Friday, November 13, 2009

Bernie Worrell with Talking Heads

Bernie Worrell had spent more than a decade with the P-Funk clan (Parliament, Funkadelic, Booty’s Rubber Band, etc.) when things started falling apart in 1980. “I finally left in the early ‘80s,” Worrell told waxpoetics in 2006, “’cause P-Funk was crazy, all over the place. Got complicated with George [Clinton]. Tired of the shit. I was doing sessions and got a call from Jerry Harrison; I didn’t know who the Talking Heads were. Went to Sigma Sounds [NYC], listened to some, and I liked it. I went with the Talking Heads for about four years.”

Under producer Brian Eno’s tutelage, the band had already begun exploring new sounds and textures and by 1980, their fourth album, the progressive Remain in Light, had found the Talking Heads advancing their detached, ironic and sometimes just plain pretentious sort of art rock into more interesting fields of polyrhythmic grooves. It was intoxicating – especially for what passed for rock music of the day – and made for a sound that most listeners had never heard before.

Still, Worrell found the Talking heads “[s]tiff! No rhythm, man.” What he brought to the group laid down a foundation of funky fire that had guided P-Funk throughout the outer reaches of the galaxy only several years before. “See,” says Worrell, “they used to sneak into P-Funk shows while they were still art students in Providence. I basically brought part of the band with me so that they would sound good. They knew who to call.”

In April, 2002, Worrell was reunited with Talking Heads in New York when the band was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame (Parliament-Funkadelic had been inducted five years before and Worrell was part of that historic event as well). With Worrell back in place behind a bank of keyboards on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, Talking Heads performed show-stopping renditions of their classic songs “Burning Down The House” (Worrell's synthesizer work gave this remarkable Top 20 hit its definitive eerie quality) and “Life During Wartime.”

Here is an overview of Bernie Worrell’s brief tenure with Talking Heads.

The Red And The Black - Jerry Harrison (Sire/1981): Guitarist Jerry Harrison, the sexiest of the Talking Heads, was also the one in the band most interested in what funk could add to the group’s sound. A former member of Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, Harrison is the Head who suggested the African polyrhythms, introduced Bernie Worrell into the group and made it clear on his terrific 1981 solo debut, The Red And The Black, that he intended to take the band in new, more interesting directions. The mere absence here of Brian Eno, who had produced the breakthrough Talking Heads albums Fear of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980), suggests that Harrison had his own ideas for the band and was more influential on the band’s direction than is commonly thought or acknowledged. Recorded during June of 1981, The Red And The Black is a jewel of the Talking Heads’ discography. Featuring some of the same musicians who would enhance the Talking Heads during their Speaking In Tongues tour such as Bernie Worrell, Steve Scales, Adrian Belew, Dolette MacDonald and Nona Hendryx, Harrison’s solo album serves as a blueprint for the Talking Heads that would become a popular phenomenon two short years later. The engaging album, which was issued on CD in 1996 and has long since been out of print, contains three songs featuring Bernie Worrell, all very much in the Talking Heads’ 1980-83 groove: “Slink” (with Worrell on organ), “Magic Hymie” (which Worrell co-wrote with Jerry Harrison and Nona Hendryx, with Worrell on clavinet and synthesizer) and “Fast Karma/No Questions” (with Worrell on clavinet). Again, Worrell’s presence is palpable and his direction provides some of the strength this album derives. These three tunes, which represent only one third of the album’s total music, are the strongest pieces on display, clearly a sign that Worrell’s contribution was clearly an asset that gave the Heads the edge they developed when Worrell joined their ranks. Even so, The Red And The Black is highly recommended and one of the great soloist records that emerged in the early eighties when arty rock band players went solo (former Magazine man Howard Devoto’s 1983 Jerky Versions of the Dream was another and ex-Policemen Stewart Copeland’s 1983 Rumble Fish soundtrack and Sting’s 1987 Nothing Like The Sun probably also qualify too).

