Urban Inspiration & Suburban Sprawl in the Lyrics of the Talking Heads

Presented with Strand Bookstore

The Talking Heads, seminal pre-wave post punk band, was formed in NYC in 1975 by former RISD art students David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison. Many associate the band with their music video incarnations of the MTV 80s, but the Talking Heads were laying down dystopic lyrics atop funky bass lines throughout the late 1970s. Years before MTV dropped their first video in 1981, the Talking Heads released an unprecedented string cult classics; the group put out an album a year from 1977-1980: ’77, More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. All four albums were produced by glam rock legend Brian Eno, at a time when he was also helping to amplify NYC’s downtown no wave scene. 

While many of us remember the beats, it’s easy to overlook insightfulness of their lyrics – much of the lyricism of the Talking Heads thrives on the urban environment of 1970s and early 80s NYC, a city verging on bankruptcy and decay, the post-Vietnam War era in the US, glorifying the inspiration in the grit while cautioning against the commodification of culture. And yet, there is often an uneasy relationship with commodity in the Talking Heads’ songs – our love/hate relationship with convenience, the necessity to understand yet a deep fear of the numbing suburbs, an unsettling critique of the government and the suits, Reaganomics dissected but never mentioned by name. 

In 2013, David Byrne wrote a much discussed article about how rising income inequality in cities like New York, is choking the artistic genius out of the city as well as our vibrant cultural scene, yet he says artists need the city and the city needs artists to thrive, and we all need a NYC in better shape than it was in the late 1970s. In this Olio we will read, discuss, and analyze the urban sociological themes within a curated selection of Talking Heads songs. 

*Event to be followed by This Ain’t No Party: Talking Heads Vinyl Dance Party!!! (Location TBA) We’ll bring the roof down with a dance party featuring all of the Talking Heads albums, live sets, and side projects that have made this band so iconic, whose influence can be keenly heard in the decades of alternative musicians that’ve followed. 

Location: Strand Bookstore

828 Broadway, New York, NY 10003

The Rare Book Room at Strand Bookstore boasts an elegant venue, the walls lined with leather-bound treasures from a book hand printed in 1480 to a limited edition Ulysses signed by Henri Matisse, the illustrator, and by James Joyce. 

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