lowbrowculture

collects stories and ideas from John Kelly

Retrospective: Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads were the first band I was can remember being ‘aware’ of.

I mean, I understood music in a general sense. I understood “songs”. I understood that there were songs that scared the crap out of me (I used to challenge myself to listen to Ray Parker Jnr’s theme from “Ghostbusters” in the dark, alone. I don’t think I’ve managed to do it yet) and I understood that there songs whose videos made me laugh (Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life”). But I really didn’t understand the concept of “bands” until quite late.

When I was about four or five, my sister - ten years older than me and a die-hard Prince/Adam Ant fan - challenged me to name the bands I liked. So I named “Talking Heads”, the only band I was aware of.

“Arty wanker.”

(I was five)

It wasn’t until much, much later that I understood what she meant. Talking Heads did their best to skirt the line between art and commercialism, occasionally pushing one more than the other. Sometimes this produced something difficult and awkward (like the deliberate nonsense-language of “I Zimbra” on “Fear of Music”). But sometimes, it produced something beautiful. Like “Stop Making Sense”.

The few concert videos that stand out as something special do so because the artist and the director have a clear definition of what they want to achieve (and both have the talent to support it). Other examples, such as Prince’s Sign O’ The Times and Scorsese’s The Last Waltz are both as entertaining to watch as movies as they are to listen to. Stop Making Sense represents a band at the peak of their abilities with enough of a vision to, if nothing else, produce something completely unique.

I’ve always been just a casual fan of Talking Heads. I’d never seen Stop Making Sense, but I thought I’d gotten everything I could out of their music. Until a few weeks ago. I was at a Skinny Wolves night in Bodkins. At these things, they usually accompany the music with movies projected on a big screen without the sound - things like the Clash’s Rude Boy and Devo Live. This particular week, they were showing Stop Making Sense.

Now, it may have been the copious amounts of booze sloshing around my system, but I was completely mesmerized. I must have come across as a rude sumbitch because I think I spent most of the night ignoring all attempts at conversation. I was completely transfixed by these bunch of complete… well, there’s no other way to put this… geeks doing the coolest things I’d ever seen on stage.

Throughout the entire thing, David Byrne moves his gangly body in strange, hypnotic ways. And the entire band puts out enough energy to power the show themselves. For example, the entire band jogs its way through Life During Wartime. During the guitar solo, David Byrne jogs around the entire stage, again and again and at the end, goes back to singing without being even slightly out of breath.

There are set changes, costume changes, instrument changes, but none of it seems forced. It seems progressive. It gradually, sensibly builds up. Rather than blowing its load right at the very start (like U2’s technically impressive Zooropa and Popmart tours), Stop Making Sense has a structure. It starts off with David Byrne coming out to a bare stage in a suit, with an acoustic guitar and boombox, and announcing to the crowd that he’d like to play a song. He launches into a version of Psycho Killer that is so different from the album version as to be almost unrecognisable.

For the next song, part of the band comes out. For the next, the backing singers come out. And so on. By the end of the show, there’s a small country on the stage.

And, like Psycho Killer, each song on Stop Making Sense is radically different from the album versions which makes them instantly compelling. And more significantly, they’re arguably better than the album version. When it came to producing a “Best of”, Talking Heads chose to present two songs from Stop Making Sense instead of their album versions, that’s the kind of quality we’re talking here.

It’s easy to understate just how amazing this movie is. Even if you’re only a casual fan of Talking Heads, I’d encourage you to hunt down this movie and be won over for yourself.

Resources: