Talking Heads Part One (1980/1981): Reagan, Ghosts & Listening Winds

For many Americans, 1980 hoped to offer a break from the recent past: the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, a major recession. Disco.

A Presidential Election was also pending in November. At the beginning of the year, Jimmy Carter stood at 62% in the polls, Ronald Reagan at 33.

Reagan promised to return America to a pre-countercultural era, prioritising family values and social order. He courted the Fundamentalist vote; evangelists and motivational speakers suddenly popped up all over the radio.

Something pinged in David Byrne’s head, and he later outlined the febrile atmosphere of early 1980 in Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Totally Wired’: ‘The text was saying “Thou shalt not” but the preacher’s performance was this completely sensual, sexual thing. I thought, “This is great – the whole conflict is embodied right there…”’

Byrne and Brian Eno explored some of these themes on their groundbreaking My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (named after the 1954 book by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola) with a particular emphasis on Islam and its contrasts with Christianity.

The project was originally supposed to be a three-way collaboration between Jon Hassell, Eno and Byrne, a fake ‘field work’ complete with ethnography, liner notes and photos, but Hassell dropped out at the eleventh hour. The album is strikingly original, still relevant and sometimes terrifying.

A month before the Presidential Election, on 8 October 1980, Talking Heads released their masterpiece Remain In Light, also a collaboration with Eno. The album’s key tracks, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and ‘Listening Wind’, went even further than Bush Of Ghosts: the former showed that Byrne had completely assimilated the ‘sensual preacher’ persona, while the latter outlined a young Arab’s act of terror.

Mojique resents the rich ‘foreigners in fancy houses’ turning up in his country, makes a bomb ‘with quivering hands’ and dispatches it to his American enemy. It’s a unique, powerful piece of work, and one wonders whether its inclusion on Remain In Light contributed to the album being their worst-ever seller in the USA.

Reagan was elected on 4 November 1980 with 50.7% of the national vote. His famous Election Eve speech mentioned ‘that shining city on the hill’, invoking both Jesus’s Sermon On The Mount and noted Puritan John Winthrop. But Byrne’s New York had been under the cosh: more murders, robberies, burglaries and subway breakdowns were reported in 1980 than in any other year since records began 49 years earlier.

Reagan was inaugurated on 20 January 1981. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was finally released – after several postponements – almost exactly a month later.

Further reading: ‘Life And Death On The New York Dancefloor’ by Tim Lawrence

Book Review: Siren Song by Seymour Stein

One thing you could never say about the man born Seymour Steinbigle is that he’s led a dull life. And his new autobiography ‘Siren Song’ is anything but a dull book.

Born in a down-at-heel corner of Brooklyn, he did his time at Billboard, Tin Pan Alley, CBGB and Studio 54 and either discovered or nurtured Madonna, Talking Heads, k.d. lang (who calls him ‘the man with the golden ears’), Ramones, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Ice-T, Soft Cell, Squeeze, The Smiths, The Cult (by now you’ll be gleaning that he’s somewhat of an Anglophile), Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, all via his imprint Sire Records (which he co-founded with Richard Gottehrer).

So far, so common Rock Snob knowledge. And there’s no question that ‘Siren Song’ is a great resource for those who want to know about the making of and/or music-biz machinations behind some of the great modern pop/rock albums: Fear Of Music, Like A Virgin (complete with fascinating gossip about Nile Rodgers’ business dealings), My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, The Queen Is Dead, Ramones, New York. 

And then there are the fascinating tales of Stein signing Madonna from his hospital bed, visiting Talking Heads’ weird Long Island City loft and stalking Jethro Tull. He also writes superbly about the early ’80s music scene, when electro, hip-hop, Afro-beat, indie, new wave, reggae and post-disco combined to produce arguably the greatest ever pop period.

But two aspects separate ‘Siren Song’ from other similar tomes: Stein’s sheer love of music and his penchant for a pithy – but seldom tawdry – one-liner. On his lack of musical knowledge: ‘It’s usually better not to know the disgusting secrets of how the sausage got made.’ On David Byrne’s quirkiness: ‘He was someone I’d always support even if he wanted to make a concept album about toothpicks.’ On seeing Depeche Mode live for the first time: ‘They were four kids poking synths in a dump in the English suburbs.’ On the future of music: ‘Labels will always be needed, because only maniacs like me are insane enough to roam the globe, trawling through miles and miles of sh*t to just every now and then pick out a tiny diamond.’

