This is the first in a series of three columns, collectively titled Byrnanza, about the work of the musical genius David Byrne over the past thirty years.
I was lucky enough to catch Stop Making Sense in its entirety at the Tyneside Cinema this past weekend. I’d seen bits of pieces of it before, and there’s lots of it on YouTube all chopped up, but I can now safely say that there is NOTHING like watching it from beginning to end.
If you only read one of my columns, make it this one. That’s how much I want to share this with you.
Let me just say that I’ve been waiting to see this film for AGES. Talking Heads 1980 – 1985 have been my life-soundtrack for years now, and David Byrne might be my spirit animal: gangly, nerdy, huge fan of non-American/British music, kind of an asshole. And the first time I see it, it’s on the big screen! HOORAY. Irish Michael (of Eurovision live-blog fame) came too, because as soon as I learned the Tyneside was showing this, I made an urgent phone call consisting of squealing. Michael grew up listening to the live album but had never seen the film. You could honestly call our Sunday excursion a pilgrimage.
If you don’t know much about Talking Heads, the short-version history is this: David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz all met as undergraduates at Rhode Island School of Design, and formed a band. Fourth member Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Modern Lovers, joined up about two years later. Their debut show was opening for the Ramones at CBGB’s, which by anyone’s standards is an incredible way to enter the world.
Their first record Talking Heads 77 gave the world the insanely catchy anthem to paranoia, “Psycho Killer.” Over the years, the Heads developed a reputation for weird and wonderful sounds: a fusion of funk, blues, Afrobeat, punk, New Wave, and garage rock. The best label I’ve seen to describe them is “art punk,” but at the same time I don’t really think they belong in a category of musical style with anyone else. Adding to that sense of the band as outsiders are Byrne’s lyrics, which inhabit a world of emotional detachment and fascination with mundane things (their second album is titled More Songs About Buildings And Food). Even by the standards of the 1980s, Talking Heads are unique; and Stop Making Sense, filmed in 1983 in Hollywood, is the pinnacle of their inventiveness and artistic vision, as well as widely considered the best concert film ever made.
If I’m not careful, I’ll end up giving you a play-by-play of the entire film. There are no downsides to Stop Making Sense, except for how drummer Chris Franz won’t shut his mouth during “Genius Of Love.” So here, instead, is a list of reasons why you should see Stop Making Sense without delay. Complete with video!
1. The promotional film where David Byrne interviews himself. Not strictly part of the concert film, but a cult joy nonetheless.
(At 1:16, does this count as blackface? Seriously, does it? I’ve been wrestling with that question for years.)
This film mentions a key conceit of Stop Making Sense: the concert begins with a bare stage, and equipment and musicians are added one at a time. The amount of rehearsal that must have gone into this is phenomenal, and the effect is really interesting: you get to watch a concert being built before your eyes. David Byrne was adamant that a concert should be an experience that the audience watches as well as hears, and this plays out brilliantly throughout the hour and a half of performance. Jonathan Demme’s direction is flawless, largely because he’s not afraid to use shots that show roadies, cameramen or backstage space. One great tracking shot follows a man dressed entirely in black, slowly moving among the musicians with a spotlight in his hand. “He knew what not to do is what he did do,” Byrne deadpans in the above interview, and Demme’s minimalism is a huge part of what gives Stop Making Sense its character.
2. The opening song: just Byrne, a guitar, and a boombox. And his Adam’s apple, which should have its own zip code.
3. The fabulous bass jam of one Tina Weymouth, one of the very few women in music in the 80s who played their own instruments. She’s solid, she can funk, and she can riff. I want to be her.
4. The seamless melding of the four nerdy art-school dropouts in Talking Heads with several members of Parliament Funkadelic, including the insane Stevie Scales on percussion, the coked-up genius Bernie Worrell on keyboards, the happiest guitarist on earth, Alex Weir, and back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt, collectively known as the Brides of Funkenstein, who are having the time of their lives.
5. The only love song Talking Heads ever wrote, “This Must Be The Place,” which if I have a wedding I will dance to, sung to a standup lamp. Michael might have cried a little watching this. It’s THAT GOOD.
6. The famous four-minute shot of Byrne in his nerd glasses.
7. BIG FUCKING SUIT.
This list doesn’t mention even half the set. There are so many little moments of beauty in this film: Weymouth’s shuffly dance while she plays, the Brides jiggin’ out with Jerry Harrison, the infectious enthusiasm of Weir, and Byrne’s absolute delight at being onstage and playing music. At one point he’s got so much excitement and energy he races laps around the stage. It’s just all such a joy to watch.
Driving back from the film, about a half-hour trek, Michael and I slotted in the concert album and cranked it. Flying down the road, on a beautiful spring day in northern England, belting out “Take Me To The River” as loud as we could. The Heads are right: “Nothing is better than that.”
Next week on Byrnanza: a review of his album “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”, a collaboration with Brian Eno which combines world-beat with funk and punk rhythm and eerie sound-clips from the 70s. It’s weird. It’s awesome. It’s Byrne.