If Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a sound contender for the title of “Great American Novel”, then we probably ought to have a debate about the fight to be the “Great American Song”. My submission? Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)“, a song which James Verini says “explains Talking Heads”, but which I would suggest goes far further.
Verini’s essay is essential reading. He calls the song “uncharacteristic”, with a spare arrangement; he says it is a “an ode to the palliative effects of companionship”. Yes, this makes it an unexpectedly direct and involved song for David Byrne to sing, but, as Freedom demonstrates, such a personal subject can also stand for something larger. Brotherhood and strong friendships are bedrocks of America, informing its buddy movies and history alike, and also filling in for what the country’s rugged individualism cannot. But companionship is not a straightforward road. There is a healthy component of anxiety to it, which is fleshed out in “This Must Be The Place…” by dint of the disappointment and resignation in Byrne’s voice, and the occasional glimpses of uneasy imagery (“Eyes that light up / Eyes look through you”, “You’ve got a face with a view”).
America is also about a disparate collection of souls finding a home—or is it just a house? So does Talking Heads’ song speak to us of this unknowing, which probably also explains its repurposing in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. This song is about reaching a promised land, or person, and then just feeling a niggling emptiness, or an overreaching.
Some songs unknowingly link to numerous trends in music. From “Pull Up The Roots” we get James Murphy’s cowbell frenzy, the slinky bass of Quincy Jones’s productions for Michael Jackson, and the strangled, hothouse sax* that marks early TV On The Radio. There is a punkish energy to the song that also looks back to Talking Heads’ CBGB days, as well as prophetically forward to the rise of evangelical churches, with their rousing call-and-response chants. And, if you listen closely, the subtly finger-picked guitar-work around the three-minute mark became a mantra for The Durutti Column and, later, “The French Open” by Foals.
I wrote a bit about this album here; this song is an under-appreciated gem near its end, which ushers in the simple masterpiece “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”.
* The saxophone is actually a treated guitar part. I guess they learnt more than a few production tricks from Brian Eno.
Taken from Speaking In Tongues (Sire Records, 1983).
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? Continue reading Talking heads surround us
I’ve finally got my hands on Talking Heads’ magnum opus, 1980’s Remain In Light, and my god it is funky. The first half of the album is built solely on repeating grooves, over which Byrne sings and mumbles about all manner of emotional and societal disconnection, while atonal squawks and whirring noises swirl around the ether. Many would regard Brian Eno’s great production feat as being U2’s The Joshua Tree – still the only album by said band that I can really palate – but I’d be willing to stake a claim for this masterpiece.
What struck me immediately about the album is just how brash it sounds, despite the sophistication of the music and lyrics lurking beneath. Exploding in with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), the pace and energy never really lets up. What sounds like a modem enters the song halfway through, with a weird, dazzling solo; African percussion fills up all the spare air, creating multiple layers of syncopation; towards the end, Byrne’s vocal tics resemble someone with epilepsy or Tourette’s – behaviour echoed by the frontman in the video for the album’s centrepiece, “Once In A Lifetime”.
The second half of Remain In Light takes on a more chilled-out vibe, using disconcerting washes of synth and discordant brass to create more tension. Finally, in the album’s closer, “The Overload”, we find a strange, Joy Division-inspired funeral march, which crawls at snail’s pace alongside waves of buzzing synth bass and undertones of keyboards. According to the album’s Wikipedia article, “The Overload” was indeed the band’s attempt at replicating the Salford quartet’s enviable sonic aesthetic, without ever having heard any of their music. It’s testament to the band’s songwriting variety and multi-talented instrumentation that the experiment works so well – far from sounding like a novelty party piece, it book-ends the album perfectly, sending a final farewell of anxiety to the listener in much the same way as “Decades” does on Joy Division’s parting shot, Closer.
Remain In Light, then, explores both sides of Talking Heads’ lyrical and musical concerns – it is at times deeply life-affirming; at other moments mid-life-crisis depicting. It is also perhaps the truest example of a collision of black music and white music, created at a time when the two disciplines never felt further apart. In that respect, we must of course thank the pioneering inroads made by Messrs. Byrne and Eno, which led to such a work. Last year, people heard Vampire Weekend and thought of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Though Remain In Light is undoubtedly a darker work than Vampire Weekend, maybe it is the more important antecedent in providing musical inspiration.