Stein writes powerfully about the AIDS epidemic and the ramifications of being a gay man living a ‘straight’ life in the ’70s and ’80s (he had a wife and two daughters during the period). He superbly explains the timeless appeal of English guitar bands to Americans. The prologue is also a classic, describing what it means to love music and the joys, perils and sacrifices involved (especially if you’re coming from a working-class family) with seeking a career in A&R (artist and repertoire, or, in Stein-speak, people and songs).

‘Siren Songs’ is an unexpected gem and highly recommended.

Siren Song’ by Seymour Stein and Gareth Murphy is published by St Martin’s Press.

Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Reading obituaries of director Jonathan Demme, who has died from cancer aged 73, it struck me how many memorable scenes his films spawned.

Born in Baldwin, Long Island, his early career was mentored by B-movie pioneer Roger Corman. When Demme broke into Hollywood he never lost sight of his early exploitation influences and zany sense of humour; even ‘serious’ fare like ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘Philadelphia’ was hijacked by sundry in-jokes and bizarro guest stars including Corman, Chris Isaak and George A Romero.

Demme’s sets were famous for being fun places to work, and that’s borne out by the bonhomie and improvisatory vibe present in many of his films. He was clearly a friend of musicians, frequently using music in his movies as symbol of collaboration or even spiritual release (writer David Bowman memorably described ‘Stop Making Sense’ as ‘a three-act play documenting the spiritual journey of a hapless white guy trying to “get down”’!).

Apparently Demme sat down with each original member of Talking Heads before filming ‘Stop Making Sense’ and asked them, ‘How do you see me doing this?’ It’s hard to imagine Brian De Palma doing that. As a live-music documentarian, Demme let the viewer get to know each performer as if they were a character in a movie with the use of long, lingering shots, a world away from the clichéd, fast-cutting MTV style.

So, in tribute to a modern master, here are a few memorable moments from Demme films, in chronological order:

6. ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

5. ‘Something Wild’ (1986)

4. ‘Swimming To Cambodia’ (1987) (swearing alert)

3. ‘Married To The Mob’ (1988)

2. ‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

1. ‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)

Seven More Great ’80s Album Openers

7. David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ from Scary Monsters (1980)

Weird doesn’t cover it. We hear tape spooling around the reels and the machine being turned on, followed by drummer Dennis Davis whirling around a football rattle and counting us in in his best Cyborg voice. After this, Robert Fripp’s deranged solo and Michi Hirota’s strident Japanese outbursts sound almost normal.

6. De La Soul: ‘Intro’ from 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)

A whole generation of pop kids hadn’t heard anything like this before, and yet somehow it bears repeated listening. It’s just as fresh and original as anything The Small Faces or The Beatles tried 20 years before and arguably started off the whole ‘intro’ concept on hip-hop albums.

5. Genesis: ‘Behind The Lines’ from Duke (1980)

In musical theatre, I believe it’s called an overture. This bombastic piece previews many of the themes that will reverberate through the album. Tony Banks’ keys and Phil’s drums have seldom sounded brighter or tighter.

4. Lil Louis: ‘I Called U’ from From The Mind Of Lil Louis (1989)

This classic piece of bunny-boiler house is funny and arresting (sorry about the sound quality).

3. It Bites: ‘Positively Animal’ from Eat Me In St Louis (1989)

Watch that volume dial. The underrated four-piece jolt you out of complacency with a flashy, these-go-to-11 opener. Audacious and very un-English.

2. The Police: ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ from Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

Another moody classic. A brooding Oberheim bass-throb, a fudged Andy Summers chord, a hint of click track and then that brilliant, patented half-time groove. This full-length version hints at the darker themes of the lyric.

1. Talking Heads: ‘And She Was’ from Little Creatures (1985)

Hope you enjoy our new direction (though Little Creatures is probably my least favourite Heads album). Leaving behind the art-funk of Speaking In Tongues, this sprightly opener introduces a new stripped-down pop sound in no uncertain terms.