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How Lou Reed almost screwed Talking Heads on their first record deal

During the late 1970s in New York City, CBGB’s was where you would hang if you were anyone cool. While they didn’t know it at the time, notable bands like Talking Heads, Dead Boys, Television, and the Ramones would be later associated as part of the new-wave and post-punk movement. Punk rock had exploded onto the scene in 1977; it marked a darker reprise of the sexual revolution of the ’60s. It seemed like, while there was still hope in the air for some semblance of meaningful change, the attempts to grasp at it were becoming slightly more nihilistic and perhaps more destructive. It was an attitude that was ultimately set into motion by the heroin-chic music of The Velvet Underground.

Talking Heads were a band from that time, a band that promised something starkly different from what other bands were doing. In a way, they were the most “new-wave” of them all. Chris Frantz, Talking Heads’ drummer, in his memoir Remain in Light, recalls the time when the band met Lou Reed and they were subsequently invited up to his apartment to hang with him.

“In the early days of CBGB’s, Lou Reed was practically a regular,” recalled Frantz, “I had seen him at a couple of Patti Smith shows and a couple of Television shows. It was a thrill to see him there. He later told us, ‘I still notice things,’ and he did. To his credit, he was one of the first and few stars to come to CBGB to check out the new bands.”

Frantz describes the scene awaiting his band as they agreed to go up and see Reed in his apartment, as a strange and surreal dream. They entered Reed’s apartment, and after being greeted by his then-girlfriend Rachel, a vibrant trans-woman who inspired much of his work, were offered to sit on his couch — the only piece of furniture in his bare apartment. “Lou got up and walked to the kitchen and fetched a quart of Häagen-Dazs ice cream from the refrigerator,” recalled Frants.

“He brought it back and sat down again, cross-legged on the bare hardwood floor, when he said out loud to himself, “I’m gonna need a spoon for this”, Frantz continues. Tina Weymouth, the band’s bass-player, volunteered to grab him a spoon, which she quickly then realised there was only one spoon, and it was blackened. She brought him the spoon, and he still used it to eat the ice cream.

Lou Reed then proceeded to explain to the band that he thought they were great and that he would like to produce their album. Frantz continues with the story, taken from his memoir: “Lou’s manager, Jonny Podell, called us to come see him at his BMF Talent Agency office. Tina and David and I trekked up to Jonny’s office in midtown near where we had our day jobs. He was a renowned agent for Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and Alice Cooper. His cute-looking secretary told us to go right in. Jonny was on the phone talking a mile a minute and motioned for us to sit. We sat across the desk from him.”

Adding: “The room was very dark. When the call was finished he took a little vial of cocaine out of his shirt pocket and snorted two hits up each nostril and then, as an afterthought, offered us a toot. We politely declined. Jonny went on and on about how great his client Lou Reed was and how much Lou loved Talking Heads and they wanted to make a deal. He presented us with a contract and told us to look it over. We said that we would.”

A sense of excitement and awe that Talking Heads may very well be working with the king of New York City’s underground, felt extremely present. However, they certainly did have their wits about them and acted cautiously. The band got in contact with a respectable lawyer, Peter Parcher, who happened to have helped Keith Richards get out of a massive drug bust in Canada. During the meeting with Parcher, the lawyer passed the contract to his partner, Alan Schulman. 

What would happen next, may put a sour taste in your mouth in regards to Lou Reed.

Chris Frantz gives us the details, “I passed the contract to Alan, who recognised a big problem immediately. He said, ‘This is a standard production deal. I would never allow one of my clients to sign this. Lou Reed and Jonny Podell would pay for the making of the record, but then they would own it. They could then sell the record to the highest bidder, no matter what you want.

“If you had a hit they would profit and you would get zilch.’ I asked if there was any way to negotiate the offer and he said, ‘Look, Lou Reed’s reputation now is when he gets up in the morning, he doesn’t know whether to take the bus or the plane. If his heart was in the right place, he never would have offered you this shitty deal in the first place. This kind of deal is the reason that so many R&B artists may have had hit records but still don’t have a pot to piss in. I would walk away and wait for a real record deal with a real record company.’” It was the kind of prompt and purposeful advice that would help steer Talking Heads away from danger.

Talking Heads ended up signing a different contract at a later time. Despite this strange experience, Lou Reed and the band seemed to remain friends after the occurrence owing, in no small part, to the sheer adoration they held for him and, we’d imagine, still do.

Watch The Talking Heads perform a reserved rendition of ‘Psycho Killer’ at CBGB’s.