Here’s a clip of art-rock foursome, and post-punk pop innovators Talking Heads. It’s their 1980 track “Once In A Lifetime”, a key element to the high-pinnacle album Remain in Light, and also a bright point in the excellent landmark 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme.
The film was shot in at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, December 1983. It captures the band during a point in their history when they’d expanded their live sound from being a tightly-wound and appropriately claustrophobic post-punk four-piece into something of an Africanized pop-funk collective.
Several side musicians from the funk world (members of Parliament Funkadelic and The Brothers Johnson are represented) were installed on these dates to fill out their sound, and effectively reposition their material into a more dance-oriented style, while losing nothing of its spiky, psychologically angular rock impact.
If punk rock was about bringing it all back home, then post-punk was about doing the same while also undercutting audience expectations, including skipping the blues, and going even further back to Africa. As such, with this tune you get all kinds of musical outcroppings of this artistic trajectory, my favourite being bassist Tina Weymouth’s percussive, propulsive, and tenacious bassline; so tenacious that it soldiers on through out the song, even against the grain of the chords, and the verse-chorus-verse structure.
Among the many innovations that Talking Heads employed as framed perfectly in this movie was David Byrne’s approach to the business of what it means to be a showman. Where rock band presentation of the ’70s was about unabashed sexuality, androgyny, and with a vague hint of violence, here Byrne strips it down for the ’80s. His onstage persona is about frenetic movement, with an exaggerated parody of traditional showmanship while on stage, rather than showmanship based on expected tight-jeaned-big-haired rock ‘n’ roll preening.
It would be in this movie that Byrne would appear in his over-sized suit, a parody of large scale rock pomp, parodied in turn on Saturday Night Live by Joe Piscopo (“You may ask yourself, why such a big suit? You may ask yourself, can the suit be taken in a little? …). Yet, Byrne’s suit, and his idiosyncratic movement on stage on this song, and on others during this series of shows that culminated in Demme’s film, was about trying to externalize what being in a band actually feels like while on stage. Since the act of making music is a physical act, Byrne wanted to boost the appearance of the body, and minimize the appearance of the head, the latter of which represents the mind and rational thought.
Yet even with his unconventional approach, he achieves what many rock bands strive for anyway; rock ‘n’ roll performance as pure spectacle with his own trademark stamped on it. And it certainly works, given that this performance, and this film, represents a high artistic watermark in rock filmmaking. Besides this, that the film was critically lauded, even outside of the rock ‘n’ roll world which had become very insular at the time, represents a significant achievement where the reach of rock music on a grander cultural scale is concerned.
After this movie was released, and after its soundtrack went on to score impressive showings in the charts, the ‘Heads would enjoy great success with their current album, Speaking in Tongues. That record features a breakthrough top forty single for them in “Burning Down the House”, arguably their most identifiable song among casual music listeners. It was the tail-end of an era that allowed artistic innovation to live quite comfortably beside mainstream success.
Take a look at this informative, yet very odd (natch) interview with David Byrne which expands upon some of these themes about what the film, and the group, was trying to accomplish. Byrne conducts the interview himself in various costumes.
[UPDATE: April 26, 2017. Jonathan Demme has passed away after a fight with esophageal cancer. He was 73. David Byrne wrote a touching tribute to the director that you can read here. RIP, Jonathan.]