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9 Sep 2023
Steve Sailer

NextImg:The Talking Heads STOP MAKING SENSE After 40 Years

A friend who knows a lot of the great rock stars from the 1975-1985 era recently told me that, of course, the two greatest rock concert films are Martin Scorsese’s rather conventional depiction of The Band’s The Last Waltz in 1978

and Jonathan Demme’s highly artistic Talking Heads movie Stop Making Sense in 1984, which is being re-released this month:

I saw a whole bunch of rock concerts from 1977-1983, and Talking Heads’ show in Pasadena in October 1980 was the single best. This was during their big band Remain in Light era when they added virtuoso guitarist Adrian Belew and several black musicians when they got into African pop music. It didn’t hurt that their opening act was the English Beat, whom all sorts of extremely cool bands like the Clash, Pretenders, and Police chose as their opening acts in the 1980-1984 era because it was obvious that the English Beat were the Next Big Thing.

Except that didn’t happen.

Oh, well.

From the New York Times:

The 40th-anniversary restoration of a great concert film is a funk spectacle. It has also united the band, which split in 1991, to discuss a landmark achievement.

By Jon Pareles

Jon Pareles first saw Talking Heads perform at CBGB, and caught the “Stop Making Sense” tour at Forest Hills Stadium in 1983.

Yeah, but I first saw Talking Heads in Houston in 1978 for (IIRC) 2$ or $3. I can recall inviting 12 Rice U. friends to see the coolest band in the world for $24 or $36 in the winter of 1978.

David Byrne was so Aspergery that he spent the whole concert in early 1978 staring at the ceiling for fear of making eye contact with the audience.

When they came back a few months later for $5, Byrne was superbly entertaining.

But in late 1979, they were bad, with Byrne and his main musician Jerry Harrison shouting at each other angrily during a song.

So in late 1980 when they were extremely good, it was joyous.

Sept. 9, 2023, 5:01 a.m. ET

Four decades after it was filmed, “Stop Making Sense,” the Talking Heads concert documentary, is still ecstatic and strange. “It stays kind of relevant, even though it doesn’t make literal sense,” David Byrne, the band’s leader and singer, said in a recent interview.

Here’s the world’s preppiest rhythm section:

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The film, which was directed by Jonathan Demme, has been restored from its long-lost original negatives and this new version will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday, then play in regular and IMAX theaters later this month.

Nah, the original version on Youtube is terrific:

“Sometimes we write things and we don’t know what they’re about until afterwards,” Byrne said. “There’s a sense of a premonition. I’ve looked at things I’ve written and I go, ‘Oh. That’s about something that happened in my life after I wrote the song.’” ….

Demme’s cameras were poised to catch every goofy move and appreciative glance between musicians. Now that most big concerts are video-ready extravaganzas, that might seem normal. In 1983, it was startling.

Only a few years earlier, Talking Heads were unlikely candidates to mount a tautly plotted rock spectacle. When the band made its reputation playing the Bowery club CBGB, its members dressed like preppies and looked self-conscious and nervous.

… Byrne was purposely stiff and twitchy onstage. “When the band started, I was not going to try and use the movement vocabulary from rock stars or R&B stars,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t do that. They’re better at it. They’ve established it. I have to come up with my own thing that expresses who I am: a slightly angsty white guy.’”

… Byrne and the band equally appreciated the Southern roots and deep eccentricity of the Memphis soul singer Al Green — who wrote the band’s first radio hit, “Take Me to the River” — and the calibrated repetitions of James Brown, Philip Glass and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The band enlisted the equally open-eared Brian Eno as a producer and collaborator to extend its sonic palette and songwriting strategies — which, in turn, led Talking Heads to add musicians onstage.

If there’s a narrative to “Stop Making Sense,” it’s of a freaked-out loner who eventually finds joy in community. The concert starts with Byrne singing “Psycho Killer” alone, to a drum-machine track, with a sociopathic stare. By the end of the show, he’s surrounded by singing, dancing, smiling musicians and singers, carried by one groove after another.

“In a culture that’s so much about the individual, and the self, and my rights,” Byrne said, “to find a parallel thing that is really about giving, losing yourself and surrendering to something bigger than yourself is kind of extraordinary. And you realize, ‘Oh, this is what a lot of the world is about — surrendering to something spiritual, or community or music or dance, and letting go of yourself as an individual. You get a real reward when that happens. It’s a real ecstatic, transcendent feeling.”

When “Stop Making Sense” was first released, in 1984, audiences treated it like a concert, applauding between songs and getting up to dance.

I expected Talking Heads to play 80,000 seat football stadiums in 1985, in the wake of their hit movie. But that didn’t happen.

… It also turned out to be the final Talking Heads tour. “I also think that we had the ability to become one of the biggest bands in the world at that point, touring bands,” Harrison said. “I think there was a lost opportunity that would have been fun for all of us.”

He added, “There also might be the element that once ‘Stop Making Sense’ came out so great, it was like, ‘How do we top this? Is the next thing going to seem like a disappointment?’ I don’t know if that was what was going through anybody’s minds, but I know that we ended up not touring ever again.”

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