Classic Tracks: Talking Heads "Road to Nowhere"

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


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“It was a real return to Americana after Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues,” Harrison says. “I think David came up with this body of work because he was thinking about this movie, True Stories, he was about to do. The songs for both albums came out of the same creative cycle, and in a way Little Creatures was sort of like the outtakes for David when he was writing the songs for True Stories — I think he realized certain ones didn't make sense within the framework of the movie. Yet I would venture that Little Creatures are the better songs.”

Harrison notes that the albums were also a change for the group “because it was us reacting to a body of work that David had written and we were more in the position of just helping with the arrangements than actually writing the songs as a group, as we had been doing for a while.”

The band would rehearse the songs in Frantz and Weymouth's Long Island City, N.Y., loft (where the Heads' Fear of Music had been recorded), so when they got to Sigma, they had a good sense of the arrangement they were after. However, there was also considerable experimentation in the studio. “The whole thing with the Talking Heads was about feeling,” Thorngren says. “They were always open to changing things, and songs would sometimes morph over time as new ideas would come up. That's always better than playing ‘demoitis,’ where you have a demo with a vibe and then you're trying to capture that exact same vibe later.

“My philosophy was to have everything set up, miked up and ready to go so they could play whatever they wanted on a song. Jerry had a Hammond; I had the Leslie all miked up in a separate place. I'd have his Emulator and DX7 DI'd. It was all set up for whatever they had in mind. I'd usually have Tina's bass amp miked and have a direct out.

“Back then, I had [Shure] 57s on every drum and [AKG] 414s on the overheads and a 57 in the bass drum. When I look back on [using a 57 on the kick] today, I think, ‘Really?’” he says with a laugh. “A 57 has its own curve, but it has all the frequencies you need, so I would end up doing some serious EQ on the bass drum mic and it would work great.”

Thorngren would have Byrne in his own booth, and he would usually play guitar and go for keeper vocals at the same time: “He was such an amazing singer and player, and you'd always end up with a lot of his guitar on the vocal, so whenever we had to punch in a line, he would have to also play guitar because the pick sound of the guitar was on the vocal mic.”

This month's “Classic Track,” “Road to Nowhere” (which closes Little Creatures), is an example of a song that evolved considerably after the band had laid down the basic as a four-piece. Talking Heads' “Brick” box has all their studio albums in both stereo and 5.1, plus videos and bonus tracks including an early version of “Road to Nowhere” that has the song's familiar marching snare cadence and overall structure, but not the soaring, choral a cappella beginning/end, nor the lively accordion that snakes through the tune like a bayou river.

That accordion part was suggested later by Harrison, who laid down a DX7 “accordion” line that was then reproduced (and embellished) by a real accordion player: Louisiana native Jimmy Macdonnell of the Cajun band Loup Garrou. The lush vocal sound at the top and at the end was created by Thorngren by doubling harmonies sung by Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison, augmented with a few New York jingle singers he knew. Lenny Pickett put on subtle sax parts, and occasional Heads percussionist Steve Scales and washboard player Andrew Cader added to the fascinating blend of rhythms and textures. Thorngren liked to use a Neumann U87 through an LA-2A on vocals — “just a little compression and then probably a Lexicon 224 or an EMT 250” for reverb. He says the MCI console's mic preamps have been hugely underrated: “Maybe technically, the MCI didn't have the specs or something [of Neves or APIs], but I'm telling you, they were powerful and they slammed.”

Thorngren says that he shifted over to the SSL-equipped Sigma Studio 5 to mix the album, but meanwhile, “the band would set up again in Studio 4 for tracking, they would learn a song or two, I'd get a mix a couple of songs, and then I'd flip the board over and record the tracks for True Stories.”

The success of the Stop Making Sense film (released in the fall of 1984) added tremendously to the Talking Heads' popularity, so when the melodic and hook-filled Little Creatures came out the following June, the record-buying public was primed. It quickly became the best-selling album of the Heads' career (reaching Number 20), and it spawned several radio and club smashes, including “Road to Nowhere.” (The song hit the Top 10 in Britain.) It helped, too, that there were several strange, funny and highly creative videos made for different songs — the trippy, Dadaistic “Road to Nowhere” video was directed by Byrne and Stephen Johnson.

“I thought Little Creatures was so accessible it should have been Talking Heads' Rumours,” Thorngren says today, referring to the mega-selling Fleetwood Mac album. “I really blame the record company for not being able to make it into a bigger hit.”

More damaging, perhaps, was the fact that the band never toured to support it; indeed, they never toured as a group again. “It's too bad,” Harrison says. “We talked about doing some shows, and they almost happened,” but instead Byrne became consumed with making the True Stories movie and a tour just never materialized.

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