GUEST POST: More Notes about Buildings and Food

Many folks around the world are enjoying David Byrne’s current global tour. We have covered it here. The attention paid to this tour has garnered a flurry of reflection on Byrne’s prior work with Talking Heads, a band he formed in the mid 1970s. Below is a wonderful rewind about the band’s second album, from John Van Fleet, our favorite Shanghai-based writer.

More Notes about Buildings and Food – Reflections on the 40-year anniversary of the release of the Talking Heads’ second album.

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics.

New Republic, 1918

 

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Martin Mull, 1970s

 

14 July 1978 – what we Yanks but not the French call Bastille Day. The only day of my life on which I recall planning a trip to a record store to buy a recording on its first day of release. According to this or that music mag, 14 July was the release date for the second Talking Heads album. But I was disappointed – the shop in my suburban area of Los Angeles didn’t have More Songs About Buildings and Food and weren’t sure when they’d get it. In retrospect, the mag got it wrong – off by a week or so, but the mag (and I) liked the idea of a new and edgy record being released on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

In autumn of 1977, nearly a year before, I’d visited the record store, something I did a lot in those days, and while wandering the aisles heard something that rocked me back on my heels.

Who, who is it? Who, who is it?

What is it? What is it?

(Who Is It?)

I asked the clerk, and he pointed me towards an orange-red album cover in the ‘Now Playing’ rack.

I stayed in the store, captured by the sound and the songs, until the clerk changed the disk. ‘Can you play that again?’ He declined, but by then I’d already decided to buy it anyway, so I did and drove home, and put the disc on the record player, and placed the needle.

I’m a lucky guy to live in my building, they all need buildings to help them along.

It’s over there, it’s over there!

My building has every convenience, it’s gonna make life easy for me.

It’s gonna be easy to get things done . . .

Among the other songs, I heard this one, about the wondrousness of a high-rise, titled ‘Don’t Worry About the Government’. Everything – the lyrics, the compositions, the performance – tongue in cheek, but disconcerting, parallax and often none too friendly.

It’s not so cool to have so many problems

Don’t expect me to explain your indecision

Talk to your analyst, isn’t that what they’re paid for?

(No Compassion)

I had never heard anything like this – a look at the 1977 Billboard Hot 100 indicates why – filled with faux R&B and disco-influenced power pop ditties (a leading contender for most cloying and noxious pop song of all time, Hotel California, had come out earlier that year, depressing me, as I’d been keen on the Eagles a few years previously – how the mighty had fallen).

I stared repeatedly at the picture on the back.

The lead singer, David Byrne, seemed like Mr Rogers’ separated-at-birth twin, the one who had perhaps been dropped on his head and then been sent away to an orphanage. But he was back!

Mommy Daddy come and look at me now, I’m a big man in a great big town . . .

(Pulled Up)

That Farfisa organ sound, well up in the mix, was like a finger being shaken in my face – musical taunting. And then, in The Book I Read, as if the organ and such weren’t enough, I heard, “na na na naaah”!

Byrne’s vocalizations, in addition to the by-turns plaintive, peculiar or outstandingly funny lyrics, evoked empathy or laughter or concern for his safety in this world – I guessed that, on the other side of the edge in the edgy sound, institutions and sedatives lurked. The most famous cut of the album, Psycho Killer, came as the penultimate tune, by which point I needed no further convincing.

Flirting with insanity, or taking a deep dive into it, is of course ancient territory for artists. Earlier in the ’70s alone, Alice Cooper released Ballad of Dwight Fry and Bowie released All the Madmen. This was different – glam-rocker Bowie painted images of space travel and world dictators, Cooper toyed endlessly with the dregs of the horror genre combined with the teenage hormonal eruption his target audience was going through. Talking Heads were . . . adult . . . and suburban . . . and could pass for Mr Rogers’ normal siblings . . . until Byrne opened his mouth, and the band started to play.

A bit later in the summer of ’78, I did get my hands on a copy of More Songs About Buildings and Food. I was no longer surprised by their sound and the bent lyrics, but I was surprised at how much had changed in a year – Buildings and Food was a dramatically more sophisticated endeavor. I soon figured out that Brian Eno had become producer, as he would be for the next two albums, through Remain in Light.

Cover of More Songs About Buildings and Food

Warning Sign, for example, started with a marching-band snare and bass drum riff – primary school stuff – but then several instruments got layered in – first the bass, with a deceptively simple line of bouncy descending fifths, then a jangly, ethereal guitar, then two more, and then a few atmospheric effects that I’d never have conjured myself but which, after hearing, I couldn’t imagine not being there. 60 seconds of transition from something I could have played when I was 12 to a compelling, complex tone palette. Three decades later, in the movie Amadeus, the Salieri character describes his first hearing of a Mozart piece – ‘the beginning simple, almost comic, just a pulse . . . and then, suddenly, high above . . . this was a music I’d never heard’.

