The Talking Heads Prove That the Tag 'Rock Artist' Isn't a Contradiction in Terms
For all its philistine behavior, rock'n'roll has never lacked cultural credentials. Eric Clapton, Peter Townshend, Cat Stevens and a surprising number of other names came to music via art school. But no band can command the accumulated aesthetic sense of the newest group to graduate into the big time. Three members of the Talking Heads studied at the respected Rhode Island School of Design, and the fourth got all the way to grad school in architecture at Harvard. Yet it is not that background so much as the Heads' unusually thoughtful lyrics and their uncompromisingly innovative music that have led critics to pigeonhole their genre as Art Rock.
This is not to say they are recherché or noncommercial. Their first two LPs, Talking Heads: 77 and the archly titled More Songs about Buildings and Food, made critics' Best of the Year lists for their powerfully elemental rock. The screechy vocals and odd charismatic presence of the head Head, David Byrne, have also turned them into a hot touring act. Byrne's stiff-legged performing style developed, he says, "because I was so nervous I'd shake all over the stage." In any case, the Heads just came off their biggest tour ever, even outdrawing (to their astonishment) Peter Frampton in Kansas City. Their latest LP, Fear of Music, was their first to go Top 40. "I would like to think that our success proves that the audience isn't as dumb as some people think," declares Byrne.
David, 27, grew up in Baltimore and played in a junior high school band ("The drummer sang because he was biggest"). But David soon—unsuccessfully—affected a Smokey Robinson falsetto and began to play in coffeehouses. During his one year of design study at Rhode Island he hooked up with drummer Chris Frantz, 28, the son of an Army general, and his girlfriend Tina Weymouth, 28, whose dad is a Navy admiral. Byrne and Frantz started playing in a group called Artistics. "We were loud and sort of irritating," recalls David, who had to support himself as a dishwasher and counter cook. Byrne subsequently moved to New York and was joined by Chris and Tina after their 1974 graduation. Tina then learned to play bass and soon ex-architecture student Jerry Harrison, 30, came on as keyboardist. He had already played for another cult group, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, before the Talking Heads were established. (The group's name derives from TV jargon for close-up head shots of anchormen.)
Chris and Tina and David all lived together during their struggling days, gigging in Bowery punk-rock dives like CBGB's. Then when Chris and Tina married in 1977, they crossed the East River to an unheated drafty Queens loft (in the same building as Harrison's), and Byrne settled into his own fourth-floor walkup on the Lower East Side.
In contrast to most of rock's limo lizards and despite their contributing music to Robert Stigwood's upcoming movie, Times Square, the Heads still travel by subway and are resolutely antistar. Onstage, they make a point of wearing nondescript wardrobes so their audiences look more glittering than they. Harrison doubles as the group's road manager and once borrowed his Milwaukee family's car to get to some Midwest concerts. Byrne has put his old art training to work designing the strikingly austere graphics for the group's first two albums.
Harrison designed Fear of Music. Yet there is no danger that the Talking Heads will go back permanently to their drawing boards, though Tina cracks ruefully that "artists have more time for sex than musicians—they have to wait for their paints to dry."
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