Storytelling Giants: Night Flight’s video profile of Talking Heads featured five of their best videos

By on April 4, 2017

“In the 1970s, a group called Talking Heads became staples on the Bowery music scene…” explains Pat Prescott in our Talking Heads Video Profile, which originally aired on September 20th, 1986. You can now find it streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

The profile features five of the band’s best music videos, which were directed by David Byrne, Jonathan Demme, Jim Jarmusch, Jim Blashfield, Stephen Johnson and other creative filmmakers.

By the mid-80s, the New York-based foursome known as Talking Heads — David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison — had already been experimenting with African poly-rhythms, Jamaican reggae and recording studio techniques for quite some time, and they had expanded the sound of their live performances with the inclusion of keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Busta Jones and other musicians, with vocal help from a trio of female backing singers.

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Scottish-born Byrne had already been experimenting with bands at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence when he met Frantz and Weymouth in 1970, mixing in performance art elements that included shaving onstage and wearing a papier-mâché dog head.

The trio — calling themselves the Artistics — first came together in ’73 and began what would continue to be a very experimental recording career after they reconnected a few years later in Manhattan, NYC, renting a cramped loft on Chrystie Street that doubled as a rehearsal hall.

Frantz and Weymouth had been living together in a low-rent apartment across the street from CBGB, where the trio would end up playing their first gig in June of ’75, now calling themselves Talking Heads (Note: there’s no “The” in their name).

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Naming the band was apparently a very big deal, as these art school grads didn’t want to come up with something that denoted any particular type of music. They invited friends visiting their loft to leave suggestions on a long list that was taped to the wall.

The winning name came from a fellow RISD grad, Wayne Zieve, who was visiting the band. In a later interview, Weymouth recalled how the group chose the name Talking Heads:

“A friend had found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action.’ It fit.”

The band knew they’d found the right name when Chris Frantz, wearing a red t-shirt with the name Talking Heads emblazoned across his chest, was stopped by a passerby on Bleeker Street. “Is that the name of a band? It’s a terrible name,” said the man.

The rest of the band laughed so hard when they heard the story that they knew they had picked the right name.

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Signing with Sire Records in November 1976, their first album Talking Heads: 77 arrived in February ’77. They were the first band of the CBGB crowd to land a major label record deal (they would, all total, end up releasing ten albums for Sire over the next eleven years).

The next month, they added former Modern Lovers keyboardist Jerry Harrison, which helped to round out their rather minimalist sound, which — despite their musical influences — including funk and R&B (early on they covered Al Green’s hit “Take Me to the River”) among other genres — nevertheless got them lumped in with the New Wave crowd.

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The band’s third single from the album which was by now being hailed as a critic’s favorite after just a few months after its release, was a career-defining song, “Psycho Killer,” (#92 Billboard), which draw praise and quickly brought them to the attention of Brian Eno, who hit it off with the band after meeting them at a club in London.

Eno would produce their next several albums — More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Remain in Light (1980) — which continued to show a remarkable affinity for blending musical influences, which was now blending in Eno’s and Byrne’s interests in African music, particulary the Afro-beat of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.

By the time MTV went live in August of 1981, Talking Heads finally had a visual outlet for exploring their interest in visual arts as well as music, which led to them issuing, throughout the rest of the decade, some of the more interesting music videos, five of which are featured in our Talking Heads Video Profile.

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First up we have the “Once in a Lifetime” video, the first single from their fourth studio album, Remain in Light, which floats along on a synthesizer melody leading up to a Hammond organ climax, taken from the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.”

Eno was not particularly fond of the song, and it was almost dropped from the album before he came up with the vocal melody for the chorus, which “saved” it.

The video doesn’t feature the band, only David Byrne, doing strange, off-kilter expressionistic dance moves, all while wearing the white, surreally-oversized Big Suit that was made for Byrne to wear on the Talking Heads tour in the fall of 1983.

