David Byrne overwhelms the image of Talking Heads. With his herky-jerky mannerisms, loopy persona and arch lyrics – not to mention his command of the songwriting credits through much of their catalogue – he eclipsed the efforts of every other member of the band. Yet according to a new memoir by Talking Heads’ co-founder and drummer, Chris Frantz, titled Remain in Love, Byrne’s dominant image wasn’t merely a by-product of a legitimately outsized talent, but a clear power grab, driven by ego, greed and a skewed mindset.
“It’s like he can’t help himself,” Frantz said in a phone interview. “His brain is wired in such a way that he doesn’t know where he ends and other people begin. He can’t imagine that anyone else would be important.”
Towards that end, Frantz contends, Byrne often seized sole writing credit on songs the whole band had created, denigrated the other members’ musicianship – particularly that of bassist Tina Weymouth (who is married to Frantz) – and put enough space between him and the other members socially to suggest contempt for them as people. At the same time, Frantz appreciates the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the alchemy of Talking Heads provided for him and the other members. As evidence, his book proudly details the artistic highlights of a band that rates as one of music’s most creative units – a group so visionary that, as he writes, “We were post-punk before punk even happened.”
In his book, Frantz also writes about his 42-year marriage to Weymouth with a warmth and awe that inspired its title. Beyond Talking Heads, he tells hilarious, if often unflattering, tales about Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Johnny Ramone, Happy Mondays (who Frantz and Weymouth, at one point, unhappily produced), and frequent Talking Heads producer Brian Eno. Of course, he also covers the ground-breaking band he and Weymouth created, Tom Tom Club.
An early section of the book details Talking Heads’ first days at CBGB in 1975, when they were upstarts, trying to break into a world dominated by Patti Smith, the Ramones and Television. When they first met Smith, she dismissed them as rich kids, based on their pedigree as recent graduates of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, where the core of the band had formed in 1973. “It was definitely reverse snobbism,” Frantz said. “She had great empathy for people like William Burroughs but, for kids who just got out of art school, zero.”
When Frantz first heard about the Ramones, he thought they were a Mexican band. Once he discovered their true origin and style, he loved their minimalism and humor, but the feeling wasn’t returned by Johnny Ramone. The famously small-minded guitarist considered Talking Heads either pretentious or baffling. “Johnny was a real son of a bitch,” said Frantz.
Soon after Talking Heads started to gain a foothold at CBGB, Lou Reed befriended, and courted, them – if in his own peculiar way. He invited them up to his place, where he proceeded to eat an entire gallon of ice cream in front of them, while offering his critique of the band. He wanted to sign them to a recording contract, but when Frantz and others looked it over, they realized it gave ownership of their catalogue entirely to Reed and his manager, which would have sent all the profits from album sales their way. “It was a ridiculous agreement,” Frantz said. “I never understood why he did that. Lou was a good friend and continued to be, despite that.”
Still, the meatiest part of Frantz’s book bores into the relationship between Byrne and the other three Heads, including guitarist Jerry Harrison. The drummer felt there was something odd about their frontman from the start. Byrne never looked anyone in the eye, and he maintained a disassociated demeanor which caused the author to surmise he might be “on the high end of the spectrum”. Frantz had already been playing with future wife Weymouth at that point, imaging a band based on their rhythms. When they invited Byrne to join them, friends told him they believed Byrne would be “a thin reed to lean on” as a frontman.
The first signs of Byrne pushing his contributions ahead of anyone else showed in college. He was supposed to be part of a group visual art show but sneaked into the gallery before the opening to rehang his own pieces in a front room, pushing the others to the back. “He was trying to make it seem like it was his show,” said Frantz.
The pattern repeated with an early Talking Heads’ song, Warning Sign, which Byrne wrote with Frantz. Yet when the song first appeared, it bore just the singer’s credit. When Frantz questioned Byrne about it, he claimed it was a mistake and that it would be changed, which it later was. Frantz and Weymouth did receive co-writing credit for Talking Heads’ first single, Psycho Killer, which, the drummer revealed, was inspired by the wry morbidity of Alice Cooper. The early version of the band, captured on Talking Heads: 77, stressed what could be described as anti-sensual rhythms, emphasized by the nervous, and distracted, persona of Byrne. “We were very conscious that we should have a different demeanor than, say, the New York Dolls,” Frantz said.
