What happens when you don’t get along with your old band, but you win a major award? In a few short weeks, Talking Heads may need to be around each other to collect their Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. Despite never winning a regular Grammy, the band will take their place in musical history – although it is looking like it will be virtual and they can skip some of the awkwardness.
It’s not the first time the band has had to put aside differences to be honored. Their 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had some awkward moments and lead singer David Byrne skipped out once the performance was complete.
Formed in 1975 in New York City, Talking Heads are considered one of the pioneers of new wave, funk, and world music. With intellectual lyrics and experimental visual arts – and eventually, Byrne’s big suits – they stood out from other new wave/punkish-type bands.
Although born in Scotland, David Byrne was raised in the US and Canada. He attended the Rhode Island School of Design where he met Chris Frantz and his girlfried Tina Weymouth in the mid-1970s. They had a band called “The Artistics” before the three art students moved to New York City to pursue their musical careers with Byrne as the singer and guitarist, and Frantz on drums.
Unable to find a third bandmate in New York, they convinced Weymouth to join the band and learn to play bass.
The trio explored the Lower East Side, which was emerging as an artistic haven, and before their first year in NYC was up, they made their live debut opening for the Ramones at CBGB.
Shortly after that gig, they found themselves in the right place at the right time as they were featured in Village Voice. Things happened immediately. The band quickly built a devoted following and started playing gigs to enthusiastic crowds.
About those early days, Byrnes has said that because of the bands they played with, they were originally considered as part of the “punk” scene and consequently a punk band.
The band began working on demos and started getting a decent following, and within a year, they scored a record deal with Sire Records (home to the Ramones).
They started work on their album and put out their first single, “Love Goes to Building on Fire.” The recording process stopped for a bit while they added keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison to the band and traveled to Europe opening for the Ramones.
Once the tour was completed, Talking Heads recorded their first studio album, “Talking Heads 77” home of “Psycho Killer,” which landed them on the Billboard charts.
While not a typical mainstream fit, Byrne’s “geeky” persona and thoughtful lyrics garnered attention.
Another successful outcome for the band that year: the marriage of Franz and Weymouth. Surprisingly, the band had a sleeper hit off 77, a little tune called “Pulled Up.” That song hit a chord with their fans and continues to be a fan favorite.
The album gave the band immediate commercial success, and they were now dubbed darlings of an emerging genre called “new wave.”
Following up their debut release, the band began a three-album collaboration with well-known producer Brian Eno. The first in the trilogy, “More Songs About Buildings and Food,” was “danceable” which got them mainstream attention and on the Billboard charts.
The standout song was a cover though, Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
The next album had successful singles of their own creation. “Fear of Music” gave us “Cities” and “I Zimbra,” but what we all know forever and ever is “Life During Wartime” because: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.”
Despite being described by the New Yorker as “Apocalyptic Swamp Funk,” their fans ate it up.
Recorded in Franz and Weymouth’s NYC loft with cables running out windows to a van with Eno and sound engineer crews inside, the album was a success.
“Fear of Music” was listed at the best album of the year by multiple music magazines and papers, and the band set off on a major tour in support of it.
For their third Eno album, they went deeper into world beat and funk rhythms. The band had gone in separate directions for solo and side projects after “Fear of Music,” and Weymouth was frustrated with Byrne’s controlling attitude. She had a desire to leave the band, but husband Franz wanted to stay. They took a trip to the Bahamas that led them to purchasing an apartment above a recording studio. The four Talking Heads members met there to jam and the resulting music inspired Eno as well.
In 1980, “Remain in Light” was born. Once again, the press loved it and named it album of the year. “The Great Curve” and “Houses in Motion” were good singles, but once again, we got a song we will always remember, “Once in a Lifetime.” Although it did not do much in US at the time, the music video on that new little channel MTV helped grow it into the classic it is now. Rolling Stone even lists it as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
Another tour followed by time apart came after “Remain in Light.” During their three-year break, a live album (“The Name of This Band is Talking Heads”) was released while the members focused on solo projects.
Franz and Weymouth created The Tom Tom Club in all its dance glory. Seriously, everyone knows “Genius of Love.” It went number one and has been used in multiple movies (“Anchorman 2,” “Lars and the Real Girl”), TV shows (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “South Park”), and ad campaigns. Harrison and Byrne also kept busy with solo projects of their own.
Just like with Talking Heads, their new venture “The Tom Tom Club” surprised everyone with a sleeper hit, “The Man with the 4-Way Hips.” This song was huge in the clubs, and was played 24/7 at early iconic radio station KROQ in Los Angeles.
The group reconvened for 1983’s “Speaking in Tongues” and once again, created a monster single. Their only US top ten hit, “Burning Down the House” was all over MTV, but for some reason, didn’t do much in other areas.
More sleeper hits emerged, they were “Girlfriend is Better” and “This Must be the Place.”
For the supporting tour – which turned out to be their last tour – filmmaker Jonathan Demme was on hand to document it (before his “Silence of the Lamb” days). The concert film and live album “Stop Making Sense” were the result.