And then, Byrne’s quavering voice:

Warning sign, warning sign, I hear it but I pay it no mind

Hear my voice hear my voice, it’s saying something and it’s, not very nice

Pay attention, pay attention I’m, talking to you and I, hope you’re concentrating . . .

(Warning Sign)

I was indeed paying attention – I could hardly do otherwise. I was, as the Aussies say, gob-smacked. On side two I discovered what is still to me one of the best transitions between songs, both astonishingly great, that I’ve ever heard, rivaling the second side of Abbey Road (well, alright – Lennon, Martin and McCartney made transitions happen for nine mini-tunes, nearly the entire side). Girls Just Want to Be with the Girls closes on a big seven chord begging for resolution, there’s silence for four beats, and then we hear, precisely on the downbeat, an explosion of sound as Bob swears:

Bob: “Damn that television – what a bad picture!”

Judy: “Don’t get upset – it’s not a major disaster . . .”

Found a Job tells of a couple who are dissatisfied with the program offerings on broadcast TV (cable didn’t become widespread until years later) and decide to script (Judy) and film (Bob) their own programming.

Judy’s in the bedroom, inventing situations

Bob is on the street today, scouting out locations

They’ve enlisted all their family, they’ve enlisted all their friends

It helped save their relationship, and made it work again.

The final verse offers us career advice.

So think about this little scene – apply it to your life

If your work isn’t what you love, and something isn’t right

Just think of Bob and Judy, they’re happy as can be

Inventing situations, putting them on TV.

I guess a number of my friends of the time would say that, in those waning years of the ’70s, I became by turns boring and irritating, because I kept making them listen to various songs from the albums – ‘Listen to this!!!’ ‘Have you ever heard anything like this before???’ ‘How did they possibly think up that???’

Forty years on, we can see Youtube videos of Talking Heads performing at that time – their version of Artists Only in about 1977 is . . . interesting, and reminds me of the first time I saw the band live, at a club in West Hollywood, about a year later. But the recorded version on Buildings and Food is vastly better – cleaner and laser-focused – Eno seems to have been the audio equivalent of what a good editor has long been said to be to an author – s/he who blows away the smoke from a fire, revealing its light and heat.

In the liner notes for Sand in the Vaseline (apropro), a best-of compilation released in 1992, bassist Tina Weymouth described how the band had settled on 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’. Given that three of the band were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design, Weymouth’s assertion may be surprising, but it’s apt – the early Talking Heads were a content band – the live performances were about the songs, not theatrics – perhaps a primary reason why the recordings felt so much more interesting to me than the performances. That along with the usual ‘the book is better than the movie’ phenomenon, in which the former offers more space for the imagination.

Among the endless discussion of what makes great modern music, songwriting doesn’t seem to get the emphasis it deserves. The songwriter is like the pitcher in baseball – somewhere around 70% of the game. And the great songwriters always seem to have a surfeit of material. By the time of Buildings and Food, Byrne had written dozens of songs that covered a remarkable range, only rarely touching on the usual, smarmy suspect topics: ‘I love you baby, I’ll be lost without you/you’ll be lost without me’ – blah blah blah. When Byrne did touch the usual, he did so with a twist that kept reminding you that you were now in front of a funhouse mirror, as in one of the lines from the song Warning Sign:

I’ve got money now, I’ve got money now – come on baby, come on baby.

Talking Heads released the last of their collaborations with Eno, Remain in Light, in 1980. The songs and production raised the bar still further, but the video for the single, Once in a Lifetime, was its own warning sign – Byrne was becoming a parody of himself. The transition was complete by the time of their smash concert film, Stop Making Sense, in 1984. Byrne’s attire – the big suit – and antics proved that Weymouth’s suggestion about the initial orientation of the band had been reversed – they were now increasingly about motion, not so much about content. Sound and faux fury, signifying less and less.

But the world was forever bent by the Talking Heads. Radiohead, one of the top bands of the 90s, took their name from a song on 1986’s True Stories, admittedly an album released well after the Heads’ sell-by date. And the entire genre of nerd rock traces its ancestry back to those early recordings. They forever bent me, starting in a record store in suburban Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

 

Van Fleet decamped from Los Angeles to Asia in 1991 and now lives in Shanghai. He has a few used passports and a couple of visas.


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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