Monday, June 28, 2010

Two with TALKING HEADS, 1977-78

Interview text © 1978, 1979 by Bernie Kugel;
RBF intro © 2010 by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

The following interviews with Talking Head were originally published in Big Star magazine, issue #2, dated August 1977, and Big Star magazine, issue #3, dated August 1977. Both were conducted by Bernie Kugel, and reprinted here with his kind permission. I have left in the text the way Bernie originally had it (cleaning up some typos kinds of things). Text added by me in the present is in [brackets].

Talking Head were the first band I saw play CBGB’s, on June 20, 1975, when they were opening for the Ramones. Many years later I would discover that this was also the first night out for Talking Heads. I went there with Bernie, natch.

When David Byrne started singing back then, he moved the back of his head, the front passing the mic with a Doppler effect. The next time we saw them, he had figured out the whole move the
back of the head instead thing. As I have said before, I enjoyed the band more as a trio, finding a keyboard made their sound too “New Wave,” rather than quirky. – RBF, 2010

Part I – 3 x 3: Talking Heads Talk
Big Star #2, August 1977

Since their emergence at CBGB’s in 1975, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz, otherwise known as Talking Heads, have been a consistently entertaining pop music band bringing to mind aspects of bands like the early Modern Lovers and Velvet Underground, but basically sounding like themselves more than anyone else. With super catchy songs like “Don’t Worry About the Government,” “Psycho Killer,” “I’m Not In Love,” “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel,” and others, they present a happy melodic future for music. Recently, they’ve been quite busy with bassist Tina marrying drummer Chris, Jerry Harrison of the Modern Lovers joining the group on guitars and piano, and most importantly, finishing up their first album on Sire [Talking Heads ‘77], which should be just about ready to be released when you read this. But until that comes out, here’s a few little insights into the Heads from the Heads themselves, from a conversation I had with them in January. Jerry Harrison wasn’t in the band at the time so I didn’t speak to him, but hopefully I’ll have the chance to do that real soon for an upcoming issue. But for now, as they’re seen in the pic, here are Chris, Tina and David…

Chris Frantz

1. Do you have favorite New York groups?
Yeah, I would say my favorite New York band right now is the Ramones, other than ourselves of course. I know people might think it’s funny that we like the Ramones and all but before we’d ever even played we’d seen them; in fact, the first night I moved to New York City I went to hear the Ramones, I think they were just beginning. I liked them even though they were really terrible then. They’ve cleaned up their act considerably since then. I think they’re great. Television, of course, is good.

2. What prompted you to write to Crawdaddy [magazine] (concerning an article severely putting down the Ramones)?
Well, you know I’d never even written a letter to a magazine before, that was the first and only one I’ve written so far. I just thought it was a really mean record review. I understand that writers can write whatever they want and all that, but it made me angry what this fellow said. I hate to say it but Crawdaddy’s a kind of dry rag, but maybe it’s picking up now that they’ve got us in there; maybe they’re getting better.

3. Do you have favorite movies?
To tell you the truth, I just went to see three movies. David goes to the movies pretty frequently and Tina does also, but I don’t go so much ‘cause I get nervous sitting in the chair for that long, or I get indigestion. But I did go see Carrie and I liked that a lot, and I liked King Kong a lot, and I liked Rocky a lot. When we were in school, we used to have to see movies all the time. They were sort of required in art school. We got a very heavy dose of the “art film,” or at least I did when I was there, and as a result, I have a tendency to go to things like Rocky rather than Cousin Cousine. I avoid those kinds of movies nowadays.

Tina Weymouth

1. What’s it feel like playing live now compared to the early days?
The crowds are really big now, compared to the early days. And where the crowds used to just look at us and say “jeez, they’re so weird” and think that we were very arty and stuff like dramatic and theatrical, we weren’t trying to be; I think it just happened because we wore very simple clothes and not glitter. We’d just put the lights on and leave them on and not use any colored lights or anything. But now it’s really fun. In New York, at CBGB’s, people get very excited, and some of them scream – scream so loud it actually hurts your ears on stage. And it’s louder than our amplifiers.

