How their classic second album provided Talking Heads with an unexpected breakthrough
It’s hard to imagine that an album with such an innocuous title could evolve into the means of providing an unlikely outfit with its big breakthrough.
However, given that More Songs About Buildings and Food not only imbued Talking Heads with one of their signature songs — a cover no less, that being Al Green’s soul stirring “Take Me to the River” — but also invested their sound with a skittish dance motif and the start of a three album partnership that found Brian Eno willingly sitting in the producer’s chair.
Although the title was originally said to have resulted from an offhanded suggestion by drummer Chris Frantz, Andy Partridge of the band XTC claims he came up with it and passed it on to singer/erstwhile leader David Byrne. Indeed, the two bands possessed a similarly chaotic style, which would have given giving credence to Partridge’s proposed handle.
No matter. Whatever the origin of the name might be, More Songs About Buildings and Food is a landmark accomplishment, especially given its place in the popularity of the budding punk movement of the time. When the album was released in July 1978, literacy and intelligence were not necessarily the prime factors in the era’s musical makeup.
Like the Ramones, Blondie, Television and the Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads were graduates of CBGBs and the other New York haunts that spawned the city’s prolific punk scene in the mid-to-late ‘70s. However, unlike those outfits, Talking Heads combined a certain sense of instability due to their physical flexibility, creating an unsettling yin and yang that Byrne exploited to maximum effect. The rest of the band — Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison — underscored this duality with a certain tone and texture that repressed any desire to leap wholeheartedly onto the dance floor. Yet for those willing to let go and give in to the band’s hurky-jerky delivery, the group proved to be one of the more propulsive exponents of the entire New Wave melange.
That was certainly the sound embodied by “Take Me To the River,” a single that brought the band into the mid tier of the pop charts and paved the way for mainstream acceptance down the road. Not that the group were necessarily willing accomplices; the album’s other standout “The Big Country,” provided a not-so-subtle putdown of America’s rural environs:
“Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.
I see the parkway that passes through them all.
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.
I couldn’t live like that, no siree!”
It wasn’t surprising that a band many might have tagged as urban elitists would have such vitriol for a region whose residents might have viewed Talking Heads as odd and offbeat. Then again, the song only served to heighten the divide between those still caught up in the final gasp of disco and others willing to accept the more cerebral strains of those sounds that were emerging in its wake from New York, L.A. and the U.K. Credit Eno for tapping into this strange new psyche and bringing this aural assault to full flower with his willing new charges.
The partnership would continue over the course of two successive albums, Fear of Music and Remain in Light, allowing Talking Heads to retain a reputation as one of the most provocative ensembles of the whole New Wave era. It certainly didn’t hurt their commercial credence either; the album creeped just inside the U.S. top 30 while skimming the top 20 in the U.K. It also received near unanimous approval from the critics, proof that intellect and exuberance could make compatible bedfellows when they found the right meld. An essential album, its potency remains undiminished even 40 years on.