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The video was co-directed by Toni Basil and David Byrne — who had also both directed the video for “Crosseyed and Painless” — showing Byrne wearing glasses, puffing out his cheeks and flailing his arms and acting like a he’s a preacher in the deep South, sweating at the pulpit and about to start speaking in tongues (Speaking In Tongues, of course, would be the name of a 1982 Talking Heads album).

Basil — who was working with dance troupes like the Lockers and the Electric Boogaloos — worked in tandem with Byrne on the choreography, suggesting changes to certain moves he made.

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The video was meant to feature dance-like moves like some of the footage that Byrne and Basil had watched, of evangelicals in church settings. Byrne and Basil had also watched footage of missionaries preaching the gospel to African women, as well as anthropological film clips of various tribal religious rituals from around the world, including some who who appear to go into a trance or are possibly suffering an epileptic seizure.

Some of the footage is actually spliced into the video, mixed in with Byrne’s stiff, robotic weirdness, meant to look like his body was being attacked by invisible forces.

In the song’s second verse, Byrne even sings, “How do I work this?,” making a fist, clenching and unclenching, then sticking out his arm, as if he had no control over his limbs.

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According to Byrne, “She was going to do a whole program of choreography based on these street dances. Brian [Eno] and I thought it was the most amazing dancing we’d ever seen and in some way the music we were doing was intended for her to use in some television program with these dances. But it never panned out.”

Toni Basil, in Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:

“When David and I co-directed ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ we shot on a blue screen, because that was the only way to do things cheaply and without bringing in lights and sets.”

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“Once in a Lifetime” wasn’t a chart success, only rising to #103 and just missing the Billboard Hot 100 list — the song was considered too funky for rock radio stations, and R&B stations didn’t play it either — although the video did receive a lot of heavy airplay on MTV and TV shows like “Night Flight.”

As it turned out, the Talking Heads album Remain in Light would be their worst-selling album in the U.S.

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For “Burning Down the House” — directed by David Byrne, who was apparently influenced by Robert Wilson, and produced by conceptual artist Julia Heyward — the use of a “house on fire” trope is used as a not-too-subtle symbolic reference to suburban bliss being set afire, a wall of the house acting as a movie screen with images projected against it.

in an interview with the BBC, Byrne said that he first heard “burn down the house” when a crowd chanted the phrase at a then-recent Parliament-Funkadelic concert at Madison Square Garden, which is what led to him thinking that “burning down the house” would make an excellent lyric.

The song developed during a jam session at the band’s rehearsal space, with Byrne yelling out “Burn down the house!”

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The video — much of it shot in Union City, New Jersey — we see Byrne’s face looking haunted, looming large and lit by flames, while the rest of the band who seem to symbolize family members, and a little kid, Byrne’s own child self, climbing all over the singer’s back, as if we are supposed to understand that what is meant here is that we are all one big, and hopefully happy, family.

The song’s lyrics begin:

Watch out you might get what you’re after,
Boom babies strange but not a stranger,
I’m an ordinary guy,
Burning down the house

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Byrne explained to the BBC the symbolic meanings of the song and the band’s video:

“The song’s title was about projection and projected imagery, it symbolized rebirth and destroying some sort of transitory personality, and shedding a shell and coming out with a new one… So, on one level, the video is about that, and it’s about one group of performers, us, being substituted by another, by a group of imposters. I get replaced by a little kid and the others get replaced by other people… the use of projection, a lot of projected images, is about one personality or one image being layered on top of another… that was meant to be the subliminal basis of that video.”

Speaking in Tongues eventually rose to #15 on Billboard‘s US album charts, while “Burning Down the House” charted in the Top Ten (#9), reaching a wide audience across the world.

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In the video for “Girlfriend is Better,” we see the song as it was performed by Talking Heads for their concert film, Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, who shot three of their concerts at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in December 1983 (it was released in 1984).

Byrne appears in the Big Suit, jitterbugging and jerking around. The Big Suit, incidentally, was apparently designed, at great expense, to make Byrne’s head seem very small, the suit hiding his real body within a much more muscular, oversized look meant to emphasize physical strength over mental strength.

