It’s brave for a band to put out an eighteen-track best of, but in the case of Talking Heads it’s clear from the calibre of this record that they have more than enough songs to justify such a lengthy compilation. Apparently chosen by the band themselves, the tracks straddle the full twelve years of their existence, from 1977 to 1988.
For the uninitiated, it’s the perfect introduction to a band whose eccentricity and inventive cros-pollination of influences have often defied categorisation. The days of being part of the New York art punk scene, opening for the Ramones at CBGB’s are documented in first singles Love –> Building On Fire and Psycho Killer. The long-standing love affair with soul and funk is evident on the Al Green cover Take Me to the River and in David Byrne’s impressive funk rhythm guitar duel with Tina Weymouth’s bass on Found a Job.
Further into the band’s career, the scope of influences broadens, and Byrne’s love of what’s now called ‘world music’ rhythms becomes evident – the groundbreaking Once In a Lifetime and final song (Nothing But) Flowers being two examples. The electro dance scene of the mid ’80s makes its mark on tracks such as Girlfriend Is Better and Burning Down the House, both of which reveal a penchant for some incredibly retro-sounding keyboards (one of the few factors to date Talking Heads’ sound).
Like the band’s music, David Byrne’s voice often divides opinion. It’s not to everyone’s taste and many dislike its somewhat reedy quality and jerky delivery. But his talent for a great melody usually far outstrips the limitations of his vocal chords. The charming This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) is pure unadulterated pop, as is the euphoric and strangely timeless And She Was.
Not only that but the erudite, often humourous lyrics are intriguing: topics range from narratives of an articulate yet psychotic murderer (Psycho Killer) and being on the run (Life During Wartime) to reflecting on the meaning of life itself (Road to Nowhere, Heaven, Once in a Lifetime…actually there’s quite a few of those).
The band were often criticised for pilfering from traditionally ‘black’ music styles while themselves being nerdy, quirky white guys (and gal) with guitars. While this is perfectly true, it’s also true that they used their influences cleverly. Being too awkward and angular to properly reproduce an authentic funk or soul sound, rarely does a song on this compilation sound like anyone else, past or present. But their influence on bands of today is undeniably increasing – try to imagine what Franz Ferdinand would sound like if there had been no Talking Heads.
Far from being just arthouse oddballs who struck lucky with a few hits, Talking Heads were quite simply one of the most important bands of the ’80s. In an ideal world, everyone would own at least one Talking Heads record and if you do only want to own one, this is the one to have.