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Classic Tracks: Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere”

Written in the same creative cycle as songs for 'True Stories,' "Road To Nowhere" marked a return to Americana for the group

By 1985, Talking Heads was one of the most respected bands in America, loved both by critics and an ever-expanding fan base that watched the group move from its quirky art-school origins to darlings of the New York “new wave.” The band evolved into an amazingly inventive polyrhythmic, multi-piece ensemble with seriously original funk and world-music leanings. Talking Heads had two bona-fide hits during its first decade together — “Take Me to the River” (Number 26 in 1978) and “Burning Down the House” (Number 9 in 1983) — and a number of other songs received strong airplay and helped establish the group as part of a very rare breed: a commercial “art” band.

Songs such as “Psycho Killer,” “Life During Wartime,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Swamp” and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” were ubiquitous on college radio and other progressive outlets. Today, all of those can now be found on classic-rock playlists in between endless Who and Rolling Stones tracks — who knew? In the summer and fall of 1983, the quartet — guitarist/singer David Byrne, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz — augmented by a handful of other musicians and backup singers, embarked on a spectacular tour in support of their Speaking in Tongues album — so beautifully documented in director Jonathan Demme’s concert film Stop Making Sense, which is still regarded as one of the best in the genre.

After that tour ended, the hard-working Byrne threw himself into several different projects: helping (along with Harrison) on the post work for Stop Making Sense; writing musical interludes (known as The Knee Plays) for composer Robert Wilson’s opera The Civil Wars; and crafting material for what would be the next two Talking Heads albums, Little Creatures and True Stories, the latter a soundtrack (of sorts) for the wry film of the same name, which Byrne also wrote, directed and acted in. It was work on the Stop Making Sense soundtrack album that first brought engineer Eric “E.T.” Thorngren into the band’s orbit.

Originally a rock guitarist, Thorngren had shown his technical chops engineering on some of the seminal Sugar Hill Records rap sides — “The Message,” “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It),” “Apache,” etc. He was in Bahamas working for Island Records boss Chris Blackwell at the producer’s Compass Point Studios mixing tracks for the Bob Marley collection Legend (which became a global sensation), when he encountered Franz and Weymouth, who not only had a place nearby, but had been active in the musical scene on the island for several years, even starting their spinoff group, the Tom Tom Club, there. (Talking Heads’ Remain in Light was also mostly recorded there.)

“Chris and Tina were both familiar with my work from Sugar Hill, and when they finished Stop Making Sense, they liked the movie but they weren’t satisfied with the album mix, so they brought up my name, saying, ‘Why don’t we give him a shot?’” Thorngren recalls. “I was in the middle of Legend at the time, but Chris Blackwell was involved in the financing of the Stop Making Sense film. He let me take a pause on Legend, so I went up to Sigma Studios in New York and I auditioned for the job by doing a mix of the song ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ I guess they liked what they heard because I got the job.

“They hadn’t planned for doing the new mix,” Thorngren continues, “so it ended up being done all over New York City. We started out at Sigma in their SSL room, Studio 5; then we also did a couple of songs at Soundworks, which was under Studio 54 — Roger Nichols and Steely Dan had done a lot of their work there; then we went to Right Track and then back to Sigma. After that, they approached me about working on their next record, which was Little Creatures.

“At the time,” Thorngren says, “Sigma was their favorite place, so we went into Studio 4 to record Little Creatures. Sigma [Sound] Studios 1, 2 and 3 were in Philly, where [founder Joe Tarsia] started before they opened the New York studio [in the late ’70s]. The New York studio had two SSL rooms, but Studio 4 had an MCI console, which was fine; I was really familiar with the MCI because we had two of them at Sugar Hill, a 500 and a 600 [Series]. I believe the one at Sigma was a 500, but it had Allison Research automation.”

Thorngren describes Studio 4 as “like a lot of ’70s rooms — not totally dead, but dry and with a lot of iso booths because everyone wanted that separation back then.” The recorders were Studer A800 24-tracks. For Talking Heads tracking sessions, where all four musicians would be playing at once, “I’d track with one [Studer], probably 16 or 18 tracks, and then I’d do a submix of that, maybe down to eight tracks on another machine, and then I’d use that machine for overdubs and put away the [master] drum track.” Though previous tours and albums had featured bigger bands, the Little Creatures and True Stories sessions, which happened consecutively, marked a return to the four-piece as the dominant sound, and the songs were, by and large, more conventional — if that term can be applied to anything that group did; definitely less groove-oriented.

“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.”

Classic Tracks: Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”

“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.