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Demme — who had seen an early performance of the band (like the footage you can see in Amos Poe’s and Ivan Kral’s 1976 film Blank Generation, filmed at CBGBs — always thought that the band looked robotic and mechanical with their herky-jerky stage movements, especially Byrne, who looked very uncomfortable.

Demme — using eight cameras to film the show — allows the action onstage to take place without interference, shooting the entire stage performance from the audience’s perspective, making sure to capture how a Talking Heads concert actually combined a variety of influences from the worlds of music, dance and theater.

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For “Road to Nowhere,” one of several songs from Little Creatures (released in June 1985) which would be given the promotional video treatment, Byrne was struggling to come up with an idea, and so Jeff Ayeroff — who became Senior Vice President and Creative Director for Warner Bros. Records in 1983 — asked a young director named Stephen Johnson to collaborate with Byrne to come up with an idea that would work.

Ayeroff — who would go on to become known for his collaborations with video directors, designers and Warner Music artists like Madonna, Don Henley, Prince, Paul Simon, ZZ Top and Dire Straits, among others — thought the two creative minds would come up with a grand state-of-the-art idea.

Although Warner Bros. gave the band a budget of $35,000 to work with, Ayeroff managed to secretely pump even more money into the budget in order to come up with something very special for what would be Johnson’s first foray into music video directing.

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Stephen Johnson, in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, said this:

“I think Jeff thought of me because David and I both wore button-down tab collar white shirts. The video concept was very collaborative. But the bizarre thing was that, when the band was about to arrive, David took all of my storyboard pages and redrew them in his own hand, so the band would think he’d done it all himself. I had a long talk with him later. I said, ‘You’re not one of those people, are you?”

The idea they came up with — for a happy sing-along tune where Byrne sings “We’re on a ride to paradise” — was to mix live-action footage with computer-enhanced studio effects.

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The video opens with a long interior shot inside Hi Vista Community Hall, in Hi Vista, California, located in the Antelope Valley in the southwestern part of the Mojave Desert, in northeastern Los Angeles county, showing a group of men, women and children assembling and singing together before cutting away to an exterior shot on an open desert road.

The video then shifts to a series of rapid cuts, of iconic images and image sequences involving a technique called “pixelation,” a method of shooting movement frame by frame to give the illusion of human animation. Byrne is also seen seated on a throne while wild stop-motion animation is happening all around him.

Johnson would later use to great effect on his direction of Peter Gabriel’s video for “Sledgehammer,” which coast around $180,000 to produce.

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In Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Ayeroff describes Johnson as “… this Midwest whack job. His hand had been severed and sewn back on. He’d been addicted to painkillers, and who knows what else.”

In 1986, Johnson would direct all thirteen episodes of the first season of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” but the painkillers he was taking for his bad back made him paranoid, and he kept saying that Pee-Wee Herman’s management people were trying to drug him and take control of the show (he was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing in Children’s Programming).

Johnson died in 2015, from cardiac complications.

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“Road to Nowhere” peaked at #25 on Billboard‘s singles chart, and the video would end up winning MTV’s Video Vanguard award, which Byrne accepted from Texas, where he was working on his film, True Stories.

Little Creatures — with cover art by Northern Georgia-based outsider artist Howard Finster — saw the band expanding their musical interests into themes of Americana and country music (including the use of steel guitar on many of its tracks).

It became the band’s biggest-selling studio album, with over two million copies sold in the U.S. alone, and charted at #20 on the Billboard 200.

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The second track off Little Creatures to receive the video treatment was “And She Was” — directed by Portland, Oregon-based contemporary visual artist Jim Blashfield, who we told you all about here — is an interesting visualization of what appears to be from a woman’s point-of-view, so that we see only her hands and legs in the frame (“The world was moving she was right there with it and she was / The world was moving she was floating above it and she was” Byrne sings in the song).

