It’s now been over a year since I played a gig and it’ll soon be a full year before I’ve been to one. That’s a long time and the yearning continues, gets stronger with every passing day.
There’s nothing that can quite live up to the thrill of live performance. I realise now that it was something I took for granted. The support bands, the expensive pints, the impassioned debriefs in a nearby pub, the whole lot. Every day I find myself wistfully thinking of the sights, the sounds, the pubs, the theatres – of real life as we used to know it, and as one day we will know it again.
It was in this context that I recently rewatched Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads’ phenomenal, life-affirming concert film from 1984, one-hundred minutes of near perfection. You could make the argument that it’s the defining statement by one of the greatest bands in history – and that’s not a statement to throw out lightly. The absurdist, paranoid observations of Fear of Music still feel like a high water mark of new wave, or post-punk, or whatever genre you want to call it. Remain In Light, forty years old this year, rewrote the rulebook for what a band could do in a studio, though questions linger about authorship; both internally (how credits were distributed amongst the band and presented to the outside world) and in terms of whether Brian Eno and David Byrne correctly acknowledged and credited the African artists who influenced its creation.
Stop Making Sense: a film for our predicament
It’s in that look that Tina Weymouth gives Byrne during ‘Heaven’.
Stop Making Sense is perfect though; it’s a film for our present predicament, a document of the joy that music can bring in a moment, regardless of personal or political or ecological turmoil. The publication of drummer Chris Frantz’ 2020 audio memoir Remain In Love is a reminder of how fractured the relationship was between the band’s rhythm section and Byrne was at the time of the film’s creation. There was trouble continually brewing with disputes over money and creative control, but also the collapse of personal relationships. To watch Stop Making Sense is to forget that momentarily. It is an all encompassing document of what makes live music special, from the empty stage to the falling curtain, with all of the people involved in that process.
If I could go and watch any band in concert, it would be Talking Heads right now. This is a band of impossibly talented musicians, led by one of the greatest artistic minds of his generation, and yet the gestalt of the band somehow elevates everyone, everything to new heights. The energy is palpable throughout. It’s in that look that Tina Weymouth gives Byrne during ‘Heaven’. It’s in the way guitarist Jerry Harrison dances with Holt and Mabry. It’s in Steve Scales every move; I don’t think a person has ever been happier at work in their life, and no wonder. It’s in that timeless image of the band gathered around a lamp for ‘This Must Be The Place’. It’s amazing to watch all of this and imagine there was any inter-personal trouble. Falling out feels impossible.
Every time I watch the film I get something different from it. The last time it was the emphasis on the production of the show that’s present throughout. The last words spoken in Stop Making Sense are ‘we’d like to thank our crew’, but the whole film feels like an ode to the people who make things happen, and keep them running smoothly. For the opening ‘Psycho Killer’ Byrne’s choreography often distracts from how barren the blank space of the theatre is. The last time I watched it I really focused on that.
The crew is seen and heard
There’s ladders, scaffolding, and otherwise a deep space of nothing. The construction is elegantly weaved into the film. A drum riser is wheeled out during the first song. A mic stand is assembled during ‘Heaven’, and it adds poignancy to another beautiful moment. Visuals are introduced on a curtain behind Chris Frantz from ‘Making Flippy Floppy’, halfway through the show. Piece by piece, an iconic set is assembled before our eyes, none of it left to the imagination.
This has long been one of my favourite elements of the show, artfully deconstructing the idea that crew should be neither seen or heard, but I’ve really been drawn to it on recent viewings. The rug has been pulled from under most creatives, but for crew who rely on live performance things are especially challenging. In Stop Making Sense, they take a bow with the band, they are seen throughout, they even sing a little bit of ‘Take Me To The River’. Behind every great performance there’s a team. It’s important to remember everyone who makes this sort of performance possible.
Stop Making Sense bursts with joy and life. It makes me want to form more bands, write more, learn how to paint even, and generally devote my life to making things that didn’t previously exist in the hope that the process or outcome even approaches being as life affirming as this. In a year that’s thrown up logistical challenges like no other, let self-doubt creep in, it’s amazingly liberating to feel that way. And more than anything else the film has filled the void in my life where live music once was. It’s been a long time and may be longer – who can say. Still waiting, I’m still waiting. When live performance returns I’ll see you there. And we’ll dance. We’ll dance, we’ll dance.
Feature image: View from the stage of the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, CA where Stop Making Sense was made. Picture by in the public domain