Records Revisited: Talking Heads – Speaking In Tongues (1983)

01.06.2023
»Speaking In Tongues« marks Talking Heads’ major breakthrough into the mainstream, although or precisely because the album makes no sense regarding its content.

If you take a look at this late classic from Talking Heads, you immediately notice that »Speaking in Tongues« is always received and studied in a narrowly defined field of coordinates:  The LP is surrounded, perhaps even dominated, by its hits (»Burning Down The House« and »This Must Be The Place«); by the iconic concert film »Stop Making Sense«, which was made at the same time, and by the gradual demise of a band.  So the intention this time is to write about the record WITHOUT going into these three aspects in particular.  Sounds Strange? It sure is!  But it makes all the more sense with a band that has exhausted itself in good time by ticking differently than the masses.  

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But let’s start at the top with the title »Speaking in Tongues«, which can definitely be interpreted as a reading aid.  Because not everything that frontman David Byrne sings here as priest of the high dance makes sense.  Nor should it. In retrospect, it is certainly amazing how seriously people took the title at the time: David Byrne keeps injecting and scatting loose and freely associated thoughts as if he were a dervish in a jazz club. The lyrics here should never be taken too seriously – in which Talking Heads song would that be the case anyway? – although they are always capable of surprising us in one way or another.  

Roundheads squareheads / Get settled in / You can hear my belly rumble / There’s a voice that starts to mumble / Woo! It’s starting to sing

Constructing a story to tell from this is pretty much impossible. Nevertheless, »Speaking In Tongues« has the strong feeling of being about a journey through the night.  A journey of no return. About someone who loses themselves, torn between pop stardom and the temptations of pleasure.  Here, someone is in danger of sinking and ends up in a maelstrom, a destructive force made up of sayings, thoughts and thoughtless sentences – where each one on its own makes sense, but in combination becomes a Dadaist jungle.  

Stop making sense and start dancing

Stop making sense, making sense / I got a girlfriend shes’s better than that / And nothing is better than this

What was to later become the title of the ominous concert film appears here for the first time – in a song about pop star life.  For insiders and would-be insiders, Talking Heads were already one of the great institutions; nevertheless, »Speaking In Tongues« heralds their breakthrough into the mainstream.  Not only did the hits mentioned above help, but so did the overall funky sound, which successfully manages to rock between art-school and post-punk.  The guitar solo on »Making Flippy Floppy« embraces underground as much as grand rock gestures. »I Get Wild« is the inescapable dub number of the time.  

It’s remarkable how experimentation and Zeitgeist are given free rein to go hand-in-hand on this record.

Yes, of course, even if you are aware of how unique this band is, it’s still quite remarkable how experimentation and Zeitgeist are given free rein to go hand-in-hand on this record. But above all, it is a dance record:  On the fifth album, the band is just as ‘party loving’ as on the predecessor »Remain In Light«, but much more polished and tight.  Enriched and seemingly ecstatically driven by African polyrhythms and high-life like Afrobeat, the four Talking Heads – besides Byrne, they are Tina Weymouth on bass, Chris Frantz on drums and guitarist Jerry Harrison – gyrate across the dance floor.  

We remember those wild movements on the concert stage that were part of it back then.  In the meantime, the couple, Weymouth and Frantz, had long since founded the Tom Tom Club, their own punk-funk combo complete with shimmering eighties glam: Some neon light, a lot of Wave and even more vibe.  Gigs as dance floor fillers.  House and techno had not yet been born, but were already looming on the horizon. »Speaking In Tongues« is a ritual in album form that is ready for the turntable again.  Even if you don’t get on about the almost inescapable subject of their hits, the concert film and their impending decay.