The Name of This Band is Talking Heads: Album Review

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 The 1982 live double album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was a veritable treasure trove of Talking Heads gems. This blend of mesmerizing performances and innovative, exciting versions of well-loved songs was both exhilarating and irresistible. At times, this album arguably contained some of the band’s best work.

Titling the album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was frontman David Byrne’s way of clearing up any confusion regarding the proper name of the band. Noting that many people mistakenly referred to Talking Heads as The Talking Heads, Byrne wanted to establish once and for all with this album title that that wasn’t correct.

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads turned out to be even more of an apt title than Byrne may have anticipated, as in many ways, this album served as the heart of what Talking Heads were all about. It showcased them at their very best and demonstrated what was so ground-breaking and unique about them at each point of their career.

Recorded at various performances during the span of the years 1977-1981, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads contained live versions of tracks from the band’s first four studio albums: Talking Heads: 77 (1977), More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain in Light (1980). This album served as an all-encompassing representation of the band’s progression from their sparse, punk-y beginnings to the more sophisticated, well-rounded and experimental sound they went on to develop.

Throughout the album, the band stayed tight and in tune and Byrne’s voice remained strong and commanding, only cracking once. All of the songs on side one, disc one of the original record were recorded during a Massachusetts performance on November 17, 1977.

The album began with a song from the band’s first album, entitled “New Feeling”. Byrne introduced it to the crowd in his typical minimalist fashion, stating simply, “This name of this song is ‘New Feeling.’ That’s what it’s about.” After this introductory track, the band led right into “A Clean Break”, another early song that was never available on any other Talking Heads albums. These songs perfectly embodied the frenetic, urgent and nervous brand of rock that had made Talking Heads stand out from the beginning.

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads

Photo: By Plismo (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The third song on the album, “Don’t Worry About the Government,” was notable for being the only time that Byrne’s voice faltered during the album, cracking as it did on the word “laws.” However, rather than taking listeners out of the song, this moment only served to portray David Byrne as being vulnerable and human, despite the fact that, in his work, he tended to project the image of a unemotional, detached observer of human nature rather than a participant. Perhaps in response to his voice cracking towards the beginning, Byrne held out the last note of the song for far longer than normal, with a clear, strong and almost defiant tone.

The next track, “Pulled Up,” was an even tighter and more upbeat version of one of their first album’s best songs. The instrumentation on this version was even more intricate than it was on the original, making the listener better appreciate the sophisticated interplay between lead guitars and bass that was present in so many of Talking Heads’ songs, yet became even more apparent during live performances.

Next up was a version of one of the band’s best-known and best-loved songs, “Psycho Killer.” The signature, bare-bones arrangement of this song seemed to lend itself to a new incarnation each time it was performed live, and this one was no exception. The song built up slowly, finally launching into its familiar central riff after a minute or so, and ended with a high-intensity, hard-rocking section that went all out in a way the original song hadn’t.

Throughout the album, Byrne hardly acknowledged his audience except to shout a matter-of-fact and obligatory “Thank you very much!” after playing a few songs. One got the feeling that to him, although he was an exceptional performer, the audience was secondary in importance to bringing to life the sounds he heard in his head.

The songs that made up side two of disc one were recorded two years after the first collection, this time in New Jersey. This section of the album began with “Artists Only”, a strange, compelling treatise detailing an artist’s creation process. Byrne embellished this version of the song with an unusual and sometimes bizarre vocal delivery. This expanded version rendered it both more abundant and more beautiful than the album version.

The following track, “Stay Hungry,” was another song about the artistic lifestyle, specifically about the balance between satisfying the creative urge and staying “hungry” enough to create again. Again, this song added additional instruments and melodies that were not present on the original record, proving what a well-constructed song it really was. This end of this song featured a transcendent keyboard solo by band member Jerry Harrison. Ending as it did with softer, more vulnerable lyrics about dancing and human contact, “Stay Hungry” could be perceived as a song about either sexual hunger or creative hunger, or both.

The live version of “Air”, a track that originally appeared on Fear of Music, inspired goosebumps with its ethereal backing vocals, which seemed like the personification of air itself, before Byrne’s cartoony voice cut in to bring listeners back down to Earth. Another example of Byrne’s signature brand of goofiness and beauty, “Love—Building on Fire”, was next, also featuring more intricate guitar interplay and stronger vocals than the studio version. On the next song, “Memories Can’t Wait”, the band couldn’t recreate live the atypical sound effects and sped-up vocals that the studio version utilized, so they compensated with very effective sliding electric guitar tones.

Side three of disc two of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads contained the first collection of tracks that were not all recorded during one session. These tracks were taken from performances in New Jersey, New York City and Tokyo that took place in between August 1980 and January 1981.

The first track on this section, “I Zimbra”, featured a bouncy, circular beat that transferred flawlessly to live version. Bassist Tina Weymouth’s work shone here, especially in the break-down towards the end of the song. This song preceded a harder-rocking version of another Fear of Music track, “Drugs”.

The next track, “Houses in Motion”, was one of Talking Heads’ most avant-garde compositions. In some ways, it was the artiest their art rock ever got. However, this live version was more accessible and entertaining than the studio version. The musical wind-down of the last couple minutes was funky, choppy and totally head-bopping.

Following “Houses in Motion” was another track from Fear of Music, “Life During Wartime”. Slightly sped up from the album version, this beloved track packed a punch and was the perfect counterpoint to the sometimes meandering, though always interesting, “Houses in Motion” that preceded it.

Side four of the second disc started with “The Great Curve”, also the first track on Remain in Light. Gorgeous female background vocals and lyrics such as “World of light, she’s gonna rise up” elevated and transformed this track into something almost gospel-like. In addition, the solo guitar work towards the middle of the song is nothing short of incredible. This track contained some of the most interesting vocal arrangement in the Talking Heads catalog. The second-to-last track, “Crosseyed and Painless”, continued this trend of intriguing and engaging guitar work, especially right at the beginning.

The album ended with a song that, although not a Talking Heads original, they have become known for: “Take Me To the River”. This Al Green cover demonstrated that Byrne, for all his avant-garde, post-New Wave weirdness, could rock a soul song with the best of them. This was a perfect end to the album, a song that was best heard and recorded live, a bluesy concoction that was immensely satisfying. Weymouth once again showed off her impressive bass skills in the musical wind-down towards the end.

As the album progressed, it became clear how much Byrne had come into himself as a performer and really owned his eccentricities. No one in rock before or since had a stage presence or personality quite like Byrne. It had become as much a part of the band as their music itself.

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads captured the band at a pivotal moment in their career, after they had begun to expand their musical repertoire but not yet completely made the leap into total funk, as they would with their next album, the seminal Speaking in Tongues. If Fear of Music was the beginning of Talking Heads’ major transition, Remain in Light furthered their development and Speaking in Tongues was when they really let loose. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was the in-between point, a fitting celebration and send-off of the previous style of Talking Heads’ music, as the band had bigger artistic fish to fry.

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