Discover more from The Art of Noticing
Why to make them, and when to break them.
This started out as a quick post to share some Talking Heads videos. But it morphed into an exploration of paying attention to what’s left out, and why. Nevertheless, you can still just enjoy the videos if you prefer :) Here goes!
[October 23 Note: I’ve temporarily removed the paywall on this post.]
WHAT TO LEAVE OUT
I’ve enjoyed the wave of re-appreciation of Stop Making Sense, the landmark 1984 Talking Heads concert movie. I saw it in the theater on first release, and can confirm that people danced. (I was about 16. Unfortunately, I never saw the band live IRL. I saw David Byrne in around 2002, but, you know, not the same thing.)
In particular, I enjoyed some of the details in this piece from The New Yorker site by Jonathan Gould on the documentary’s “origin story.” As Gould correctly observes, one key to the film’s aesthetic success is what director Jonathan Demme doesn’t do: He had a minimalist approach notable for what it left out, in contrast to many concert films (and music videos) to that point. Gould writes:
“Dispensing with a ‘backstory’ of the musicians coming and going; the logistics of staging the show; interviews with the band members, promoters, and fans; and the fervent response of the crowd. Instead, Demme proposed to simply film the band onstage, expertly, while avoiding the rhythmic, fast-paced, jump-cut style of editing associated with the music videos being shown on the recently established platform MTV.”
“DEFINED BY NEGATIVES”
Demme’s film is now famous for this seemingly minimal approach, but I’d never really thought about how it meshed with the Talking Heads’ own formative aesthetic as the band established itself in the CBGB era. Gould again:
“In those days, surrounded by posturing rock romantics such as Patti Smith, Television, and the Ramones, the Heads sought to make a virtue of their musical and theatrical limitations by adopting a performance style that was initially ‘defined by [its] negatives,” as Byrne described it, consisting of ‘no rock moves or poses, no pomp or drama, no rock hair, no rock lights . . . no rehearsed stage patter,’ and, perhaps most telling, ‘no singing like a Black man.’”
Here’s the band very early — before they’d even added Jerry Harrison! — playing at The Kitchen:
I’ve mentioned in the past that I ask students to do an exercise I call “Always/Never” — name three things your work must always do, and three things it must never do. From now on, I’m going to be citing Byrne’s example — and by extension Demme’s — of an approach “defined by negatives.”
This may be partly a variation on the familiar idea of embracing constraints — but in these cases the constraints are very thought out, and willful. Here, constraints aren’t a reaction to external limitation; they’re a carefully observed response to a specific creative context, and ultimately serve as a deliberate path to originality.
“NO” RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN
I note that it’s a “path” because, obviously, the band ultimately broke most of its “no” rules. As I reassure my students (who are always reluctant to make declarations of any kind), this stuff isn’t a binding contract. You can change your mind! But you’ll be more likely to know why you’re changing your mind. The Talking Heads grew and evolved, Gould writes:
“In the course of that evolution, they jettisoned many of the musical and theatrical restrictions they had originally placed on themselves, beginning with the proscription on singing like a Black man, which yielded to a brilliantly understated rendition of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’ that earned them a Top Forty hit and revealed their musical affinity for the stately, churchy backbeats of Memphis soul.”
Indeed, next time you have an hour or three to kill, check out the following live performances from 1980-1982. It’s stunning what the band becomes less than half a decade after that Kitchen performance.
If you can watch just one, I recommend the Live in Rome 1980 show. It’s a somewhat similar lineup to Stop Making Sense, but one big difference is these shows include Adrian Belew on lead guitar, and at times he really steals the show. The connection between him and Tina Weymouth is palpable — I mean the musical connection, but it does sometimes seem like they should maybe get a room. (Or maybe Belew and the director should get a room: the camera lingers on him constantly.)
More seriously, it’s interesting to imagine Stop Making Sense with Belew in the mix. He’s a brilliant player, but also a very theatrical presence, in kind a traditional rock-star way.
In any case, by this era the expanded touring version of the band’s live sound was absolutely smoking.
By this (below) 1982 show at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Byrne is introducing a stage presence that definitely includes a lot of theatricality — but it’s very distinct.
[N.B.: The audio on the first two or three minutes of this video is really messed up, and there’s a commercial intrusion on almost every single song.]
Byrne has worked through his “No”s and is arriving at his own style. And that style would hit its zenith for Demme’s cameras.
THE OTHER SIDE OF “NO”
I’m not going to post clips from Stop Making Sense — you should definitely see it if you haven’t; there are clips around YouTube, but that doesn’t really capture the full experience — but the band is in absolutely perfect form, performing its best material, maintaining its live-sound prowess, and adding a unique visual style. Byrne in particular had become a variety of frontman we’d never quite seen before. And Demme’s defined-by-negatives approach is perfectly tuned to capturing the results with minimal interference. One last quote from Gould:
“Pauline Kael praised the film as ‘close to perfection,’ and described the Heads front man, David Byrne, as ‘a stupefying performer.’ ‘He’s so white he’s almost mock-white,’ Kael wrote, ‘and so are his jerky, long-necked, mechanical-man movements. He seems fleshless, bloodless; he might almost be a Black man’s parody of how a clean-cut white man moves. But Byrne himself is the parodist, and he commands the stage by his hollow-eyed, frosty verve.’”
The band never toured again. They did perform together at their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, years after their bitter breakup. Here’s one song from that set:
Not bad. It’s hard not to wonder how the band might have handled another tour. But evidently the last couple of albums were a strained process, and Byrne clearly wanted to do his own thing. He’s definitely done some cool stuff since then — although, let’s face it, none of it comes close to peak Talking Heads.
But that’s a subject for a different post!
HAVE A GREAT WEEK!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments.
And thanks for reading …
RobWalker.net | NB: I use (some) Amazon Affiliate links
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
—> If you enjoy this newsletter, please help spread the word! Or just click the heart button, that’s always very appreciated!
If someone forwarded you this subscriber-only edition, and you enjoyed it, consider signing on yourself.