Classic album: Talking Heads – Speaking In Tongues

Talking Heads pictured in the early Eighties

Twenty-five years have elaspsed since Speaking In Tongues gave Talking Heads their biggest commercial success, but the passage of time hasn’t diminished the influence or freshness of the New York band’s first post-Brian Eno record…

It’s 1981. Talking Heads have just released the wildly ambitious Remain In Light, but the band’s future is far from assured. How could they possibly follow such an album? Where next? Bassist Tina Weymouth said at the time: “We spent so many years trying to be original that we don’t know how to be original any more.”

So Talking Heads did what any highly creative band on the verge of splitting up should do: the quartet went on hiatus to distract themselves with side projects. David Byrne made The Catherine Wheel, a soundtrack for a ballet by his choreographer girlfriend Twyla Tharp. Weymouth and husband/drummer Chris Frantz cut their first album as Tom Tom Club, a pop-by-numbers moneyspinner. And guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, not to be outdone, released his first solo album, The Red And the Black, which satisfied Jerry Harrison, if no-one else.

When they regrouped, the niggling jealousies within this famously dysfunctional band had not disappeared, but they had receded sufficiently. In his seminal Heads biography This Must Be the Place, David Bowman writes: “They still appeared more Addams family than Brady Bunch, but they no longer seemed to be embittered.” The new congenial atmosphere allowed them to make their fifth great album, Speaking in Tongues, released in late May, 1983.

For three reasons, Speaking in Tongues was a departure from the norm for Talking Heads. Firstly, all four core members had now proved they could work independently of the band. Secondly, it was the first album to benefit from the interracial ‘Expanded Heads’ group that appear in the Stop Making Sense concert film. Thirdly – and most importantly – it was Talking Heads’ first post-Brian Eno release.

Byrne and Eno - an affinity of music and clothesEno‘s influence on Talking Heads cannot be understated. Band and producer met in London in 1978 when the Heads were supporting the Ramones. Their instant bond was such that Eno would produce their next three albums and loom large over the most fertile phase of the band’s history. Famous for his musical non-ability, Eno described his input as “listening to what they were doing and picking out sounds and making new sounds from them… using delays to create new rhythms within their own.” In the following years Byrne and Eno were almost joined at the hip, hanging out among the Manhattan trendies, collaborating on the leftfield LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, even dressing alike; their relationship as fellow artists was intense, but platonic. But within the fragile power structure of Talking Heads, their exclusive cosiness inevitably caused tension. Note that Eno is just one letter from Ono.

The final insult for the other Heads was the biased credit on the sleeve of Remain in Light: ‘All songs written by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Talking Heads’. Byrne sensed that Eno’s ongoing influence would spell the end of the band that had taken him from a skinny young art student in Rhode Island to a skinny rich rock star in New York, and ended the relationship. Eno being Eno would say that it was he who lost interest in such conventional music makers.

Following the ‘Big Suit’ tour with the Expanded Heads, the band flew down to the Bahamas to start work on the as-yet-untitled Speaking in Tongues. But the exotic surroundings weren’t inspiration enough for Byrne, who would fly back to New York to pace around his SoHo loft with a tape recorder, mumbling lyrics to himself day and night – in short, speaking in tongues. Byrne was no Dylan: he didn’t do narrative – his lyrics were disembodied slogans and Dada-like verse. But this time, Bowman reports that “the words weren’t just random. David was actually saying something, it just wasn’t in a linear fashion.”

In fact Byrne was writing his best lyrics yet. On Burning Down the House, David Byrne, certified oddball, sings emphatically: ‘I’m an or-di-na-ry guy!’ On Making Flippy Floppy, he is almost political in the ever-topical line, ‘Our president’s crazy’. Perhaps the best lyric on the album is from This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody): ‘Love me till I’m dead’. The double entendre, in such a sweet song, is perfectly poised.

Musically, Speaking in Tongues takes the Heads’ love affair with funk to its orgasmic conclusion. The rhythms are complex, African, black. The relentless pulse of the music was boosted by the Expanded Heads, especially by the talents of Parliament keyboard legend Bernie Worrell and Wally Badarou, a classically trained funk maestro. That’s not to say the white Heads couldn’t do rhythm of course: Frantz’s drumming, Weymouth’s bass, and Harrison and Byrne’s guitars are all tighter than ever. 

Side one (in vinyl terms) is practically flawless: Burning Down the House, Making Flippy Floppy, Girlfriend is Better, Slippery People, I Get Wild/Wild Gravity. The beats are hypnotic, the synths dark, Byrne’s voice fizzing between paranoia and elation. Side two starts with the electro-blues of Swamp, where Byrne pulls off a convincing Delta growl, before – sadly – two filler tracks, Moon Rocks and Pull Up the Roots. The album ends on This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody), with everyone apart from Frantz playing instruments on which they’re not proficient. The result is aptly naïve but beautifully sincere.

With Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads sold a million copies for the first time, most in the emerging Japanese format of pre-recorded cassette. The record industry was changing. MTV was dominant. The dollar-eyed Eighties were in full swing. Punk was dead. Post-punk was dead. Talking Heads, now one of the biggest bands in America, would spend three more albums trying to reclaim their former edge. As it turns 25, this landmark work of prog-funk genius is definitely due a reissue.

The album cover, clearly influenced by African artReleased: June 1983
Produced by: Talking Heads

01: ‘Burning Down the House’
02: ‘Making Flippy Floppy’
03: ‘Girlfriend is Better’
04: ‘Slippery People’
05: ‘I Get Wild/Wild Gravity’
06: ‘Swamp’
07: ‘Moon Rocks’
08: ‘Pull Up the Roots’
09: ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’

Musicians

David Byrne. Vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, percussion.
Chris Frantz. Drums, backing vocals, synthesizer.
Jerry Harrison. Keyboards, guitar, backing vocals.
Tina Weymouth. Synthesizer and string bass, backing vocals, guitar.

Alex Weir. Guitar.
Wally Badarou. Synthesizer.
Raphael DeJesus. Percussion.
Steve Scales. Percussion.
David Van Tieghem. Percussion
Richard Landry. Saxophone.
Nona Hendryx. Backing vocals.
Dolette MacDonald. Backing vocals.
Bernie Worrell. Synthesizer.
Shankar. Violin.

1983: The Albums

‘Murmur’ REM
‘Synchronicity’ The Police
‘War’ U2
‘She’s So Unusual’ Cindi Lauper
‘Swordfishtrombones’ Tom Waits
‘Madonna’ Madonna

This feature appears in the current edition of Clash magazine

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