[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]
MORE SONGS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND FOOD
FEAR OF MUSIC
REMAIN IN LIGHT
THE ARC OF Talking Heads' career is almost perfect. It rises, as though from a high springboard, through their first four studio albums to an improbable apex. Then it smoothly descends through the next three via whimsy and pastiche, before throwing the curve with a slight upwards variation on their swansong.
All eight are being reissued as twin CD/DVD-Audio packages - half now, the rest in February. In the first batch, we find not just a breathtaking run of creativity, but also the single most influential oeuvre in current pop music. Only New Order and Roxy Music come close.
The biggest (Franz Ferdinand), the best (LCD Soundsystem), the latest (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) and the rest (where to start?) of today's geometrically-inclined newest wave of New Wave stand up to their armpits in hock to Talking Heads. Returning to these albums after years of echoes is like stepping from a painted, papier-mâché stage-set into the three dimensional world.
Talking Heads share two further attributes with Roxy Music. The first is that, having been popular in their own time, they have long been taken for granted (unlike, say, The Velvet Underground, whose cult status saw them enshrined in the canon relatively swiftly.) Only lately have they received due recognition as a band out of the top drawer. The second is Brian Eno.
Eno had yet to join up on 77, a debut which both captured and transcended the year of its title and release. The sound is spiky and basic, yet anything but crude. It engineers a neat and flexible platform for a set of songs which, in hands less assured than those of David Byrne, might have been obnoxiously quirky, but are instead both wry and stirring.
Talking Heads were often accused of being overly cerebral, but the charge does not stick to their earlier work. They introduced themselves to the world with Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town, a sincerely affectionate riff on the Jackson 5 that reveals where their instincts lay.
Byrne believed that pop could tackle any subject its creators cared for, which makes More Songs About Buildings And Food something of a manifesto. The arrival of Eno as co-producer and effective bandmate signalled a broadening of already wide horizons. Again, an allegedly intellectual exercise strikes directly at the heart and the feet (Pet Shop Boys might empathise.) It's a scintillating record, alive with feeling and invention. Clever, but not clever-clever.
Fear Of Music, thought of as the “difficult” album, is anything but. The band - for the first time writing as a group, playing with a much-expanded line-up, and incorporating sounds from Africa - originated a crackling, overtly Modernist opus which still connects with the listener the way the walls of New York's MOMA do with the avid gallery-goer.
Greeted with some bemusement in 1979, it might now be acclaimed a masterpiece, had it not been succeeded by the astonishing Remain In Light - here given five stars only because six are not permitted. The many and self conscious sins of Fusion are absolved by the existence of this record. Its surging, darting, haunted Afro-funk is endlessly thrilling. Even without the immaculate, irresistible Once In A Lifetime, it would number in the first rank of classics.
Pop may at last have caught up with Talking Heads. It looks unlikely ever to surpass them.
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