2. Do you have favorite historical figures or heroes of any kind you look up to?
I’m sure we do. I’m sure we have a lot, although I can’t think of any in particular right now. We like a lot of the old R&B originators. One of the reasons why we decided to take the risk and make the band even though we weren’t sure at all how we would be received and we knew it would be a lot of work, was because we were very disgusted with the art world. There was so much heroizing and the artists that we met were so inflated with themselves - not all of them but a number of them - and so full of themselves and people really looked up to them as though they were magicians, real heroes, and they thought of themselves as elitists: fine artists, and therefore very noble, and I think that kind of turned us off. It really made us decide we don’t like heroes; we don’t like any of that and we’re certainly not going to be heroes ourselves. We’re not gonna do that, we’re always gonna be normal people. We’re not gonna be pretentious and try to have people look up to us as though we’re something special. We try to stick to that pretty much. I guess we sort of got away from that kind of heroism.

3. Do you have any advice to new band starting out?
Yeah, one very important thing is to rehearse a lot before you perform because sometimes you’re a little overanxious to just get up on stage and do it. Of course, audience response is very important in the development. From the time you begin to a few months later you could sound different. But rehearse a lot beforehand so that everything’s very tight, very together, so that the first time people see you they think it’s good and you won’t get a reputation for sounding bad. You could start out terrible and then get good some months later and people will remember you as having been the way you were when you started and they’ll say, “Oh no, that band’s terrible.” So that’s the only advice I can imagine. Work very hard. Practice a lot, like the old Julliard saying goes, “Practice, practice, practice gets you into Carnegie Hall.”

David Byrne

1. What were some songs that you used to play in the early days that you don’t do now?
“I Want to Live,” “Sugar On My Tongue”… I can’t remember them all. We keep dropping more and more, and adding new ones.

2. When did you get the idea for the acoustic guitar now used on many Talking Heads songs?
I don’t know, it was always on records. You would always listen to records and you’d hear acoustic guitar and I thought, “How come nobody does that in a band?” I mean outside of folk acts and stuff. So I thought, well, I’ll give it a try. Just have to crank up the volume.

3. Did you think you’d have the success you’ve found in New York?
I always thought it was possible, but I didn’t expect it to happen this fast. I set a sort of tentative timetable and thought, “Five years before we get good enough so that people get what we do.” And it seemed to happen a little bit faster, which is very pleasing.

Part II – Talking Heads: 78
Big Star #3, Spring 1978

Since our last issue, the big Talking Heads news is that their debut album has of course been released. And, all in all, it’s a fine first album with the second side being especially strong. Definitely one of the better records of ’77, and this decade. Recently, the band has been touring all over (including a superconcert in Buffalo) and I guess it won’t be too much longer before they go into the studios and start recording songs like “The Big Country,” “Stay Hungry,” “Good Thing,” “Let’s Work,” or whatever songs will eventually become Talking Heads album number two.

We’ve been fortunate enough to talk with the band on a couple of occasions now, and it is from these conversations that we present this epic.

Chapter One: First telephone conversation with Tina Weymouth, Part One:

Bernie: Do you think this band will stay together for a long time?
Tina: Oh, I don’t see why not; I don’t see anything that’s gonna… yeah, it could last a real long time… it depends… what do you mean by that?

Bernie: Well, like in lotsa bands there are personality clashes and bands break up.
Tina: Um hum. Well, David and Chris have been together in bands for several years now and they’d know by now whether they were gonna break up or not. I guess it’s only common sense to say that sometimes knowing that different people have different ideas and start to go in different directions, then it’s just logical that the band break up or if the band is not successful, then that’s logical to break up too, because then you have to mutate and change so that you get to be some kind of collaboration that does work. That just seems to be a natural thing that happens all the time – if a band isn’t working, and you break up, then it’s a good thing.

Bernie: You probably get asked this a lot, but are there any special problem being the girl in the band?
Tina: I don’t know; I really don’t know. I don’t know whether the problems I have are problems anybody would have or just problems a girl would have. I don’t feel any particular discrimination if that’s what you mean. That’s a question that’s been asked only a couple of times and I don’t know how to answer it except to sort of ignore it because it just doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem. I don’t think about it; the boys don’t think about it. I think they thought about it at first when they first asked me to join because they didn’t know how it would be, but they knew me very well and I guess I worked out better than some boys would, just because I have similar ideas and concepts. So it was better to have me than a boy who had a totally different direction.

