Musicians end up working together as a band for many reasons. It could be a group of friends who decide they want to learn to play to be like their favorite band. They pick up instruments and learn to play together organically. It could be musicians from several established bands deciding they’d like to work together on a project. Some bands are put together using ads in online sites or fanzines. One thing you need at the beginning of a band is some kind of shared direction in the type of music you want to make. Not having a shared vision is why the vast majority of bands fall apart before they even get started (that and personality conflict – the great destroyer of any shared project among humans). So most bands that get off the ground usually have some agreement on the type of music they create when they begin. The interesting part takes place after the band has been together for a while. That’s when a big decision comes to the forefront. Do we continue with the style of music that initially made us popular? Do we try different styles of music we’ve become interested in and risk losing our diehard fans? This is the crossroads moment. And there’s no right or wrong answer. Either choice could push a band forward or make it fall apart.
Let’s take a look at a band that I think made some great decisions in their changes in direction and still maintained and even grew their popularity. For this example we’re looking at the Talking Heads. For clarity, when I talk about changes in musical style, it’s not always ‘macro’ changes. The band didn’t move from rock to jazz then to classical. They remained under the huge umbrella of ‘rock’ music, which can sometimes be so broad as to be a meaningless term. But they made very noticeable sonic changes without a change in personnel or instrumentation. And they remained popular until the decision was made to retire the band name (a decision that was not universally wanted by all the band members – another common band situation).
Talking Heads started out as a ‘punk’ band in the CBGB’s scene – although the definition of what was ‘punk’ actually seemed a bit wider then than it is today. I certainly wouldn’t compare their version of ‘punk’ to a band like the Ramones. Their first ‘hit’ song was ‘Psycho Killer’ from the album ‘Talking Heads :77’. This song did have many attributes of the early punk scene. Simple guitar parts, relatively open and separate instrumentation. Musically crisp and choppy. But even this early song had a bit of ‘funky’ to it.
The second album was ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’. The single from this album was a cover of the Al Green song ‘Take Me To The River’. This version still had a more ‘rock’ feel to it. You can hear the same instrumentation from the first album. Simple arrangement that had a lot of separation between the instruments – there was certainly added keyboard presence matching the guitar in this song. The band was moving forward but was still maintaining the basic feel they started with. This song would be changed and expanded in their live show as the band moved forward.
The next album for the band was ‘Fear Of Music’. We start to see the beginnings of a shift happening. They continued to work with Brian Eno as a producer. The sound started to move more in to what was referred to as ‘post-punk’, another term that had a wide and often quite amorphous definition. There were a number of ‘post-punk’ bands that started to move in to more ‘funk’ territory, especially the bands’ rhythm sections. I always felt that a lot of Talking Heads underpinnings relied heavily on Tina Weymouth’s bass. Her playing and the placement of her bass sound in their songs was a great influence on my taking up bass and the way I would mix songs in the future. Stand out song here was ‘Life During Wartime’. You can feel the musical direction changes here – one foot still in post-punk while moving in a different direction. Changes were happening and the band’s popularity was increasing. I think one of the reasons for growing success was that the original line up was still together and the band members all bought in to the changes. Now we can start talking about the band ‘growing’.
The band’s musical growth continued. Their next album was ‘Remain In Light’. They delved in to more afrofunk and polyrhythmic beats. They also did some changes in their studio methods, recording long jams and picking the best parts to ‘loop’ as the basis of songs. A number of accounts state that friction had started in the band. Some members felt David Byrne exerted too much control. Most of the band members were also working on individual projects. This is where a lot of bands will fall apart and go their separate ways. It appears in this case that the changes in studio style and recording helped extend the band’s life. A great example of the style achieved on this album is heard in the song ‘Crosseyed And Painless’.
The band moved musically again for their next few albums. Although they were a successful band, they hadn’t achieved real ‘mainstream success’. That changed with their next album ‘Speaking In Tongues’. Although they retained the rhythmic underpinnings of their previous work, ‘Burning Down The House’ was a more rock oriented track that broke them in to the general public consciousness. On the next album, ‘Little Creatures’, there was another stylistic shift. They moved in to ‘pop rock’ territory with the single ‘And She Was’. I think that the continued growth and change the band experienced was really what kept them together for their last few albums. I imagine achieving commercial success didn’t hurt either.
Commercial success can be a two edged sword. In one way it keeps a band together, because some form of commercial success on your own terms is the dream for most musicians. On the other hand, once you become financially independent it’s much easier to go out on your own and make your music as individual and esoteric as you want. That seems to be the case with Talking Heads, although it appears David Byrne was the main catalyst for the idea that the band wouldn’t ever by reuniting again in their original form. Their final album ‘Naked’ was a mixture of several different styles from previous projects although it did have a commercial hit in ‘Wild Wild Life’. I think they’re a great example of a band who over their career experienced change and growth in their musical direction while maintaining an original lineup. They’re also an example of a band who didn’t feel the need to stay together after this growth stopped just to keep the money flowing. I miss hearing new music from them, but I’m happy they didn’t put out numerous albums of mediocre material once the magic was gone.