You can count on David Byrne for a lot of things. You can count on him to lead one of the most creative bands to have ever come out of New York. You can count on him to keep art and music at the centre of his life. You can even count on him to keep one incredibly fine head of hair and a suit as big as a building in his locker—but you can’t count on him to be a pop star. The singer is not one of the most forward guys in the world and that’s something a huge audience found out when the Talking Heads made their first TV appearance.
With the band’s first performances behind them, Talking Heads were beginning to gain the national notoriety their intense originality warranted. That first blessed moment of TV airtime for the band was garnered from the band’s cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’ which, benefitting from a sensational Brian Eno production, brought a cool funk to the song and turned it into a smash. The track would break the band across the country and become their first Billboard top 30 hit.
It’s an undeniably brilliant jewel in the band’s crown and the cover allowed the band to gain a spot on the classic TV show, ABC’s American Bandstand, hosted by an equally legendary Dick Clark. On March 17th, 1979, the band arrive on set, ready to take their shot at performing for a nation gripped in the fervour of the end of the seventies.
While the post-punk and new wave scene was massive in New York, the show offered the band an opportunity to speak to a whole generation that only Blondie and Grace Jones from the NYC-set had gotten to take. Both of those acts had something Talking Heads didn’t; charm. That’s not to say Talking Heads are in any way dislikeable, more that they were always far from ‘media-trained’.
Equally, it’s likely that Dick Clark’s connection with this side of music was minimal, which certainly didn’t help proceedings. Although a DJ of sorts, the mahogany-faced Clark is very unfamiliar with the band, or indeed any band, who wasn’t positively gleaming with pop-pride. As such, his questions to the group, namely Byrne, are awkward and unwanted. He pronounces Tina Weymouth’s name incorrectly and then is shot down on almost every question he asks Byrne. Turning to Weymouth in desperation saying: “Is he always this enthusiastic?”
Tina Weymouth remembered the appearance in a 2014 interview in New York Magazine: “I couldn’t explain to the record-label people why David’s behaviour could be so incredibly odd.” The moment the band could speak to an entire nation slipped through their fingers: “He had a freak-out on our first television appearance, on Dick Clark, on American Bandstand. David sort of froze, and Dick Clark sort of whirled around, and hands the microphone to me. And there were other things going on, too. I don’t think any person is one thing, or defined by a condition that they might have.”
All this compiled together makes for one interesting watch and a distillation of what made the band so enticing to their audience: they were the perennial outsiders with a penchant for funk, and on this performance, it really shows. So take a look below as Talking Heads appear on national TV for the first time on ABC’s American Bandstand.