Bernie: Is there any truth to what was printed in the Village Voice a few weeks back that the name Talking Heads comes from David’s neck, or something like that?
Tina: No, no, that was [Robert] Christgau going wild. I thought it was real funny because I thought it was Tom Verlaine of Television – his was the neck that everyone looked at. But I guess David does have a long neck; we’ve been teasing him, calling him “Neckrifiti” ever since, but no, that’s not how it originated. The name came from an old back issue of TV Guide when we were tyring to find a name for ourselves ‘cause while we were in rehearsal we had no name; it was only just before when we auditioned for CBGB’s we had to have a name. So we had to have a name right away, and we had a friend who was staying with us, and he was looking through the TV Guide and he wrote it on one of our numerous lists of possible names. It’s video jargon for a talk show; it’s what cameramen use when they’re talking to each other: “This afternoon, 1 PM, we have a talking head” – so it’s almost a documentary type of name. And so when we were looking at the list, it was the only name we felt had so many connotations to it, that it didn’t offend us and we liked it. It was the only name that made us all laugh and that we all liked. The name is not very important; I think what happens is that you try to find a name that is original so that when your style or whatever it is that you’re doing gets identified with the name, so Talking Heads now means something particular. It means us. Well, it still means what it did the way the cameramen use it, for TV people, but it’s not something like some sorta particular name which connotates heavy metal or anything like that. We didn’t try to find a name which would suit our music, we figured it would work the other way around. The group would define the name, not the name define the group.

Chapter Two: Post-concert party interview with David Byrne

Bernie: Are you influenced by a group like the Troggs as you have played two Troggs songs (“Love Is All Around” and “I Can’t Control Myself”) in your live sets over the past couple of years?
David: I don’t think so, I just liked those. We mainly did that one, “I Can’t Control Myself” a long time ago sort of before the whole punk thing got started. It seemed like a real sort of punky song and they were a real sort of punk group band then, and we just liked it. But then when all this punk thing started happening, we thought we better not do that. It seemed like there were plenty of other people doing that sort of material.

Bernie: You’ve fooled around with playing Ramones songs?
David: Yeah, a year ago in Boston we did “Boyfriend.” We did that a couple of times. It sounded great. That was when I used the acoustic and I just turned it all the way up so it would sound like the Ramones, but it really didn’t.

Bernie: In your [Sire] press bio it states that there was a time when you thought that Tina would be the lead singer?
David: I don’t think so. I don’t remember that; maybe it was brought up but I don’t remember that.

Bernie: Do you ever think you should use more harmonies and try for that kind of sound?
David: Jerry [Harrison] sings sometimes but maybe if we get better we could do that, but it’s a really hard thing to do and make it sound right. I don’t think we’re able to do it yet.

Bernie: What are some of your favorite recording artists presently?
David: I really like Booker T & the MGs’ records from a while ago. I really like James Brown. I really like that group Parliament and Funkadelic, and stuff like that. I like them but I don’t like KISS, although some people might think there was some sort of similarity. I got the new Randy Newman record; I liked that. I’ve been listening to a lot of foreign stuff like music from Japan and Bulgaria, and things like that.

Bernie: Do you think it’s influenced your writing?
David: Not yet.

Chapter Three: Post-concert Backstage by the Elevator Interview with Jerry Harrison

Bernie: Were there a lot of old Modern Lovers songs that didn’t come out on the first Modern Lovers’ LP?
Jerry: Oh yes, another album’s worth (Some titles: “Tenderness,” “I’m Straight,” “She Takes the Pill for Me”).

Bernie: Were any real, real great ones?
Jerry: You know the song “Government Center”? We have a great version; we (original Modern Lovers) did that song. “I’m Straight” is really good.

Bernie: Do you think that stuff will ever come out?
Jerry: I doubt it. It should. I wish they made a single out of “Old World” and “She Cracked.”

Bernie: “Old World” is like my favorite song offa the album…
Jerry: Those two came out pretty well as far as the recording sounded.

