budding partnership of Eno and Byrne also drew a rift between the band that would haunt them for the remainder of their career.
Every band has its long and varied history, but most have a career-defining moment that they either transcend or let it bog them down for the rest of their lifespan until they enter the history books. The early success of “Psycho Killer” aside, the story of Talking Heads truly begins with their second album, and the adventure would only balloon dramatically going forward.