Classic Tracks: Talking Heads "Road to Nowhere"

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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By 1985, Talking Heads was one of the most respected bands in America, loved both by critics and an ever-expanding fan base that watched the group move from its quirky art-school origins to darlings of the New York “new wave.” The band evolved into an amazingly inventive polyrhythmic, multi-piece ensemble with seriously original funk and world-music leanings. Talking Heads had two bona-fide hits during its first decade together — “Take Me to the River” (Number 26 in 1978) and “Burning Down the House” (Number 9 in 1983) — and a number of other songs received strong airplay and helped establish the group as part of a very rare breed: a commercial “art” band.

Songs such as “Psycho Killer” (covered in “Classic Tracks” in Mix's August 2002 issue), “Life During Wartime,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Swamp” and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” were ubiquitous on college radio and other progressive outlets. Today, all of those can now be found on classic-rock playlists in between endless Who and Rolling Stones tracks — who knew? In the summer and fall of 1983, the quartet — guitarist/singer David Byrne, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz — augmented by a handful of other musicians and backup singers, embarked on a spectacular tour in support of their Speaking in Tongues album — so beautifully documented in director Jonathan Demme's concert film Stop Making Sense, which is still regarded as one of the best in the genre.

After that tour ended, the hard-working Byrne threw himself into several different projects: helping (along with Harrison) on the post work for Stop Making Sense; writing musical interludes (known as The Knee Plays) for composer Robert Wilson's opera The Civil Wars; and crafting material for what would be the next two Talking Heads albums, Little Creatures and True Stories, the latter a soundtrack (of sorts) for the wry film of the same name, which Byrne also wrote, directed and acted in. It was work on the Stop Making Sense soundtrack album that first brought engineer Eric “E.T.” Thorngren into the band's orbit.

Originally a rock guitarist, Thorngren had shown his technical chops engineering on some of the seminal Sugar Hill Records rap sides — “The Message,” “White Lines (Don't Don't Do It),” “Apache,” etc. He was in Bahamas working for Island Records boss Chris Blackwell at the producer's Compass Point Studios mixing tracks for the Bob Marley collection Legend (which became a global sensation), when he encountered Franz and Weymouth, who not only had a place nearby, but had been active in the musical scene on the island for several years, even starting their spinoff group, the Tom Tom Club, there. (Talking Heads' Remain in Light was also mostly recorded there.)

“Chris and Tina were both familiar with my work from Sugar Hill, and when they finished Stop Making Sense, they liked the movie but they weren't satisfied with the album mix, so they brought up my name, saying, ‘Why don't we give him a shot?’” Thorngren recalls. “I was in the middle of Legend at the time, but Chris Blackwell was involved in the financing of the Stop Making Sense film. He let me take a pause on Legend, so I went up to Sigma Studios in New York and I auditioned for the job by doing a mix of the song ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ I guess they liked what they heard because I got the job.

“They hadn't planned for doing the new mix,” Thorngren continues, “so it ended up being done all over New York City. We started out at Sigma in their SSL room, Studio 5; then we also did a couple of songs at Soundworks, which was under Studio 54 — Roger Nichols and Steely Dan had done a lot of their work there; then we went to Right Track and then back to Sigma. After that, they approached me about working on their next record, which was Little Creatures.

“At the time,” Thorngren says, “Sigma was their favorite place, so we went into Studio 4 to record Little Creatures. Sigma [Sound] Studios 1, 2 and 3 were in Philly, where [founder Joe Tarsia] started before they opened the New York studio [in the late '70s]. The New York studio had two SSL rooms, but Studio 4 had an MCI console, which was fine; I was really familiar with the MCI because we had two of them at Sugar Hill, a 500 and a 600 [Series]. I believe the one at Sigma was a 500, but it had Allison Research automation.”

Thorngren describes Studio 4 as “like a lot of '70s rooms — not totally dead, but dry and with a lot of iso booths because everyone wanted that separation back then.” The recorders were Studer A800 24-tracks. For Talking Heads tracking sessions, where all four musicians would be playing at once, “I'd track with one [Studer], probably 16 or 18 tracks, and then I'd do a submix of that, maybe down to eight tracks on another machine, and then I'd use that machine for overdubs and put away the [master] drum track.” Though previous tours and albums had featured bigger bands, the Little Creatures and True Stories sessions, which happened consecutively, marked a return to the four-piece as the dominant sound, and the songs were, by and large, more conventional — if that term can be applied to anything that group did; definitely less groove-oriented.

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