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Coming at rock from odd angles

Celebrating Talking Heads on a new boxed set

By Todd Leopold

Talking Heads
Talking Heads: David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz.

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David Byrne
Brian Eno

(CNN) -- Improvised cacophony for a film about a girlfriend run over by a car: That was the origin of Talking Heads.

It was the early 1970s. One of Chris Frantz's friends was making a student film at the Rhode Island School of Design. The friend needed music, and asked Frantz, a fellow student, and David Byrne, an ex-student and local character, to compose something.

The two set up some instruments at Tina Weymouth's place -- Weymouth being Frantz's girlfriend -- and recorded about a half-hour of noise, Frantz recalled.

"Afterwards, David said, 'I can play something other than cacophony,' " Frantz said in a phone interview from the home in suburban Connecticut he shares with Weymouth, now his wife of 26 years. "I'd been in a band in high school, and I'd been missing it."

That discussion led to the Artistics, which led to Talking Heads, which led to a residency at CBGB and a hit version of "Take Me to the River" and several acclaimed albums and other hit singles and some world tours and a couple movies and music on the edge where punk, pop, funk and world music meet, and a breakup and a short reunion and, most recently, a boxed set.

The latter, titled "Once in a Lifetime" (Rhino), is made up of three CDs spanning the group's career and a DVD of all its videos. The set also includes essays by Rick Moody, Maggie Estep, and each band member: drummer Frantz, singer and guitarist Byrne, bassist Weymouth, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison. (Rhino is a division of Time Warner, as is CNN.)

'Fear was an impediment'

New York can be a challenging place for the most willing of arrivals, but the mid-'70s Gotham that greeted the Artistics -- who became Talking Heads upon adding Harrison, once of Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers -- was a dark place indeed.

So you think rock stars hit a button and the riches came pouring in? Here's what Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and David Byrne did when they were working their way up:

- Byrne: Movie theater usher
- Frantz: Stockboy
- Weymouth: Salesperson at Henri Bendel

But even rock stars have to be a little subversive.

"We wore our safety pins on the inside of our clothes," said Weymouth.

"It was daunting at first. I did have insomnia for two weeks," recalled Frantz of the grimy Lower East Side neighborhood with "dead people and half-dead people lying around." Nevertheless, he's mostly upbeat about the early days.

"It was a happenin' place -- the Ramones lived there, Debbie Harry, Ornette Coleman, Allen Ginsburg. ... It was a time when we just went for it."

(Weymouth has bleaker recollections. "That area was scary. Chris was held up at gunpoint, and I had an incident with the Hell's Angels," she said. But, she added, "you forget the bad stuff.")

Once the band took off, however, it became one of the leading lights of the late-'70s and early-'80s punk/New Wave movement. Despite the group's art-punk sensibilities, loopy Byrne lyrics and fondness for progressive textures (including three albums produced by Brian Eno), Talking Heads had an uncanny ability to produce hits. It was one of the few bands equally at home in the Top 40 and on college radio.

By the mid-'80s, the band had had a Top Ten single -- "Burning Down the House" -- a critically acclaimed concert movie -- "Stop Making Sense," directed by Jonathan Demme -- and several groundbreaking music videos to its credit.

Part of Talking Heads' success, Weymouth notes, was the band's determination to take chances.

Remain in Light
Talking Heads' album covers, such as this one for "Remain in Light," were some of the most intriguing of any band's.

"Fear was an impediment, so we just said, 'To hell with it,' " she recalled. In the beginning, the band wore colorful Lacoste shirts while others dressed in black shirts and ripped jeans; by the time of "Stop Making Sense," the members even played each other's instruments in concert.

Weymouth was an individual example of punk attitude, a self-taught bassist who improved her technique through "willed optimism" and endless listening to Jaco Pastorius, James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins, among others.

"Being a punk is good that way -- my ideas were far ahead of my technique or acumen," she said. "I had to work at it. But then it just clicked."

'Everything ... was a full collaboration'

The success had a price, of course.

As lead vocalist and guitarist, known for his rubbery voice and wide-eyed lyrics such as "There is a party, everyone is there/Everyone will leave at exactly the same time," Byrne attracted the lion's share of attention. He directed movies; he collaborated with composers and artists. He was even hailed as "Rock's Renaissance Man" on a 1986 Time magazine cover.

Frantz notes the band was much more of an equal partnership than the reports of the time would say.

Once in a Lifetime
The new boxed set, "Once in a Lifetime," comes in a long box and includes an extensive booklet, three CDs and a DVD of the group's videos.

"Everything Talking Heads did was a full collaboration. Some [songs] were more collaborative than others," he said. "Sometimes a person might be an important catalyst, even though they might not have played a note."

Byrne left the band in the late '80s, and the remaining members continued without him for awhile (releasing a 1996 album as The Heads). Relations remain less than warm, Frantz admitted.

"Between the three of us and David, there's been a certain amount of strain," he said, though adding that the group's 2002 appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies has made "everything more cordial than it used to be."

Frantz said the timing is right for a boxed set (notwithstanding the group's early-'90s collection, "Sand in the Vaseline"), now that Talking Heads have been inducted into the rock hall. The sound quality of the songs is better than ever, and it's been assembled according to the band's specifications, he said. "This is a beautiful boxed set ... I'm happy with everything."

If there hadn't been a Talking Heads, both Frantz and Weymouth say they'd still be artists, perhaps painters. But, Weymouth says, it's not like they had a choice.

"It chose us. [Musicians] are what we are," she said. "There is no more Talking Heads and we're still making music."

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