Sly & The Family Stone: bass and drum advocates

When I think of funk music, I think of Sly & The Family Stone. The band, which formed in 1967, revolutionized funk, soul, R&B, however you want to categorize them. But really, they revolutionized music in general.

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Now, that phrase is thrown around a lot. That band “revolutionized music.” However, in the case of Sly & The Family Stone, it’s true. What’s more, their influence is tangible, we can actually hear a difference in music pre-Sly & The Family Stone versus post-Sly & The Family Stone, and it’s pretty cool to hear.

Brian Eno sums it up nicely:

[i]f you listen to records from the ’50s, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud. … and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly. … from the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album (1973), there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments.

Before Sly & The Family Stone, the mix was focused on the melody and all of its ornaments. You can hear this in a song like The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.”

In the mix, Don and Phil’s vocals and guitar are the main highlights, while the only drum we really hear is the higher pitched snare. This was the sound of the time. When Sly & The Family Stone hit the scene in the late 60s, music had already evolved from The Everly Brothers, but the evolution was about to speed up.

Eno cites Fresh as the album that brought about the shift to drum and bass, and I wouldn’t argue with him. I mean…he is Brian Eno. Still, Sly & The Family Stone’s focus on drum and bass can be heard as early as their first album A Whole New Thing (1967). For example, listen to “Bad Risk.”

Slyfamstone-freshStill, Fresh really does indicate a sea change in music. Suddenly, the bass players and drummers were the most important people on stage. To hear this change, check out “In Time.” Why this song as opposed to another track off of Fresh? Because apparently Miles Davis was so blown away by this song that he had his band sit and listen to it on repeat for 30 minutes straight. If it was that important to Miles, who are we to decide otherwise?

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Talking Heads post break-up

talking-heads-naked1Between 1985 and 1988, Talking Heads released three albums: Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1986), and Naked (1988). However, I believe it was True Stories where a major dynamic of the band is revealed.

All of the songs on True Stories were cover songs from Byrne’s 1986 comedy of the same name. Though the rest of the band starred in the film, the band’s appearance in Byrne’s work symbolizes what eventually brought Talking Heads to an end. As time went on, the band became more and more controlled by Byrne. Finally, after the release of Naked, the band went on a hiatus.url

The official announcement that the band had broken up didn’t come until 1991. By then, Byrne had released a few solo albums, including my favorite, Rei Momo (1989). Meanwhile, fellow husband/wife Talking Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz released albums as Tom Tom Club. Jerry Harrison began his foray into record producing. Some of his most notable projects include the Violent Femmes’ The Blind Leading the Naked and Crash Test Dummies’ God Shuffled His Feet.

The closest thing to a reincarnation of Talking Heads came in 1996 with the release of The Heads’ album No Talking, Just Head. The Heads, of course, consisted of Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison sans David Byrne. It did poorly.

In 2002, Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For some unknown reason, out of all the musicians on the planet, Anthony Kiedis was chosen to induct them in.

And that’s it for Talking Heads. Happy listening!

Talking Heads, The Mudd Club, and CBGB

In her 33 1/3 book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Kim Cooper writes about the idea of “the Scene,” those cities and times that become breeding grounds for creativity. She writes:

Like scientists wondering if a given planet has the building blocks to generate life, rock historians like to puzzle over why some towns suddenly belch up that elusive quarry, the Scene. It seems random, and maybe it is. Why Minneapolis in ’84, Seattle in ’89, London in ’66 and San Francisco in ’67?

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Entrance to CBGB.

The same could be said for New York City in the late 70s – early 80s. “New Wave” and “post-punk” bands, including Talking Heads, got their start here, and both The Mudd Club and CBGB were where they first started to perform. In “Life During Wartime,” (Fear of Music, 1979) David Byrne even nods to both venues,  singing, “This ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB.”

The Mudd Club and CBGB were located in Manhattan, Mudd on 77 White St. and CBGB on Bowery. However, it was CBGB where Talking Heads first opened for The Ramones in 1975 and where they, along with bands like Blondie, Misfits, Television, The B-52’s, and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, really started making waves.

Weird art crowd at The Mudd Club.
Weird art crowd at The Mudd Club.

In his 2010 TED Talk on how architecture helped music evolve (watch it, now) Byrne highlights CBGB. He says:

It was, remarkably, a pretty good sounding room, with all the uneven walls and all the crap everywhere, it actually sounded pretty good…The nature of the room meant that words could be understood, the lyrics of the songs could pretty much be understood, the sound system was kind of decent, and there wasn’t a lot of reverberation in the room, so the, uh, rhythms could be pretty intact, too – pretty concise.

He goes on to talk about the clientele, how the band had to turn the volume up in places like CBGB to “overcome people falling down, shouting out, or whatever else they were doing.”

Though Byrne’s TED Talk is wonderfully educational and entertaining with regards to different venues’ architecture and their effects on music, what I find most interesting is how Byrne talks about CBGB sentimentally. He spent a lot of time there, wrote and performed much of the music that would go on to define his career, and it is obvious that he knows every nook and cranny of the place. I’m sure any musician from the 70s-80s NYC scene would talk about the place as fondly as he does.

thcbgbBut, bands (at least the good ones) move on. In “Life During Wartime,” right after he nods to CBGB, Byrne sings, “I ain’t got time for that now.” Bands became bigger than the cramped, uneven space of CBGB, played bigger venues with bigger crowds. Still, up into the early 90s, Byrne returned to play a few surprise shows at CBGB to test new songs he was working on at the time.

CBGB finally closed its doors in 2006, but its legacy will live in the bands that got their start there and the myriad of musicians who have been influenced by the sounds that came out of the Bowery club.