In the liner notes to Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads, Byrne said this about the song:

“I used to know a blissed-out hippie-chick in Baltimore. She once told me that she used to do acid (the drug, not music) and lay down on the field by the Yoo-Hoo chocolate soda factory. Flying out of her body, etc etc. It seemed like such a tacky kind of transcendence… but it was real! A new kind of religion being born out of heaps of rusted cars and fast food joints. And this girl was flying above it all, but in it too.”

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In 2016, Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz elaborated about the song’s meaning in an interview for WNCX, for their “Daily Cut” feature:

“It’s a story about a woman who has the power to levitate above the ground and to check out all her neighbors from a kind of bird’s eye view. And the guy who’s writing the song is in love with her and he kinda wishes she would just be more normal and, like, come on back down to the ground [Laughs], but she doesn’t. She goes floating over the backyard and past the buildings and the schools and stuff and is absolutely superior to him in every way.”

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To find interesting images to shoot in order to create the heavily-processed cut-out objects, trimmed out with an X-Acto knife and photocopied until they had just the right “look,” Blashfield drove around Portland and went to garage sales, second stores and snapped photos of things he found on site, shooting the photos where he found the images.

Every opaque color Xerox’d image appears heavily-processed and photocopied over and over, rotating in and out of frame, which were then shot on a homemade animation stand, the images stacked up in layers, one frame at a time.

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Blashfield combined these images with live-action footage of Byrne, shot on 16mm, the whole video taking just under one month to complete.

Blashfield also used the same process on Joni Mitchell’s “Good Friends” video.

“And She Was” peaked at #54 on the U.S. chats, and #17 in the U.K.

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For the last video featured in our Talking Heads Video Profile (and the third from Little Creatures, we have a rare music video directed by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

The video was based on an idea of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s, a black and white minimalist image of a woman in a kimono in a bare room, edited with images of the New York City skyline and the band performing with rear-projected images behind them.

Even though there had been a video directed by Byrne too (for the U.S. market), the band reached out to Jarmusch to direct a video for the band’s UK single release.

I don’t generally like music videos because they provide you images to go with the songs rather than you providing your own,” Jarmusch would later say in an interview with Film Comment in 1992. “You lose the beauty of music by not bringing your own mental images or recollections or associations. Music videos obliterate that.”

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His video was shot in 1985, the same year that Jarmusch told interviewer Cassandra Stark: “I had a lot of other offers to do videos and I didn’t want to do them. I just am not interested in rock videos. I don’t like them as a form. I think the whole idea of them is fucked up.”

The video debuted in 1986, the same year that his third indie film, Down by Law, appeared in movie theaters.

“The Lady Don’t Mind” failed to chart in the U.S. but managed to peak at #81 on the UK Singles chart.

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In 1988, a few years after Night Flight’s Talking Heads Video Profile aired on the USA Network, the band’s very first video compilation — titled Storytelling Giant — was released on VHS.

One of the truly unique things about the compilation is that, in between the videos themselves (thirteen in all), there are little interstitial filmed bits of people talking… in other words, a bunch of talking heads.

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Here’s what it said on the back of the video box:

Storytelling Giant is a work composed of all ten Talking Heads videos made over the past decade. They are connected by random, unrehearsed, spontaneous footage of real people talking. None of the people are actors, and all of them are wearing their own clothes. Many of them know nothing of the Talking Heads, and sometimes they tell stories that have nothing to do with the band’s music. Yet, somehow, their stories bring the Talking Heads music into another place. A place of giant lizards. . . A place where little girls sit on clouds. A place where everyone has enough to eat. . . And the government provides hairdressers if you can’t afford one. A giant man walks into a bar. He begins to wrestle with three nuns. A man with a toupée stops them, and they begin to speak.

You can see our Talking Heads Video Profile — and other video profiles for Duran Duran, Bananarama, Devo, Dire Straits, John Lennon, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, New Order, Simple Minds, the Cure, the Cars, R.E.M. and many more! — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.