Thursday, May 29, 2014

Side Projects: Talking Heads ‘81 Edition

David Byrne: Eyes Wide Open


Tom Tom Club: Genius of Love


Jerry Harrison: Slink


What is a side project? How is it different from a solo album? In choosing a song for this week‘s theme, I have wrestled with these questions. In mind, the difference is intent. Here I present three side projects related to the Talking Heads, all from 1981. Each, as I will explain, qualifies as a side project for different reasons.

1981 was a scary year for Talking Heads fans like myself. We now know that some of the band’s best work was still in the future, but it looked at the time like the band might break up. Officially, they were on hiatus, but we have all heard that before, and many bands do not survive it. Talking Heads did, but the year also produced some great music while they were apart.

David Byrne was the most prolific. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a collaboration with Brian Eno, and it would prove to be a study of African rhythms in preparation for the next Talking Heads album, Remain in Light. But Byrne also released a second album that year. The Catherine Wheel was a commission for the Twyla Tharp Dance Company. Byrne and Tharp were a couple for a brief time that year, and Byrne created a set of songs specifically intended for the dance. I was lucky to find a video of one of Twyla Tharp’s dances from this work.

Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth decided to use their time off from Talking Heads to have some fun. They gathered some musical family and friends and formed what was intended to be a one-shot project, the Tom Tom Club. This turned out to be the most popular of the Heads related projects of 1981. Genius of Love and Wordy Rappinghood were hits, and the Tom Tom Club’s label wanted a follow-up two years later. Franz and Weymouth would then go back to Tom Tom Club when Talking Heads finally did break up for good.

Jerry Harrison was interested in exploring what could be done in a recording studio. The Red and the Black features a large cast of musicians, many of whom would be featured in later Talking Heads albums. Harrison used layered multiple instruments and vocals to create a dense but funky soundscape. There would be two more Harrison solo albums in later years, but The Red and the Black is probably more important for laying the groundwork for the producing career that Harrison has enjoyed since the break up of Talking Heads.

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