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Off the Beaten Tracks: Head Girl

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FOR those who remember Talking Heads, it’s usually because of David Byrne, the flamboyant front man in the ‘big suit’ who gurned, crooned, shouted, whooped, sometimes gibbered and always demanded the audience’s attention.

Yet for me the heart of the group was the bass player, Tina Weymouth. When I saw them in 1979 I was astonished at her virtuosity as she anchored the music behind Byrne’s admittedly brilliant performance. I was even more amazed to discover that she had been playing the instrument for only four years and learned by listening to Suzi Quatro albums. She is also almost certainly the only rock bassist whose father was a vice admiral in the US Navy.

One of seven siblings, Martina Michele Weymouth was born in Coronado, California, in 1950, daughter of Frenchwoman Laura Bouchage and retired Vice Admiral Ralph Weymouth. Her first musical endeavours were as a 12-year-old member of a peripatetic bellringing group. At 14 she began learning the guitar.

At Rhode Island School of Design she met Byrne and her future husband Chris Frantz. When the two men decided to form a band as part of the growing new wave scene in New York City they were short of a bass player, so drummer Frantz persuaded his then girlfriend to step in. Byrne handled lead guitar and vocals. Their first gig was supporting the Ramones at the Manhattan music club CBGB in June 1975.

Weymouth says the name Talking Heads was picked because a friend had spotted the term in TV Guide. ‘It was used to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as “all content, no action”.’ That, she felt, described the band perfectly.

Signed to Sire Records in late 1976, Talking Heads’ first single Love Goes To Building On Fire was released the following February. Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth were then joined by Jerry Harrison, from Jonathan Richman’s band The Modern Lovers, on guitar and keyboards.

Apparently Byrne remained to be convinced about Weymouth’s ability on bass and she was asked three times to audition to keep her place in the band. Cheeky monkey.

The debut album Talking Heads: 77 came out soon afterwards to great critical acclaim for its originality and intelligence, and gave the group a hit single with Psycho Killer.

The song was thought to have been inspired by the serial murderer Son of Sam, who had been terrorising NYC until his arrest in August that year, but Byrne claimed to have written it long before. Opening with Weymouth’s hypnotic bass line, it would be a live favourite throughout the band’s existence.

Two other quirky highlights are the opening track, Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town and Don’t Worry About the Government, the latter advice proving difficult to follow in the UK more than 40 years on.

Listening to Tina’s contribution it seems incredible that Byrne had considered giving her the tin-tack. She and Frantz were married that year, and are together still.

The next album, 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, was the first of three collaborations with producer Brian Eno, fresh from his triumphs with David Bowie in Berlin on the albums Low and Heroes. He encouraged the band to adopt a more rhythmic, danceable style ideally suited to Weymouth’s bass. More Songs established Talking Heads as a band to be reckoned with and was a top 30 LP in both the US and UK. A cover version of Al Green’s Take Me To The River also became a hit single.

Other picks include The Good Thing, The Girls Want To Be With The Girls and the final track, The Big Country, Byrne’s sardonic attack on America’s southern states – ‘I wouldn’t live there if you paid me’.

This is an exceptionally strong and consistent record but it was surpassed the following year by the superb Fear of Music, of which the Rolling Stone reviewer wrote that it ‘is often deliberately, brilliantly disorienting. Like its black, corrugated packaging (which resembles a manhole cover) the album is foreboding, inescapably urban and obsessed with texture’. NME named it the album of the year. Top tracks include Mind, Life During Wartime, Air and Heaven – ‘a place where nothing ever happens’.

To promote it, the Heads embarked on a European tour which on December 1, 1979, took them to the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. They blew me away – particularly the waiflike Weymouth pounding out those amazing basslines. This was no art rock combo, it was a fearsome machine. There is a set of three live CDs, Transmission Impossible, which includes a date from that storming 1979 tour. Incredibly Amazon is asking almost £1,000 for this but it can be downloaded for a more realistic eight quid. There is also this live recording on YouTube, made in London six days after I saw them.

Remain in Light (1980) was heavily influenced by African polyrhythms. It was another resounding critical success, named album of the year by Sounds and Melody Maker. A single taken from it, Once in a Lifetime, was a top 20 hit in this country while my fave track is the Arabic-influenced Listening Wind.

By now Frantz and Weymouth had formed a splinter group, Tom Tom Club, which had success with the singles Wordy Rappinghood and Genius of Love. Byrne, meanwhile, had collaborated with Eno on the strange, sample-infested album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

For live work the band was expanded to a ten-piece and a concert album, The Name of this Band is Talking Heads, was released in 1982. In my book it is nowhere near as effective as Transmission Impossible.

The next year saw the release of Speaking in Tongues, which was commercially very successful and supplied the band’s only American Top 10 hit, Burning Down The House.

A promotional tour was documented in a film and live album, Stop Making Sense, which included Byrne’s amazing ‘big suit’.

Little Creatures (1985) included the hit singles And She Was and Road to Nowhere.

The disappointing 1986 effort True Stories and 1988’s Naked complete the band’s studio output. Byrne’s insistence on running the show eventually drove the other members beyond breaking point and they split up.

Weymouth later described Byrne as ‘a man incapable of returning friendship’. Not much of a judge of female bassists, either.

PS After writing this I watched a programme about bass players on BBC 4 presented by none other than Tina Weymouth. It’s available here for another few weeks.

alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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