Talking heads surround us

I’m not usually one for gimmicks.

In the 1960s, a predilection for quadraphonic sound emerged in the progressive rock scene. Pink Floyd’s use of the Azimuth Co-ordinator was flashy, but a lack of readily-available consumer equipment prevented the technology from making a leap into the living room. There was a brief glimmer of hope in 1997, when The Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, an album designed for home-brew quadrophenia, but the music was too challenging to have mainstream appeal. A decade-and-a-bit later, “surround sound” is a fixture of the home cinema setup: we’ve finally found a way of making music in four discrete channels work. The question is this: do we actually want to hear that music?

Of course, making such an album is not a process to enter into lightly. The significant barriers to entry mean this is a game for either production-focussed bands, or stars of the past polishing up commemorative reissues. Talking Heads fall into both categories: at their prime, they used the studio as an instrument; latterly, the status and high-regard conferred upon them has made them consider how to extract maximum revenue from albums dating back as far as 1977.

I was at a party and, having parked “Girlfriend Is Better” (see above) on the playlist, I was approached by a guy who told me he was coming round to the idea that “the Talking Heads” were the greatest rock group in history.

I corrected him on the name of the band, but didn’t stop and consider whether they were really a “rock” group. For one thing, rock is rarely so immersive and polyrhythmic as Talking Heads at their creative apogee. The troika of albums consisting of Fear Of Music, Remain In Light, and Speaking In Tongues took the band far from their New Wave roots and planted them in more experimental territory, thereby demonstrating the possible transcendance awaiting punk artists who chose subtlety over rage. John Lydon performed a similar deed when he invented post-punk with Public Image Ltd. Songs by Talking Heads from this purple period still bite hard (go and watch the Stop Making Sense rendition of “Swamp”, which joins the dots between the Reagen Era and fascism), but they also swallow you up in the sheer luxury of the experience.

When I came home the morning after the party, I put on the DVD-A edition of Speaking In Tongues, which is mixed in 5.1-channel surround sound, and pretty much bathed in its richness. Pattering percussion gave my back a gentle massage. The residue of Jerry Harrison’s effects-laden guitar parts pinged between the speakers, dissipating for a moment and then resurfacing in a totally different place. The thickness of Tina Weymouth’s synth bass punched me in the gut and I felt truly alive.

I felt like I was at the best rock concert of my life, but without the sweat, and the tall people standing in front of me, and the overpriced vomitlager. And then I knew that the guy at the party was right: Talking Heads were innovative, perfectionist and worldly, but when Harrison’s incendiary guitar solo in “Making Flippy Floppy” seared through my brain, it struck me that they were also a great rock group.

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