The Heads’ coming of age still makes near perfect sense.
Mark Beaumont 2010
It was a show about enlargement. Whether in David Byrne’s now iconic ‘big suit’ – an outfit better suited to a power-dressing Joan Collins that set the bar for the 80s shoulder-pad obsession at ridiculous heights – or in the way the band builds from a solo Byrne on an empty stage with a boombox and an acoustic guitar for Psycho Killer to a stage full of horn sections, backing singers and ex-Funkadelic players making Take Me to the River a blitz of sound and colour. Or, indeed, in the way the visual and artistic pretensions of this 1984 concert film and its soundtrack (the first rock movie made using entirely digital audio techniques) catapulted post-punk NYC oddballs Talking Heads from the art-funk underground into the mainstream ubiquity enjoyed by Road to Nowhere and Little Creatures the following year.
Though both open with the minimalist off-the-cuff intro of "Hi, I’ve got a tape I wanna play you," the original nine-song, 40-minute soundtrack release leaps straight from Psycho Killer to the funk stomp of Swamp, failing to capture the movie’s portrayal of the band’s slow build through the stark Byrne/Weymouth duet on Heaven and Thank You for Sending Me an Angel’s rockabilly rattle along the way. This is a set worth the long journey round, so you are directed to the 1999 reissue including a full half-hour’s extra material: the wheeled-on expansion of the band unravels in full, right up until arrival of the soul choir and bongo basher for Slippery People and a dazzling Burning Down the House.
Here we find the 80s at their most edgy and vital – the chart-y synth sheen that dominated the decade from Nik Kershaw to The Buggles to the Pet Shop Boys to Timbuk3 to SAW given a sinister collegiate twist and an afrobeat edge. You could argue that Stop Making Sense kept the 80s cheesy beyond its years and opened the door for Sting and his tribe-bothering millionaire muckers to keep world music uncool for decades to come; certainly it imbued the keytar generation with an intelligence and credibility previously stymied by its piano key ties and voluminous chinos.
But, damn, it’s good fun. An essential glance at the 80s mainstream’s underbelly, and showcase for some of the era’s most thoughtful and inspired tunes – Once in a Lifetime’s effervescent bemoaning of life’s inexorable drag towards mundanity or, at the other end of the emotional scale, What a Day that Was and its jubilant celebration of romance’s minutiae. Technically dated, sure, but the Heads’ coming of age still makes near perfect sense.