But by Talking Heads’ second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, for which Frantz provided the title, they drew more on the funk and dance beats that had inspired the drummer since childhood. The result made them popular enough to inspire a successful tour of England and Europe with the Ramones, who they loved, with the exception of Johnny. Frantz writes that Johnny bullied Weymouth, in between complaining about the cultural sights everyone else wanted to savor. He groused about going to Stonehenge, which he referred to as “a bunch of old rocks”, and complained about Paris because everyone spoke French. “He was like an Archie Bunker type,” said Frantz, with a laugh. “I have to think his father did a number on him.”
The Heads began their artistic relationship with Eno on their second album, though problems didn’t arise until their third, Fear of Music, a work which moved the band into a far more rhythmic and worldly phase. While the recording of the album went brilliantly, when they heard the mixes Eno created, the band felt “he botched it”, Frantz said, necessitating the hire of an engineer to fix the problem.
There was a serious issue, too, with credits. On the first pressing of Fear of Music, in 1979, the writing credits all went to Byrne (save for one co-authorship with Eno on I Zimbra). That struck Frantz as particularly unfair, since the album’s hit, Life During Wartime, was wholly based on Weymouth’s classic bass line and the rhythm which surrounded it. After the band complained, partial credits were awarded to other members (including guitarist Harrison) for three of the album’s songs. A year later, Byrne was giving the first of many signs that he wanted to ditch the band by recording an album with Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. As a consequence, the other members did an end-run around him by starting their own jam sessions with Eno, inspiring Byrne, who felt left out, to join in. Those sessions evolved into the fourth Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light. Its collaborative genesis and development led to crediting all four members with the music, while Byrne handled the lyrics, including the hit, Once in a Lifetime. Yet, by this point, things started to get more tense with Eno. He wanted to be billed as an equal member of Talking Heads on their album cover, which the band’s manager, eventually, talked him out of. “There’s no doubt that Brian is an excellent producer, but his head just got bigger and bigger,” Frantz said. “He started doing things like having to fly on the Concorde. And we had to pay for it.”
Byrne, too, was plotting his own path, allowing for some downtime for Talking Heads in 1981, which Frantz and Weymouth filled in a most creative way. Along with guitarist Adrian Belew, they formed Tom Tom Club, a group that forged a ground-breaking mix of hip-hop, post-punk dance music and art-rock, in the process uniting the cultures of uptown and downtown New York, while resulting in the hits Genius of Love and Wordy Rappinghood. Still, when Frantz and Weymouth were in a cab with Byrne, and their manager told them Tom Tom Club’s album has gone gold, Byrne just stared out the window glumly. “He didn’t say a thing,” Frantz said. “He was very competitive. Later, David did say things about Tom Tom Club like, ‘Well, that’s merely commercial music,’ as if there was nothing else going for it.”
On a later Talking Heads tour, Byrne hired a second bassist, Busta Jones, to undercut Weymouth’s work. According to Frantz, the treatment of his wife throughout the industry expressed blatant sexism. Ziggy Marley, whose music the couple later produced, was particularly condescending towards her. It wasn’t only from men. “‘If you think the guys are bad,’” Frantz says his wife told him, “‘You should have heard the chicks.’”
Despite Talking Heads’ internal issues, they managed to produce incredible music through 1988’s Naked. In his book, Frantz chronicles the band’s final meeting in 1991, when an exasperated Byrne yelled at the other members, “You should be calling me an asshole,” while they all kept their cool. Byrne’s line, as reported, implies that he believed he had been telling the other members for years that he wanted the band to break up, but they ignored him for their own purposes. Frantz counters by saying, “We had heard this before, so we thought, ‘If we keep our cool, this will blow over and we’ll get to do another Talking Heads record.’”
But it was not to be. These days, Frantz and Weymouth still communicate with Byrne, if only on necessary business matters. They haven’t had a face-to-face meeting with him since 2003. In the nearly 20 years since the demise of Talking Heads, one thing has changed dramatically: Byrne’s public persona. While he used to come off as odd and distant, in the last two decades he has radiated nothing but warmth, positivity and charm. “He’s like Mr Rogers now,” Frantz said, with a laugh. “It’s true that his public image has changed. But friends of mine assure me that he hasn’t. I think he probably just decided that he could catch more bees with honey.”
Despite his many issues with Byrne, Frantz insists he isn’t bitter about their history. Nor, he says, is he jealous of the sustained success of the band’s former frontman. “Believe me,” he said. “if you knew David Byrne, you would not be jealous of him.”