The Catherine Wheel - David Byrne (Sire/1981): Talking Heads leader David Byrne mans his second solo album – after his collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, released earlier in 1981 – the score to Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production of The Catherine Wheel. The result is an effective continuation of what the Talking Heads began with on 1979’s Fear of Music (Eno also contributes here, though, rather minimally – so does multi-instrumentalist and co-writer John Cernoff, guitarist Adrian Belew, drummer Yogi Horton and fellow Head Jerry Harrison). It’s an arty soundtrack that nearly defines the “downtown sound” of the early eighties – a little rock, a little jazz and a little electric experimentalism that practically set the standard for this sort of thing. It’s an excellent soundscape that stands very well on its own as a musical testament to what was hip, cool and unlike just about anything else at the time. It’s clear here where the art in the Talking Heads was coming from. The Catherine Wheel makes it easy to hear. This is an excellent musical adventure, made with very few musicians outside of Byrne himself, who plays many of the instruments heard here. The majority of the album is made up of instrumentals, which sound pretty good (Wayne Horvitz and Adrian Belew, among others including Laurie Anderson, would later tread the very same paths Bryne stakes out here). There are a few “songs” here, which would fit comfortably on any Talking Heads album of the period (“His Wife Refused,” “Eggs In A Briar Patch,” “Poison,” “My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks),” “Big Business,” “What A Day That Was” and “Big Blue Plymouth” – most sung in Byrne’s traditional neurotic shout sort of singing). But Byrne adds a signature here that shows where the majority of influence in the Talking Heads was coming from. The original album, probably recorded during the summer of 1981, was originally issued with a black matte cover and contained 11 songs. The1990 CD release of The Catherine Wheel, issued with a red matte cover (inexplicably, there was a blue matte cover for the cassette version of the expanded score) adds a whopping 12 tracks, bringing the total time to a nearly seamless 73 minutes, which apparently comprises the complete score to Twyla Tharp’s production. Worrell appears on “His Wife Refused” (mini moog, piano), “Combat” (which was not on the original LP, on piano) and “Big Business” (clavinet). Worrell’s contribution isn’t that significant here apart from the otherwise brief and lightweight “Big Business.” But this music probably ranks among the best work David Byrne ever did under his own name. Excellent, no matter how you perceive it, and – more notably - The Catherine Wheel stands the test of time particularly well.

The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads - Talking Heads (Sire/1982): Originally released as a double album in 1982 between Talking Heads’ magnificent Remain in Light (1980) and the breakout hit Speaking In Toungues (1983), this album catches three distinctly different phases of the band’s evolution as a performing entity. There is the raw, nervous energy of the 1977 foursome, the clearly evolving musicality of the 1979 unit and the mature intensity and dynamic showmanship of the expanded Talking Heads of 1980. The long-awaited 2004 CD release of this live extravaganza is greatly enhanced from the original LP with a whopping 12 previously unreleased selections and several more bonus selections previously issued in other obscure formats. It helps tell a more complete story of the development of this significant band, adding two tracks from the 1977 show, five tracks from two 1978 shows, a track each from two 1979 shows and six tracks from a 1981 show recorded in Japan. The evolution detailed here is nothing less than astounding. Simply compare the 1977 performance of “Psycho Killer” captured here with the newly added 1981 version to hear the musical maturity the Talking Heads – possibly even David Byrne alone - developed in concert (then listen to how the song evolves by the time of Stop Making Sense). The maturity and complexity in the songwriting becomes evident as disc two begins too. The Talking Heads clearly came into their own with songs like “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” “Once In A Lifetime,” “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Life During Wartime.” These are Bernie Worrell’s earliest recordings with the Talking Heads and, as such, he is credited on all 14 tracks of the CD’s second disc, recorded during 1980 and 1981, though he is only manning the rather anonymous clavinet and is pretty much audible only on “Drugs (Electricity),” “Houses In Motion,” “Once In A Lifetime,” (probably) “Animals,” “Born Under Punches” (briefly, toward the end of the song), “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Take Me To The River” (on organ?) and (probably) “The Great Curve.” It’s hard to get a sense of Worrell’s importance in the band from these recordings. He just seems like he’s going along for the ride or unwilling to lay his stamp on someone else’s music. Oddly, whether it was by choice or not, Worrell’s influence and significance in P-Funk had slowly and quietly receded during his last years with the Funk Mob to the point that he was nothing more than a name on the credits – not unlike his presence here. The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads is certainly an outstanding musical document and required listening for Talking Heads fans but as a source of Bernie Worrell’s contribution to the band, for completists only.

Speaking In Tongues - Talking Heads (Sire/1983): At the time, this highly anticipated album seemed like a disappointment. It had been nearly three years since the Talking Heads’ progressive Remain in Light and anywhere they went after that would have to be sensational. High hopes aside, Speaking in Tongues initially sounded blatantly commercial and radio’s instant acceptability of the album’s first single, “Burning Down The House,” simply confirmed it. In hindsight, the album follows a consistent path of ascendency in the musical evolution of the Talking Heads and has become a significant landmark of eighties pop: catchy melodies, inane lyrics that actually sounded logical in the comfortable framework the Heads constructed for them and an undertone of soulful funk – guided here by former P-Funk architect Bernie Worrell (on synthesizer here), Shankar on violin, Steve Scales and David Van Tieghem on percussion and the redoubtable Nona Hendryx and Dolette MacDonald on background vocals. Bernie Worrell’s impact on the Talking Heads is at its greatest here, as evidenced by the near brilliance of the album’s show-stopping opening number, “Burning Down The House.” Listen to how remarkably Worrell’s synthesizer drives the funk engine of this rollicking number as well as gives its other-worldly quality – something he hadn’t been heard to do since “Flash Light” and “Aqua Boogie.” Worrell himself places “Burning Down The House” in that upper echelon of the greatest pop songs of all time. (It’s worth noting that the Talking Heads were all big P-Funk fans in the seventies and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, which included Bernie Worrell, was hot with “Jam Fan (Hot)” circa 1978 which has the line “burning down the house,” a popular chant at P-Funk shows of the time.) As a “synthesist” here, as the CD’s liner notes so perfectly states it, Bernie Worrell contributes significantly throughout Speaking in Tongues, offering definitive, unique touches – and solos! – to “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Girlfriend Is Better,” the tremendous “Slippery People” (covered beautifully by the Staple Singers, of all people, several years later), “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity,” “Moon Rocks” and the Tom Tom Club-like “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody).” Unfortunately, Speaking In Tongues was the pinnacle of the Talking Heads’ artistic achievement; a successful blending uniting art rock with funky underpinnings and artful aspirations with commercial appeal. After this came the extremely poppy/silly Little Creatures (1985), the rather ridiculous True Stories (1986) and whatever Naked (1988, their last studio album) was. Bernie Worrell was gone – and his influence was missed. Talking Heads was the shell of what it once was and they disbanded shortly thereafter.