As I write this, I keep thinking, “That’s all their hits right? What’s left?” But yes, they do have more….
The band cranked out three more albums in four years, which kicked off with “Little Creatures.” Going into a more “Americana” direction, it became their best-selling album in the US, bolstered by “And She Was,” “Road to Nowhere,” “The Lady Don’t Mind,” and the song all parents understand, “Stay Up Late.”
The next year, they came back with “True Stories” which featured songs from Byrne’s film of the same name.
“Wild Wild Life” became the standout single and won them a “Best Group Video” from MTV, and “Radio Head” became the source for Radiohead the band’s name.
This wouldn’t be the story it is if there wasn’t ANOTHER sleeper hit. This time it was “Love For Sale.”
Their final studio album was 1988’s “Naked,” which they recorded in Paris with multiple international musicians. With improvised songs and lyrics, it became another big seller for them, but “Blind” and “(Nothing But) Flowers” failed to do much.
Honestly, if you offered me $1,000 to give you any of the lyrics before today, you’d get to keep your money.
But now I can say I do know a line from “(Nothing But) Flowers“ – “And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.” As Malcolm Jack wrote for The Guardian: “The lyric could have applied to the ultimate fate of the band itself: by the release of Naked, their final album, in 1988, relationships between Byrne and the other three had long since wilted, with major touring firmly a thing of the past, though it would take until 1991 before Talking Heads’ split was officially announced.”
Before every possible thing a band said or did was on social media, band strife could be kept secret, but Talking Heads let a lot out themselves. Byrne was often critical of Weymouth’s musical ability and she tried to replace him. It also wasn’t the first “break up” situation. In 1980, Weymouth and Franz were asked about Byrne’s departure, which Byrne had just told the reporter in a private interview. It was news to the couple and they admitted they knew nothing about it. After some time apart, they regrouped and made “Remain in Light.”
This time though, it was more serious. Tensions that had been brewing for years and while the band members were working on their solo projects, Byrne announced in a 1991 interview that Talking Heads had broken up. The other three members read it in The Los Angeles Times. To be fair, cell phones were not around then… But still. Crappy way to end a band.
Since then, Weymouth described Byrne as “a man incapable of returning friendship.” Byrne admits future projects were complicated: “We did have a lot of bad blood go down.” Ugly comments are easily found in past articles and books, but we all say horrendous things out of emotion, and most of us move on and realize our past behavior was a mistake, so I’ll skip over it. New Year, New Me!
Frantz and Weymouth continued with The Tom Tom Club, and Harrison produced albums for other artists like Live, Crash Test Dummies, Fine Young Cannibals, and Violent Femmes. The three members decided to continue Talking Heads without Byrne with a 1996 album “No Talking Just Head.”
They had multiple artists take vocal duty: Debbie Harry (Blondie), Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde), Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes), Michael Hutchence (INXS), Ed Kowalczyk (Live), and more. They decided to tour with Napolitano singing, but Byrne tried to block it, taking them to court. The lawsuit was eventually settled outside of court with Byrne allowing the band to proceed, but for some concessions.
Talking Heads did join together in 1999 to promote the 15th-anniversary edition of “Stop Making Sense.” But when band biographer David Bowman (“This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century”), asked about the frequent pushing for a reunion, Byrne said, “My answer to the last question is always, ‘We’re not gonna.’ Later on it comes back, ‘So. Well. Why don’t you get back together? Why don’t you do one of those reunion things?’ They just keep hammering at you. ‘So why don’t you get along?’ Which is – as Elliot Roberts, my old manager, says – it’s like you’ve had a real painful divorce and they want you to relive that pain for them. ‘Let me see you bleed again! Do it for me!’” Ouch.
Unfortunately for them, they were too important to music and had to join together in person in 2002 when they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During his induction speech, Anthony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, described hearing “Psycho Killer” for the first time: “I absolutely freaked out….It was like nothing else I had ever heard and it made me feel like nothing else I’d ever felt. I felt smart… I listened to Talking Heads and it made me feel smart…Talking Heads also made me want to dance like a maniac.” In a slightly uncomfortable acceptance speech, the band gave thanks and Frantz hopefully tied it up well when he said, “I’d like to thank the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for giving this band a happy ending.”
Since then, there has been a 2003 box set for the band (“Once Upon a Lifetime”). Byrne continues to release solo material and collaborations, plus he has “Reasons to be Cheerful” – a project of sharing positive stories.
Frantz released a memoir in 2020 (“Remain in Love”) and suffered a heart attack (he is recovered and posting his adorable dogs on Instagram). He and Weymouth are still married, which is momentous in the music industry.
Harrison continues producing (No Doubt, The Von Bondies).
Through all the drama, Talking Heads still landed four albums on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, plus their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list. I suppose a Life time Achievement Grammy is kind of a big deal as well…
The 63rd annual Grammy Awards will take place on January 31, 2021, although specifics are still being determined due to COVID. Trevor Noah will host the event and the other Lifetime Achievement Award honorees are Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Lionel Hampton, Marilyn Horne, Salt-N-Pepa, and Selena.