Talking Heads are back… kinda! Next month, they’ll reunite – wait for it – for a screening and panel Q&A at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) for the re-release of their live concert film Stop Making Sense and its 40th anniversary. For ‘Heads fans, even this small sign of reconciliation is a staggering development: since their split in the early ‘90s – and an awkward reunion for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2003 – the quartet have had little nice things to say about each other. Promoting his book, earlier this year married band members Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz said that everything lead singer David Byrne did was “transactional” and likened him to a “sly fox”. Ouch.
They remain a possibility for one of rock music’s unlikeliest reunions, potentially following in the footsteps of The Stone Roses, Guns N’ Roses and Eagles’ footsteps should they find enough common ground. Beyond wishful thinking, there’s nothing to suggest that anything more than this one-off collaboration is on the cards at this stage, but their first appearance together in 20 years is mightily intriguing.
An appropriate moment, then, to take stock of the band’s recording output over their fruitful career in studio albums (no compilations or live albums, sorry Stop Making Sense). Here’s every Talking Heads album ranked from worst to best.
8‘True Stories’ (1986)
The 1986 film feels less like a cohesive album, and more of a vanity project to supplement David Byrne’s film of the same name – which it is! ‘Wild Wild Life’ aside, it’s a remarkably pedestrian entry for the band and would precede their gradual decline and eventual split. Byrne likens his behaviour around this album and the following as acting like a “little tyrant”. You can tell: ‘True Stories’ packs little joy.
A comeback of sorts, here. The band’s final record – where they continued to dabble with elements of Latin and Afrobeat music – would tee up Byrne’s solo career for the next decade. Even with a slight improvement on ‘True Stories’, it’s still a bit of a mess, and even the chimpanzee on its cover looks rightfully befuddled. Didn’t stop NME giving it 9.68 out of 10 upon release, mind. Let’s move on…
6‘Little Creatures’ (1985)
Now we’re getting somewhere. A year earlier, the band reached their creative pinnacle with live-concert film Stop Making Sense and the following record ‘Little Creatures’ would prove their commercial peak: it’s their best-selling studio album in the US and boasted the life-affirming ‘Road To Nowhere’, their only single to go Top 10 in the UK. ‘And She Was’, which favoured a rustier, earthier sound than previous material, is sweet and inquisitive.
5‘More Songs About Building and Food’ (1978)
The first in the band’s trilogy of Brian Eno-produced records. Where their debut trembled with a jittering energy, here they found their footing and exercised control and restraint. Their slinky, tasteful cover of Al Green’s classic ‘Take Me To The River’ was their first song to garner mainstream attention, but there’s also a razor-sharp edge and mystery to songs like ‘Found A Job’ and ‘Warning Sign’. The best was yet to come, but most bands would kill for a record as fun as this.
4‘Talking Heads 77’ (1977)
It’s not overblown to suggest that this album altered the course of rock history. Their sets at New York’s CBGBs and support slots with The Ramones alerted the Lower East Side to a seriously buzzy new prospect: punky, precise and peculiar. ‘Psycho Killer’ and ‘Pulled Up’ summon a sinister energy from a wide-eyed Byrne, and ‘Uh Oh Love Has Come To Town’’s steel-drum riff is a welcome surprise on its opening track. The direct sound here would go on to be replicated by emerging musicians for decades to come; if this record was your guiding light, you usually went on to have some serious fun.
3‘Fear of Music’ (1979)
On their third album, their band would hit their idiosyncratic stride. ‘Fear of Music’ boasts some of their most danceable rhythms and hooks, and Weymouth and Frantz’ rhythm section locates a remarkable groove. It would also be the final album that the band worked on if not harmoniously, at least cooperatively as creative tensions boiled over. But how else would Dadaism (‘I Zimbra’), slinking WW2 spies (‘Life During Wartime’) and unabashed romance and longing (‘Heaven’) all sound so natural next to each other. A blueprint was established here, one they’d put to even greater use in the coming years…
2‘Speaking In Tongues’ (1982)
There’s a case to be made that ‘Speaking In Tongues’ is totally overblown – but it’s not exactly a fun one to make. Part of its charm is that maximalist energy, the band following the trend of ‘80s bombast but keeping it weird at the same time. The record’s fizzing opening run – ‘Burning Down The House’, ‘Making Flippy Floppy’, ‘Girlfriend Is Better’, ‘Slippery People’ – is the band at the peak of their powers. On ‘Moon Rocks’ Byrne sings of “Flying saucers, levitation” – when he follows it with “I can do that” you’d be hard-pressed to poke holes in his confidence. The fact that this record makes up much of Stop Making Sense’s setlist cannot be overlooked.
1‘Remain In Light’ (1980)
It’s fitting that the cover for 1980s ‘Remain In Light’ – a posed photo of the group – is vandalised almost beyond recognition: this record gleefully ripped to shreds everything that was said about and expected of them. Here on ‘Remain…’ their individual talents and playing coalesce magnificently as they capture the sound they’d been gunning for spectacularly. Speaking to NME in 1980, Byrne said that the music on ‘Remain…’ has “a transcendent feeling, like a trance of sort” when it all comes together.
That much is true: ‘Born Under Punches (Heat Goes On)’ is so knotty and hypnotic, it’s hard to put a finger on where any part starts and ends; ‘The Great Curve’ rises to such heights over its six-and-a-half minute runtime, the only way to finish it is with a sheepish fade-out; ‘Once In A Lifetime’ is a subversive, sensational slice of pop. It was a record that would go on to influence virtually every other rock band that didn’t want to get bogged down by genre expectations, but expand and find a groove.