Now, it’s a longer video but certainly worth your time. Here are the Talking Heads (pre-Jerry Harrison) performing at CBGB in December, 1975.

Talking Heads cover songs

There is no doubt that Talking Heads were an influential band. Their p94690g7q48sound was totally new, and they were at the forefront of the “New Wave” movement (a term that a record label, not the band, came up with.)

As a band, immense influence means a couple of things. It means that record labels start giving you more leeway in the studio, it means that you will undoubtedly sell more tickets to your shows, and it means that people are going to cover your music.

Here are some notable Talking Heads covers that have emerged over the years, the good, the bad, and the odd:

1. Tom Jones and The Cardigans – “Burning Down the House”

Welsh soccer mom dream, Tom Jones, attempted to resurrect his career in 1999 with Reload, a collection of 15 collaboration/cover songs with (mostly) younger artists – in this case, The Cardigans. “Burning Down the House” from the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues (1983) was the opening track. Gross.

2. The Staple Singers – “Slippery People”

To be honest, anything The Staple Singers do is awesome, but the call-and-response style chorus of “Slippery People” (Speaking in Tongues, 1983) that is so common in Talking Heads music suits The Staple Singers perfectly.

3. The Lumineers – “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”

The folk rockers who made the words “Ho” and “Hey” so famous covered this song from the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues (1983). What is most impressive is that they said neither “Ho” nor “Hey” the entire time!

4. Gomez – “Road to Nowhere”

This British indie rock band took this song from the Talking Heads album Little Creatures (1985). This certainly isn’t the best cover ever but, as we’ve heard here, it’s definitely not the worst.

5. The Bobs – “Psycho Killer”

I could have uploaded the mp3 version of this song, but then you wouldn’t get to see this video from Seattle-based a cappella quartet, The Bobs. Where would the fun be in that?

So, there you go. I hope you enjoyed this sample of Talking Heads covers. Now, do yourself a favor and listen to the originals. You know, cleanse the pallet.

Remain in Light cover art

Of all the awesome cover art in rock music, the cover for the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (1980) is one of the coolest and, certainly, one of the most memorable.

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Like the music of Talking Heads, the Remain in Light cover was an encapsulation of its time, while simultaneously being leaps and bounds ahead of other art being produced.

The creation of the cover was overseen by Talking Heads Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums), along with Walter Bender, a surprising collaborator considering the fact that he was a researcher at MIT. Yes, THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

You see, it was 1980. Computers were enormous, slow, and relatively new technology. It took the design department of one of the most prestigious universities in the world to create the Remain in Light cover. Specifically, MIT computers were used to transpose the red “masks” over each band member’s face. This was a major undertaking, especially considering that Remain in Light is the first record to ever don computerized images on its cover.

However, the cover you see above, the one that we associate with Remain in Light was originally planned as the back cover. What we consider the back cover of the album was originally going to be the front.

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Weymouth and Frantz came up with the idea of the fighter planes to honor Weymouth’s father who was in the Navy. Rendering the planes red took MIT’s enormous computer power, with the help of Scott Fisher, an MIT computer guru.

In keeping with Weymouth’s desire for a simple, bold font, graphic designer Tibor Kalman wrote “Talking Heads” with no space and in Sans Serif font. Of course, Kalman followed directions, but not before inverting the A’s.

In almost military fashion, the cover art was credited not to people, but to code names. The liner notes say that the cover was designed by “HCL, JPT, DDD, Walter GP, PAUL, C/T.”

In his book This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century (an incredible source of information about the band), David Bowman says that both Bender and Fisher wanted to use code names because the project was not officially commissioned by MIT.

The history of the album art alone makes Remain in Light worth listening to. However, even if the record had been handed out in plastic bags, it is commonly referred to as the Talking Heads’ magnum opus. The music, like the cover, is breathtakingly beautiful, revolutionary, and offers a completely new experience every time you encounter it.

David Byrne and evangelism

Byrne+Stop+Making+SenseTalking Heads frontman David Byrne has always been known as one of the more eccentric lead singers in rock and roll. His odd facial expressions and wild gyrations quickly brought attention to he and the band and made tickets to their live shows so desirable, even from the band’s early beginnings. It was Byrne’s seemingly uncontrollable nature on stage, mixed with the band’s totally original, brilliant music that landed them their first major gig opening for The Ramones in 1975.

But why did Byrne move like this? Was he just being a freak? As it turns out, no. His movements, though a bit otherwordly, were not only intentional, they were inspired.

Byrne was both imitating and creating a character, an archetype that he had seen on TV and heard on the radio: the evangelist. Probably the most well-known example of these gyrations can be seen in the music video for “Once in a Lifetime” from Remain in Light (1980). Byrne told Time Out:

Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.

Obviously, Byrne was concerned with movement. However, as is usually the case with the Talking Heads, their was a specific purpose. Byrne wasn’t just trying to be odd, though he succeeded in that as well. He was synthesizing the images he had seen of preachers overtaken by the Spirit, venom from snake bites, or whatever else had taken control.

In MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, Tony Basil says:

He [Byrne] wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances – different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he ‘physicalized’ the ideas from these documentary-style films.

Byrne didn’t just randomly gyrate. He had studied the movements of those in trances and those preaching while physically overwhelmed. This concept is alluded to in this short Talking Heads documentary. Eight minutes in, you can see video of Byrne interspersed with video of people in religious trances.

Before Talking Heads became one of the most celebrated and influential bands of the 1980s, they were art school students. Performance art in particular was a common expression (it’s said that while in art school, Byrne shaved his beard off with beer instead of shaving cream.) Clearly, this physical form of expression carried over into Talking Heads live shows.

Exploring a different band every week.

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