Here’s a clip of New York-based art-pop mavens Talking Heads with their 1983 hit “This Must Be the Place” as taken from their closer-to-pop album Speaking in Tongues.
With this tune, for me at least, it sounds like it’s been going on for a while before we get to hear it; it kind of feels like we listeners catch it in midstream. It’s a huge song, yet at the same time very unassuming. And you get the feeling too, that after it fades, it’s still going on, like a river working its way underground. Of course, the band are carrying forth the same kind of approach which placed an emphasis on groove, the same approach that they’d managed on the album which many consider to be their masterpiece – Remain in Light from 1980.
On that record, the influences of African funk music are evident, and quite clearly it’s had an indelible effect on this track too. But, Talking Heads had played with sound akin to Fela Kuti and Afrobeat before on the track “I Zimbra” off of their equally excellent Fear of Music album.
It’s quite clear that the band was building toward the kind of sound where the melodies they were making would be free to roam around a rhythm, rather than constrained to a set of chord changes. And it’s none so evident than it is on “This Must Be the Place”, where David Byrne‘s vocal kind of wanders dreamily, yet within the bounds of the hypnotic engine which is moving behind it thanks to Chris Frantz’s drums, Tina Weymouth’s bass, and Jerry Harrison’s keyboards.
With funk, a one-chord groove is a characteristic which is a defining element to the style. And certainly with Talking Heads’ approach to it, that strength of a single chord groove is vital to how this song grabs the attention of the listener. But where a lot of funk music is about movement and sensuality, with this band, you get the idea that they’re using the principle in an exactly opposite manner.
With this tune, the interlocking grooves are not about churning bodies dancing together, about togetherness and physicality. It’s about the relentless workings of machinery, the sounds of the city, the sounds of anonymity and, at worst, dehumanization. In this, the principles of post-punk creep their way into the mix. And of course urban alienation is a major theme running through the band’s work, from ‘Psycho Killer’, to ‘Born Under Punches’, to ‘Road to Nowhere’. When it comes to songwriting, as inventive as they were with presentation, they never took their eye off the ball.
Talking Heads were exceptional for a lot of reasons. But one was that you got a sense that all of the songs they wrote were cohesive to an entire body of work, even if they were able to explore different musical areas stylistically. A song like ‘Pulled Up’ from their first album, and ‘This Must Be the Place’ are world’s apart. Yet, they are inextricably Talking Heads songs.
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