Looking back on the band’s breakthrough second album
And you may find yourself … collaborating with Twyla Tharp.
And you may find yourself … starring in feature films.
And you may find yourself … in a Broadway theater, with a Broadway hit.
And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?
For David Byrne, the first real step in getting here was arguably the Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, released July 14, 1978.
One might say Talking Heads ‘77, the band’s first album, was Byrne’s first step toward a level of success that most recently has seen him fronting American Utopia on Broadway from 2019 to 2022, then returning to the Great White Way in 2023 with Here Lies Love.
But that first album was looked at by many as a vanity project from privileged art school kids who had no business trying to break into a musical scene that included Television, Patti Smith, Blondie and the Ramones. Sure, they got lucky with “Psycho Killer,” but even the proverbial stopped clock is right twice a day.
Fortunately, British musician, composer and producer Brian Eno saw much more than a one-shot vanity project in the band. He produced the Heads’ second outing, bringing out the essence of what made the Talking Heads unique by focusing on stronger rhythms and giving Byrne’s unique voice a space in which to play. He also added his own musicianship to More Songs About Buildings and Food via synthesizers, piano, guitar, percussion and backing vocals.
The record was a success both commercially (#29 in the U.S. and #21 in the U.K.) and critically. It was the first release in a stunning three-pack of Eno-produced albums (after this came Fear of Music then Remain in Light, in 1979 and 1980 respectively) that cemented the Heads as one of the greatest new wave / post-punk / dance-punk / call-it-whatever-the-hell-you-want bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Eno and Byrne would go on to more work together – 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a hell of a listen – but that’s another story for another time.
Back to 1978 and More Songs About Buildings and Food, which opens with the propulsive “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel.” Lasting a Ramones-esque 2:11, Chris Frantz’ drums and Tina Weymouth’s bass sweep under the band and take it galloping forward like horses just out of the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby.
Before the listener can recover, “With Our Love” kicks in (it’s notable that the spaces between tracks on More Songs About Buildings and Food are shorter than on a typical album). Weymouth’s bass work is again a wonder for the ears, and Byrne’s vocal delivery is a great example of the staccato playfulness that has made him so much fun to listen to for decades. The way he stretches out the word “love” at the very end of the track serves as a perfect segueway into the sparkly opening guitar of “The Good Thing,” a song that’s easy to read as a statement on the corporate work world. Or of something more sinister, if you prefer – this verse makes me think of Pink Floyd’s marching hammers: “A straight line exists between me and the good thing / I have found the line and its direction is known to me / Absolute trust keeps me going in the right direction / Any intrusion is met with a heart full of the good thing.”
And the album continues on from there, a sonic wonderland of irresistible rhythms and quirky lyricism: Byrne signaling danger in “Warning Sign,” explaining to lonely boys that “The Girl Want to Be with the Girls,” telling us all in “Artists Only” that he’s painting again.
Then, all of a sudden, as you’re bopping your head and moving your feet and being supremely entertained by Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison’s musicianship and Byrne’s vocal gymnastics, out of left field comes what would become the Heads’ first top 30 hit: “Take Me to the River,” which reached #26 on the Billboard chart in 1979.
What a song choice!
Al Green’s hit version was a breezy horn-infused R&B track that Green dedicates to blues singer Junior Parker, “a cousin of mine who’s gone on, and we’d kinda like to carry on in his name” as he says on the track itself. Green’s delivery of the tune sounded great coming out of an AM car radio when it was released in late ‘74.
Ah, but the Heads’ version: Opening with a cymbal crash, followed by a thumping drum line soon joined by Weymouth’s fat bass, then Jerry Harrison’s keys. This gloriously succeeds in doing what any cover version needs to do in order to achieve true greatness: It makes the listener forget about the song’s originator as the band wraps itself around the music to make the song its own. There are undoubtedly a lot of people today who think this is a Talking Heads song and have never heard the Al Green version.
VIDEO: Talking Heads Live at Entermedia Theatre New York City 1978
After listeners are taken to the river, the album closes with its longest track: “The Big Country,” which basically flips the bird to flyover country and the middle Americans who live there: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me / I wouldn’t live like that, no siree / I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do / I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” Oh well, it’s not like those flyover kids listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd were paying much attention to the scene at CBGB’s anyway.
Great things would follow for the Heads generally and Byrne specifically in the years that would follow. They had a hell of a ride in the ‘80s, disbanding in 1991 after years of friction between Byrne and his fellow Heads.
But go back and give their second album a listen again. Marvel at how tight a unit they are, delivering a powerful album that grinds the sophomore jinx under its musical heel – and that sounds as fresh and vital today as it did nearly a half century ago.
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