It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Chances for the resurrection of Talking Heads, a justly revered band that has been dormant since the release of the 1988 long-player Naked, looked slim: While Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz, the married bassist and drummer of the group, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison were eager to play as a unit again, lead singer David Byrne wanted nothing to do with the notion. So Weymouth, Franz and Harrison decided to take the initiative. Christening themselves the Heads, the three recorded an album of new material featuring a disparate assortment of vocalists and issued it under the title No Talking Just Head. Moreover, Weymouth created a cover for the album that echoes the color scheme of Talking Heads' debut, Talking Heads 77, and the type style of the 1982 compilation The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. The Heads seemed to be saying with these decisions that Byrne was superfluous--so they would start over without him.
Byrne understandably found this point of view objectionable and filed a lawsuit to stop the Heads from touring and releasing albums under their chosen moniker. He subsequently dropped the suit, for reasons he has chosen not to make public, but that didn't mean the end of problems for the Heads. Plenty of reviewers were shocked and appalled by the entire Heads concept and have come after the trio with claws bared. Rolling Stone (which, to be honest, has a vested interest in sucking up to Byrne) responded to the album with a vicious notice, and many other periodicals have followed suit. And now that the Heads, supplemented by the presence of former Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano, are on tour, they're forced to turn for assistance in publicizing their dates to the very journalists who've already displayed contempt for their project.
Give Harrison credit, then, for grace under fire. Speaking from New York City, he is intelligent, loquacious, even witty at times--and when faced with questions that must be unpleasant to answer, he refuses to dodge them. Just as important, he makes a reasonable argument in favor of the Heads. Too bad he's got such an untenable position to defend.
"We knew going in that there would be people who wouldn't want us to make any reference to Talking Heads," he notes. "And yet we felt we were in a difficult position. Chris and Tina and I have played together for close to twenty years. What were we going to call ourselves, the Turtles?
"Also, we wanted people to know where we came from. We didn't want to call ourselves Franz, Weymouth and Harrison; that sounded like a law firm. So we tried to find some sort of a middle ground--a name that said this is not Talking Heads, but it does have a reference point to Talking Heads. And I thought we did a good job of it--although clearly, some people don't agree."
In fact, the Heads' scheme as a whole seems like a salvo aimed at a critical community that has long seen Talking Heads as David Byrne's band. The recently published Spin Alternative Record Guide offers a case in point: The Talking Heads listing includes blurbs on all of the act's long-players, as well as Byrne's solo work and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno. But Harrison, an original member of Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers whose "Rev It Up" was an international hit single a couple of years back, is not represented, nor is the Tom-Tom Club, a Franz-Weymouth teaming that at one point actually outsold Talking Heads. Such a conspicuous example of disrespect might make any performer hungry for revenge, yet Harrison avoids citing an interest in historical revisionism as the primary motivating factor behind the Heads. In denying this assessment, however, he winds up lending credence to it.
"In the early days of Talking Heads, everyone was very aware of each of our roles," he says. "There was no question that since David was the singer, there was a great deal of focus on him--but because we always played with all the lights on, everyone could see what we were doing and how important everyone was. As a result, interviews up through, say, [1979's] Fear of Music often put everyone on fairly even ground. But when we did the tour for [1980's] Remain in Light, I hired [Parliament-Funkadelic's] Bernie Worrell to play with us on the tour--and people began to think that he'd played all the keyboard parts on the record even though he wasn't even on it. And then, in the Stop Making Sense film [made in 1984], the cameras spent most of their time on the singers, leaving the rest of us literally in the dark for large periods of time. Now, I'm very proud of that film and that tour--and because I hired all the musicians for it, I feel like I had a large part in their success. But it tended to cast Chris and Tina and I in the shadows. And then David was on the cover of Time magazine..."
After a pause to chew over this memory, Harrison gets back on track. "I think early fans of Talking Heads understand how much everybody contributed," he says. "But for newer fans--fans from maybe the mid-Eighties on--the new record might be, um, educational."
