10. Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food
I don’t mean to denigrate the very fine–underrated, even!–album Talking Heads: 77 when I note that More Songs About Buildings and Food seems like the real debut of the most important band to ever come straight outta the Rhode Island School of Design. The most obvious reason to tag this as the true starting point for the astonishing and influential music of Talking Heads is the inaugural involvement of Brian Eno, the production genius who would preside over three straight masterworks by band: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. Eno’s contribution to the uniquely jagged and creative post-punk art rock crafted by David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth can’t be overstated. In particular, Byrne’s vision for transformative music was formidable. Eno helped make it happen, or at least happen in a way that sounds stridently right.
Eno came into the band’s orbit when they were touring Europe as the support act to the Ramones. Eno introduced himself to the band at one of the gigs and wound up chatting with them for hours. Besides his work with Roxy Music and on defiantly oddball solo releases, Eno had just produced David Bowie’s Low, all of it adding up to an implicit promise that he was the right person to harness and heighten the daring of Talking Heads. Byrne, with the solidarity of Harrison, insisted on Eno’s involvement in the band’s sophomore album, eventually wearing down the skepticism of the bigwigs at Sire Records. Eno’s impact was simple and yet profound: according to Harrison, “Eno taught us to use the studio as an instrument, to be fearless.” One potential measure of the effectiveness of the collaboration is that the album’s track listing is largely made up of songs that were available for 77 but ultimately rejected for one reason or another. And yet, the leftovers add up to a far stronger album.
More Songs opens with the jaunty “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” which almost sounds like it transform into Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” before Byrne’s sharp, keening lead vocals come in, cutting against all expectations of conventionality. Naturally, that’s the general mode throughout: exemplary songcraft and surprisingly astute pop sensibilities ingeniously upended by the collaborators’ more off-kilter instincts. There are constant surprises, from the jittery funk of “With Our Love” to the sonic wanderings of “Warning Sign” and the punching force of “Found a Job.” In some ways, the album belongs to the drummer Frantz and bassist Weymouth, Eno bringing their brilliantly bizarro rhythms to the forefront. The precursor influences to Talking Heads songs can be discerned with a little imagination, but the music mostly sounds revolutionary and totally unique. Nothing else sounded quite like this, at least to this point.
None of this sounds tailor-made for radio attention, but More Songs does deliver the first of the three Top 40 hits for the Talking Heads. Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” was a favorite of Byrne’s (while Talking Heads were quickly distinctive enough that covers could often feel overly foreign, they’d been delivering their own versions of Green songs as far back as their founding band, the Artistics). Talking Heads preserved the soulfulness of the original while dressing it up in a striking new wave sheen. It wasn’t all that dissimilar from a cover of the same song that Bryan Ferry released around the same time on his album The Bride Stripped Bare (see #13 below). What sets the Talking Heads’ take apart is the considered steadiness of it, which heightens the drama and intensity of the song. It made it to #26 on the Billboard chart. It’s maybe not strange now that the track–and many other Talking Heads songs that never even sniffed the Top 40–is practically a standard, maybe better known than Green’s original. At the time, though, it was a laudable and unexpected breakthrough for a band built around splendidly uncompromising creativity.
As the band neared completion of the album, their mutual dissatisfaction with the working title, Tina and the Typing Pool, led the member who was potentially lending the record her name to supposedly remark on the difficulty of coming up with a satisfactory title for a release that was “just more songs about buildings and food.” It provided the perfect blend of challenging directness and deadpan embrace of the offbeat to define the band and their sound. Like everything contained within the grooves, it offered a definitive, purposeful statement of their art. It is who they are, and they would only get better and more interesting with immediately subsequent releases. It wasn’t their official beginning. And yet it was a helluva start.
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines