Talking Heads’ iconic Stop Making Sense came at a critical juncture of a volatile career. The reissue of the film and album gives us a chance to be stopped in our tracks all over again. By Chris Johnston.
Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense
By the southern summer of 1984, the great New York band Talking Heads was imploding under the pressure of personal and musical differences. By this point there was limited affection for David Byrne from his three former bandmates. This was the tail end of a famous six-month tour – the Big Suit tour, the Stop Making Sense tour. It became a concert film by Jonathan Demme and a live album.
The final shows in question were in Australia – including the Narara Festival on the New South Wales Central Coast – and New Zealand. On February 6 it all came undone in Christchurch, at a track and field stadium with the Pretenders and Simple Minds – but not U2, who were booked to appear but never did.
I was 17 and we were already back at school for the year. We bunked off for a big day out and from memory caught the bus to the concert. Byrne, Talking Heads’ twitchy, fretful singer, left the stage after being heckled. Bass player Tina Weymouth has called it the worst show the band ever did, which is right on brand, unfortunately, for Christchurch.
The band never played live again.
It turned out Byrne had invited some local Māori activists on stage on a whim, which prompted the heckling, and he had had enough. The band were by now intolerant of Byrne’s ways. Drummer Chris Frantz and Weymouth, his wife, would talk much later of Byrne in unendearing ways: dodgy song credits, ego, competitiveness, unavailability. Byrne has since said many times he believes he has autism, but he didn’t know it then.
The film and the record – both now reissued, remastered, revisited, re-everything, 40 years on – are the primary documents of an ’80s cultural moment. As Talking Heads was making perhaps the best concert film ever, Bob Geldof was about to watch a BBC report on famine in Africa, leading to Band Aid and then Live Aid. “Careless Whisper” was new, “Thriller” was new, “Purple Rain” was new. Madonna was in her extraordinary “Like a Virgin” period.
Amid this ferment, Talking Heads low-key invented the idea of the concert as a multimedia event, deconstructing the notion of the concert itself by having all the moving parts – staging, props, roadies – visible. In a devilishly wonderful trick – though none of this is uncommon now – the event begins with Byrne walking onstage alone, with a boom box. “Hi,” he says. “I’ve got a tape I want to play.” It’s the beat from “Psycho Killer”, the first song the band wrote in the 1970s, before the New York punk scenes at CBGB where they were on bills with the Ramones, Blondie and Television. It is perhaps still their most iconic song.
Byrne plays along with the boombox on acoustic guitar. He’s not wearing the Big Suit yet, just a formless normal one, top shirt button done up, no tie, a Lynchian character posing as an everyman introducing a berserk circus. Great theatre.
Weymouth then joins him for a stripped-back, electrifying version of “Heaven” from 1979’s Fear of Music – “heaven is a place / a place where nothing / nothing ever happens” – then one by one the rest of the band and ensemble appear to add their bits, percussionists and singers filling out the sound incrementally until, 20 minutes in, the all-out funk of “Slippery People”. It was a brand new song then, so propulsive and sly it was played by Larry Levan, the DJ’s DJ, at New York’s Paradise Garage club on the then standard 12-inch single between tunes by Yello or Chic.
Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic enters. Ednah Holt of disco supergroup the Ritchie Family is among the backing singers. It’s tight and delicious, and meticulously, impeccably staged: the band all dancing in unison for now but inexorably moving toward their end of days.
It does seem pressurised: at the edges, frantic. The cream of the late ’70s/early ’80s material, which Brian Eno often helped them make, plays out – “Life During Wartime”, “Once in a Lifetime”, “Crosseyed and Painless” – an era that Byrne has said was for him an “ecstatic release”. For the gorgeous “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” the lights go out, the projected backdrop becomes a bookshelf, Byrne switches on a floor lamp and then begins to sing among multiple synths and percussion – “I come home, she lifted up her wings / guess that this must be the place”.
By 1984 Frantz and Weymouth had their street-funk side project Tom Tom Club up and running. They get to do “Genius of Love”. Then the Big Suit comes out for the final phase. My memory is of Byrne wearing it for the whole thing but actually it’s only for a couple of songs of the final stanza before he begins to disrobe, even undoing the top shirt button.
Byrne explained later that the suit was inspired by his explorations of Japanese theatre forms kabuki and Noh, in which character and physicality are exaggerated. He told the designers who built the suit he wanted to look like a playing card with a face rather than it just being a fat suit, and the way it was executed messes with the whole imagery of the office man, the corporate man, an illusion of a tiny head on top of a supersized body.
Talking Heads rose among the original punks in Manhattan’s East Village – before the idea was transplanted to Britain – and one of the arresting sight gags they always used was their dress and appearance, presenting as purposefully utilitarian in plain clothes with plain haircuts, rather than conforming to what punks or alternatives or counterculture performers were supposed to look like.
This aesthetic remains in Stop Making Sense. The band all wear grey, more or less. Reportedly Frantz refused, which is why he wears a coloured polo. Weymouth is in a kind of boilersuit. The Big Suit, then, is a continued parody of their neutral aesthetic. Pauline Kael, reviewing the film in 1984, observed that the normcore caricature and its accompanying fever of Afrobeat percussion and choreography was like “an austere orgy”.
Byrne, the ideas man, knew these things and continues to. His 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia, also featured heavy input from Brian Eno and was also turned into a film, this time by Spike Lee. It was essentially a sequel to Stop Making Sense, using a bunch of the same songs, the performers again in stark, utilitarian grey.
Stop Making Sense, however, was the film that stopped ’80s culture in its tracks for a moment or two. As we filed out of the stadium after that last waltz in 1984, a once-in-a-lifetime gig, we asked ourselves, Why is he dressed like that? Why is it big? Why did he start it all off on his own? Do loners always find community? What is more important – the individual or the mass? And, most importantly, how do they get it looking and sounding so good?
The film Stop Making Sense is showing at IMAX, Melbourne, on September 17, 22 and 24 before a national release; the re-released vinyl is out now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "Thinking big".
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