Stop Making Sense - Talking Heads (Sire/1984): The surprise success of Jonathan Demme’s 88-minute documentary film Stop Making Sense is as much a tribute to the remarkable music and stage show the Talking Heads presented during its 1983-84 tour as it is to Demme’s notable achievement documenting a musical experience on film not only with skill and grace but also with a fan’s sense of wonder and appreciation. It is now considered by many to be the finest concert film of all time. I saw the Talking Heads in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1983 (in the third row, right in front of drummer Chris Frantz’s parents, who were also Pittsburgh residents at the time – and you can just imagine the roar when they sang “heard about Pittsburgh, P-A”) and I can say that this film perfectly captures the dazzling aura and exciting atmosphere the Talking Heads created in concert at the time. Compared to the film, however, the 1984 soundtrack album (and CD) was a huge disappointment. Containing only nine of the film’s 16 songs and totaling only 45 minutes, it seemed to be something of a cheat. And without the visuals, the music just seemed, well, redundant at this point. Too much of the excitement – and certainly the Heads’ dramatic programming – was missing. This situation was fortunately corrected in 1999 in a 15th anniversary “Special New Edition” CD which contained every song heard in the now classic film. As expected the majority of music featured in the film comes from the band’s recent album Speaking In Tongues (six songs). But Stop Making Sense also captures nearly all of the group’s highpoints, with one song from Talking Heads: 77, three from More Songs About Buildings and Food, two each from Fear of Music and Remain In Light and, surprisingly, one each from The Catherine Wheel and Tom Tom Club albums. The presentation is superb, with Byrne entering the stage alone carrying only a guitar and a boom box for “Psycho Killer” and one by one adding band members until the whole band is on stage for the sixth number, “Burning Down The House.” This is where Bernie Worrell enters the performance and he – as well as all the others – make their presence count. Worrell burns down “Burning Down The House,” surely one of the concert’s highlights, on synthesizer (and in solo), rocks the rhythmic clavinet on “Life During Wartime,” reverts back to synth and amplified piano for “Making Flippy Floppy” (with a wacky quote of “America The Beautiful” on his other-worldly siren-like synth) and pretty much sticks to synthesizer for “Swamp,” “This Must Be The Place,” “Once In A Lifetime,” “Girlfriend is Better” (awash with Worrell quotes) and “Take Me To The River” (the more conventional keyboard solos heard here are probably performed by Jerry Harrison, who stands next to Worrell at his own bank of keyboards for much of the second half of the concert). All in all, the band gives superior performances of “Psycho Killer (Byrne solo), “Slippery People” (Heads + singers + bongos), a smoking “Burning Down The House,” a thundering “Life During Wartime,” the fun “Genius of Love” (which name checks Funkadelic as well as James Brown, “still the Godfather of soul” and Bohannon) and an exceptionally funkified “Crosseyed and “Painless” (the encore), featuring a scorching guitar solo from Alex Weir. David Byrne is particularly charismatic here, performing tremendously throughout, most notably on “Pyscho Killer,” “Burning Down The House,” Life During Wartime” and “Once In A Lifetime,” “Girlfriend Is Better” (the song that offers the line “stop making sense” and the one where Byrne enters in the big suit). The 1999 DVD release of Stop Making Sense also includes bonus footage of “Cities” (without Bernie Worrell) and “Big Business (with Worrell on clavinet)/”I Zimbra” (with Worrell on synthesizers – doing a brief solo at the end that I swear quotes “The Little Drummer Boy”). A powerful performance that twenty-five years later is proving itself to be timeless too.

1 comment:

Val said...

Definitely "Little Drummer Boy." I caught that phrase in 1980 at Red Rocks, Colorado - The "Remain in Light" tour. That's when I first heard Bernie do that. I think he played it for a few more bars this first time I heard it and later trimmed it down to just the opening phrase in later years. Very funny and it worked.