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The Story of the Talking Heads’ Pivotal Live Album ‘Stop Making Sense’

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From the start, Talking Heads never did things the way they were supposed to. So, why should their live album play by the usual rules? Their 1977 debut, Talking Heads: 77, wrapped art-rock in a New Wave bubble, and by the time the ’80s rolled around they expanded into world-hopping funk that was as much about expanding the brain as it was about moving the feet.

Thanks to MTV’s seemingly hourly airings of “Burning Down the House” throughout 1983, their fifth album, Speaking in Tongues, reached No. 15 – the Talking Heads’ highest-charting record. It gave the band some mainstream love to go along with all the critical adoration they’d been swimming in for more than half a decade. And it gave them the commercial clout to embark on their biggest and most ambitious tour.

In addition to Talking Heads’ core quartet (singer-guitarist David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, keyboardist Jerry Harrison and bassist Tina Weymouth), the group was joined onstage by additional musicians, including P-Funk alum Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Lynn Mabry on backing vocals — a move that not only made the songs bigger, but better. When they stopped at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre in December 1983 for a three-night run, future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) was there with a camera crew to film the shows.

The result, Stop Making Sense, turned out to be one of the most electrifying concert movies ever made. It turned the genre upside down, keeping the cameras mostly static and focused onstage, with little emphasis on close-ups, solos and fancy lighting. It didn’t need any of that with such dynamic performances.

And it all carried over to the movie’s soundtrack, originally released as a nine-song live sampler. Starting with a spare version of Talking Heads: 77‘s “Psycho Killer” featuring just Byrne and a drum machine, both the film and soundtrack unfurl like a history of the band, with members joining the frontman one by one until the entire group is onstage for “Burning Down the House.” (This documentary approach was somewhat lost on the original, edited album. A 1999 reissue adds seven songs and restores the flow.)

By the time the extended group charges into “Take Me to the River” (“Crosseyed and Painless” on the reissue), Talking Heads have transcended their cult-band status. Stop Making Sense is a star-making moment, especially onscreen, where Byrne’s jittery dance moves and over-sized suit turned on unsuspecting audiences to brilliantly jagged art-funk. But it’s the music – like the exceptional versions of “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Once in a Lifetime” – that drives it.

Stop Making Sense ended up staying on the chart for 118 weeks, longer than any other Talking Heads album, and peaking at No. 41. Decades later, it sounds like a pivotal moment in the great band’s short career. It’s certainly one of the best live albums ever made, a preserved-for-eternity snapshot of the time one of the era’s best bands took its art, music and fame to another level.

And they did it, once again, by breaking from tradition.

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