That's probably not the first adjective that will strike the majority of listeners to the disc. No Talking Just Head isn't a terrible recording--the players involved are too talented for that--but it's an erratic and generally dull one. For the most part, the backing tracks created by Harrison, Weymouth and Franz recall the styles explored by Talking Heads on 1983's Speaking in Tongues and 1988's Naked--and since the latter was easily the most tepid of the combo's efforts, that's not always a good thing. Some of the other nods to the past are equally disconcerting: When "Never Mind" kicks off with a drum pattern that sounds exactly like the one heard during the introduction to Talking Heads' version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," it's hard to tell if the sensation one feels is deja vu or nausea.
As for the guest singers, they include Napolitano ("Damage I've Done," "Punk Lolita"); old buddies from the New York scene such as Debbie Harry ("No Talking Just Head") and Richard Hell ("Never Mind"); worthy veterans like Andy Partridge ("Papersnow") and the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano ("Only the Lonely"); uninteresting stars of today--namely INXS's Michael Hutchence ("The King Is Gone") and Live's Ed Kowalczyk ("Indie Hair"); and a couple of worthy cult figures, Gavin Friday ("Blue Blue Moon") and Black Grape's Shaun Ryder ("Don't Take My Kindness for Weakness"). A few of these partnerships work on at least a basic level--the Ryder and Partridge tracks are pretty enjoyable, and "Damage I've Done" stands out by virtue of a riskier, more intense production approach. But the most distinctive number, "No More Lonely Nights," is also the only one in which the singer isn't a celebrity: Handling words on the cut is Malin Anneteg, a spoken-word artist reminiscent of a deadpan, pleasantly naughty Bjsrk. Overall, No Talking Just Head, though technically proficient and generally tolerable, is far less interesting than anything Talking Heads ever put out. Rather than showing that the players can do very well without Byrne, it instead demonstrates how much they need him.
Harrison, of course, has a very different opinion of the disc. He's the one who suggested the use of multiple vocalists: "I thought it would be a great benefit to the singers in that they wouldn't be put singly in the position of replacing David. To me, it was great that they had their own careers and their own fame, I guess you could say. And I'm very happy about the way it worked out. I think the album's like a great programmed radio hour. It has consistency to it, and yet there's variety to it as well."
Does Byrne agree? Harrison doesn't know; they haven't spoken since a few months before the filing of the lawsuit. "He and I had been on pretty decent terms," Harrison insists, "and when he found out that he was coming to San Francisco, where I live, to do a book reading, he gave me a call. I would do the same kind of thing when I knew I was coming to New York. We'd kind of gotten past the point where we'd call each other regularly, but every once in a while when I'd see that a project that David was doing was drawing to a close, I'd suggest to him that we should find some way to get everyone back together. But he was resistant--and at a certain point, we just decided that it was silly to believe that we couldn't play together just because David didn't want to join us."
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Now, of course, the possibility of an actual Talking Heads reunion, with Byrne as an active participant, seems more remote than ever. Harrison says the legal conflict between Byrne and the Heads was worked out "pretty easily once we got to talking about it. But it was done through intermediaries. I think we could have done it ourselves, but we didn't. You get very careful when things are getting so serious." Although he declines to speculate on Byrne's motives, he fesses up to being curious about his next conversation with the singer: "I wonder what it will be like," he says before adding, "I assume it will take a little more now to clear the air."
In the meantime, the Heads are planning to carry on in a new configuration, with Napolitano as a permanent member. (Harrison says that she is now free to join because she's ended her association with her band "Pretty in Pink." Actually, the outfit was called Pretty & Twisted, but it was so unexceptional that it makes perfect sense for Harrison to have forgotten its moniker.) While Harrison will continue with outside production work--he was behind the boards during the recording of the upcoming Big Head Todd & the Monsters record, which he touts enthusiastically--he's looking forward to tightening the Heads on the road. "I've really missed the intensity of playing live," he says. "When you're only producing and not part of the band, you tend not to practice as much. My technique was falling apart, so I had a good time improving myself."
He's also interested in learning if Talking Heads devotees will be more open-minded about the Heads than journalists have been. As he puts it, "We may have some extreme hecklers--but we'll probably also have a lot of people who've honestly been missing Talking Heads and will be excited to see us branch off in this way. But really, what the reactions will have more to do with than anything is whether people like the record. If you do, then you won't care about any of this other stuff. And if you don't, it will stand as a symbol of something that you don't think should have happened."
The Heads, with Jux County. 10:45 p.m. Saturday, November 2, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $20, 830-