TALKING HEADS – ” Speaking In Tongues ” Classic Albums

Posted: July 2, 2021 in MUSIC

Speaking In Tongues: Talking Heads Return – With A Lot More To Say

Following the culture hops of ‘Remain in Light’ and ‘Speaking in Tongues,’ Talking Heads’ sixth album was their stab at Americana roots music. Coming from a bunch of New York City art-school MTV stars, the results were slightly skewed, so their idea of country music was more tilted than authentic. No mater, ‘Little Creatures’ is the group’s most playful and fun album, with accordion, steel guitar and even washboard pushing it along.

After putting out their masterpiece and after creating music at a furious pace (four boundary-challenging albums in as many years), Talking Heads took a three-year break. By the time Talking Heads reconvened to begin work on their fifth album, “Speaking In Tongues”, changes were afoot in the camp. In a remarkable burst of industry and creativity, their first four records – from 1977’s “Talking Heads: 77″ to 1980’s boundary-pushing “Remain In Light” had come in just as many years. After wrapping up their live commitments with a short tour of Japan in February 1981, however, the four members took a short hiatus. When the members reconvened, they seemed to be more open to pop melodies again, albeit in a very Head-y way.

As with Remain In Light, work for “Speaking In Tongues” began, in July 1982, with jam sessions in Frantz and Weymouth’s Long Island loft. Frantz remembered it as a time of experimentation: “We would sometimes switch instruments… This is how “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” came about. Tina played rhythm guitar, Jerry played keyboard bass and David played some freaky little sounds on the Prophet-5 [synthesiser] using the modulation wheel. I played the drums because no one else knew how.”

Despite the rampant creativity of these early sessions, all was not well. Jerry Harrison’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer, and the guitarist was in bad shape. He straightened out and began participating in the sessions again, but more upheaval was to come. Deciding their relationship with Brian Eno had run its course, the group lost a producer who had been an integral part of their sound since their second album, 1978’s More Songs About Buildings And Food. They sought a replacement in Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti, but the man who had helmed such masterpieces as “Low” and Heroes” He told them, “You don’t need a producer. All you need is a great engineer.”

That became Butch Jones, who oversaw the recording of Speaking In Tongues’ basic tracks at Bob Blank’s Blank Tapes Studios in Manhattan. The sessions went well, with the band enlisting outside help in the shape of, among others, Parliament keyboardist Bernie Worrell (playing synth on Girlfriend Is Better), guitarist Alex Weir of 70s funk combo The Brothers Johnson, French synth whizz Wally Badarou and Nona Hendryx of Labelle.

“Burning Down The House” made a hell of a start to the album – and remains one of the best Talking Heads songs of all time. Receiving its title when Chris Frantz shouted, “Burn down the house!” over an early jam on the song.

And there was barely any let-up for the remainder of “Speaking In Tongues’ first half. “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Girlfriend Is Better” delivered more pulsing low-end shenanigans with insistent hooks and sci-fi sound effects galore.

“Speaking In Tongues” saw Talking Heads let a little light back in after the dense and tetchy soundscapes of Fear Of MusicandRemain In Light, with the spry sci-fi funk of “Girlfriend Is Better” standing as one of Talking Heads’ best songs to edge into pop territory. While Byrne contemplates romantic temptation, the band kick up a storm behind him, with synth wizard Bernie Worrell (a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic) contributing witty and weird musical embellishments that add a cartoonish dimension to proceedings.

While “Slippery People” is a masterpiece of strung-out, apprehensive funk lifted by a gospel-like call-and-response chorus and I Get Wild/Wild Gravity even finds Talking Heads dabbling in dub.

For a group as in thrall to R&B as Talking Heads, having a song covered by The Staple Singers would have been the ultimate seal of approval – and that’s exactly what happened when “Slippery People” was given the Staples’ treatment in 1984, reaching No.22 on the US R&B chart. While it might have seemed an unlikely cover, the song was the most obvious manifestation of David Byrne’s interest in gospel – a spirited call-and-response with powerhouse guest vocalist Nona Hendryx over a pulsing minimal funk backing with deft synth flourishes. But the lyrics take a left turn from traditional gospel, with a critical look at religion (the slippery people of the title can be interpreted as those in positions of power). The song remains a barnstorming highlight of Mavis Staples’ live shows, and has only gained in soulful intensity through the years.

Making Flippy Floppy” nearly six minutes’ worth of robo-funk, with Tina Wemouth’s endlessly inventive bass to the fore, Making Flippy Floppy shows that Talking Heads were paying attention to the fresh sounds emerging from hip-hop, borrowing them to make something as danceable as it was idiosyncratic. Lyrically, it weighs up the ways in which individuals compromise to fit into society and ponders the consequences of stepping out of line: “Snap into position, bounce till you ache/You step out of line and, you end up in jail.” Hardly typical fodder for a funked-up dancefloor filler, but by this point, the best of Talking Heads songs made up their own rules.

And so we were given ‘Speaking in Tongues’ (a reference to the gibberish David Byrne would sing as placeholders on working tracks), an album brought the funk … along with the band’s strongest set of pure songs. “Girlfriend Is Better” dragged an R&B workout into the New Wave era (and coined the name of the band’s 1984 concert movie, ‘Stop Making Sense’). “Swamp” mixed John Lee Hooker-esque growling blues with synth-rock (and might be responsible for Byrne’s creepiest vocal – which is saying something). “Burning Down the House” transformed a P-Funk jam into a slicing, dicing shout-along classic (and a Top 10 hit!). Then there’s “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” a rare love song from Byrne that’s as sweet as it is slippery.

The album’s second half begins with what sounds like David Byrne quite literally speaking in tongues through the introduction to “Swamp”, a bizarre stomper with an irresistible wordless chorus that finds Byrne growling a pantomime villain. “Moon Rocks” lightens things with its choppy guitar and nimble bass before the high-energy Pull Up The Roots stampedes towards the album’s closer and emotional pay-off.

“This Must Be The Palace (Naïve Melody)” had come a long way from that jam back in Long Island. Here, it’s one of the most flat-out gorgeous moments in Talking Heads’ catalogue. Layers of synth softly hit the listener like warm and welcome sunlight, offset by the understated simplicity of the rhythm section. And here Byrne sounds like a man transformed – content and giving himself up to love like never before. Given that Talking Heads fans had become accustomed to David Byrne’s oblique lyrics and detached delivery, “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)” was a genuine shock that. Here Byrne appeared to be singing a simple and direct love song – granted, he sounded like a newly sentient robot exploring these strange things called feelings, but that makes it all the more affecting addition to the best Talking Heads songs. To begin with, Byrne’s neuroses linger (“I feel numb, born with a weak heart/I guess I must be having fun”) but as the song progresses with a bittersweet and flat-out gorgeous electro-pop backing, he accepts the comfort that love can bring (“Home is where I want to be/But I guess I’m already there”.)

There’s a vulnerability and tenderness to the vocal that was wholly new for the group, but that only made it all the more affecting.

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