Bernie: Did you immediately fit in with Talking Heads?
Jerry: Yeah. It was sort of amazing. Every time we played together it just got better and better, and just got to the point of “Well, alright, it can’t come any further doing this now and then so let’s try it.” And it’s been real good.

Bernie: Do you think you’ll be writing songs for Talking Heads?
Jerry: I hope so. You never know how compatibility will work. Songwriting is a very funny thing in a band because everyone really does enter into the way it sounds; the arrangement. And often the arrangement really starts to influence the way the song is, so it’s very hard to define what you mean by song. A lot of times it’s best for one person to come up with some sort of original conception and take it from that point. People enter in too early and it just gets confusing.

Bernie: Yeah, a lot of the songs seem drastically different from the early days…
Jerry: Yeah, that’s the case. Cos it certainly isn’t like you feel that you’re not involved in the process.

Bernie: Do you like any bands you’ve seen in New York or Europe?
Jerry: I love the Ramones, who we played with in Europe. I think they’re wonderful. I saw the Clash; I thought they were alright. I think they might turn into a real good band; they’re getting to play all the time and they have a real following, and those things are great nurturing experiences, but as far as strictly taking them for their music, it sounds like I’ve heard it all before. So I don’t know what to say, I think the politics are a little bit bullshit, at least when I talked to them. Having been through politics in the United States with the war in Vietnam, I see that they’re angry about things but they don’t have any developed ideas about them; there’s no theory behind it. But maybe I didn’t talk to the right person, so I really don’t know.

Bernie: Do you like any other bands?
Jerry: Well, I haven’t seen Television except when they first got started. They wanted Ernie [Brooks], the old bass player in the Modern Lovers to play with them when Richard Hell left. So I went with him to go see them and at that time I thought they were just dogshit. You gotta see that at that time we came out of a band who we thought could’ve gone everywhere and to just start playing with a band that was nowhere… it’s a very hard thing to go backwards, but yet maybe he shoulda done it. But at that time I didn’t really like them. I haven’t seen them now; I like their record O.K. [“Little Johnny Jewel,” Ork Records]. I didn’t like it that much when I first heard it but I’ve heard it more and it’s grown on me.

Bernie: What do you think of all the current Boston stuff?
Jerry: Well, I like the Real Kids. The Cars are real good; the original drummer from the Modern Lovers [David Robinson] plays with them. I think in general bands in Boston are still influenced by the English sound, sorta like Aerosmith, being a combination of the Yardbirds and Stones. They’re friends of mine; I like them. I don’t have any idea if I would really like them… you see, the Modern Lovers and they… we were ahead of them in a way at some point. Like J. Geils had gotten up there, and then we would; and there was this band called the Sidewinders, they used to live in my apartment. Ernie used to play with them… So anyway, we were sort of the next group, the next group of bands that were gonna make it, so I feel this real allegiance to Aerosmith. Even if they played the worst shit in the world, I’d still stand by them and I do think they’ve developed more of their own sound, and they have something. I don’t think they’re the most amazing band in the world or the most original…

Bernie: Why did the original Lovers break up?
Jerry: Just personalities.

Bernie: What do you think of Jonathan’s current stuff?
Jerry: I’m not wild about it. I mean, I think it’s sort of interesting, but it’s not exciting to me. That’s really why I didn’t want to continue, because it was all his personality. If you really like his personality, then that’s great. I don’t think his personality is that great.

Bernie: Yeah, cos it seems to me that early Modern Lovers was his personality plus a really solid band…
Jerry: Yeah… early Modern Lovers. He was a teenager who’d gone through this unhappy childhood and he’d written some incredible songs that expressed that unhappiness. We all realized that.

Chapter Four: First Telephone Conversation with Tina Weymouth, Part Two

Bernie: Do you have favorite foods?
Tina: Oh, yes. I like avocadoes an awful lot. We don’t really eat a lot of desserts, like candy or anything like that. Everybody in the band has their own tastes. David will eat anything. He likes baked beans for breakfast. He eats anything at all. Put it in front of him and he’ll eat it. We’re not very finicky eaters. We all eat just about everything. I guess that’s because we’ve all travelled a lot. Wherever you go, you eat the food that’s there, and you learn to acquire a taste for a lot of different things. The only thing I don’t like is sauerkraut. But everything else I like.

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