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(Credit: Michael Markos)

Music

How Talking Heads transformed a gospel classic into the sound of new wave

@TomTaylorFO

Within the first verse of ‘Take Me to the River’ Al Green muddles carnal pleasures and the Christian virtues of cleansing. This mishmash, however, is not unlike the Reverend Al Green. His masterful The Belle Album was a paeon to God disguised as a love letter to a woman called Belle. And when the silken voice singer became a fully ordained pastor, he still had the sensuous at the forefront of his thinking, remarking: “God had called me to a higher place, turned me away from earthly to heavenly love, and while it hurt to say it, I had to leave the sensual for the spiritual.” Regardless of the spice in the song’s mixing pot, it is still what you would consider wholly gospel. 

Perhaps it was the secular flourishes that run throughout or the simple appeal of its timeless hook, but for one reason or another, it would not remain in the realm of gospel for long. The first notable time it fled the genre was when Bryan Ferry plucked the track from Hi Records to be part of his The Bride Stripped Bare record. A famed cover artist, Ferry certainly knows his way around someone else’s tune. Undoubtedly, it was his version that served as a halfway house that Talking Heads would meet it at waltz it a little bit further down the new wave stream. 

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Al Green might be no stranger to twisting the motives of his tracks, but for David Byrne stirring oil and water is a central tenet of his work. The Talking Heads frontman was allured to the classic track because he adored the fact it “combines teenage lust with baptism”. Considering that Byrne was already obsessed with the idea of a frontman inhabiting a sort of preacher figure by this point, it is not surprising that he absorbed the song into Talking Heads wonderfully weird oeuvre. Up until More Song About Buildings and Food, the band had been adding an arthouse vibe to punk and making all the snarling wannabes seem like vapid platitudes. However, now they were set to drift into new wave and wipe the etch-a-sketch of music clean.

The song had formed a key part of the band’s live set for some time, but when they moved it away from frantic punk crowds into the studio, they decided to slow it right down. This move was pivotal in establishing the groove time structure of the new wave to come. Combining a soulful Hammond Organ sound with a touch of punk distortion to the strumming and a steady pop beat meant that the heady broth of the future was taking shape. As it happens, this futuristic sound led to the track becoming an early commercial success for the band. As a result, it was also their last cover version. As Chris Frantz explains: “David resented that it wasn’t one of his songs that was the hit. So, he said, ‘I’m not doing any more cover songs’.”

This studio innovation was helped by a force who straddled to worlds of both Bryan Ferry’s and Talking Heads’ cover of the track, none other than Brian Eno. Eno had been in a band with Ferry but left to widen his musical horizons, this led him to a studio with the emergent Talking Heads. Fortunately, for the band, Eno shared their passion for Al Green (who with a sound mind doesn’t?). Likewise, the rest of the band were in on the act too, as Frantz remarks: “I was a big fat fan of Al Green from the first time I heard ‘Tired of Being Alone’. When Tina would come to visit me in my little apartment in Providence when David and I were in college, I would put on Al Green records to try to woo her.”

Byrne also shared this love, stating: “I loved The Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Iggy Pop. At the same time, I was a big fan of Al Green and a lot of R&B. I thought, “What if I can meld those two worlds?” I wanted to have something that related to the body, the way R&B does, without copying it – and invoke something of the ideas and innovations I heard in rock.”

All of this came together in the studio and blasted the track into the future in a weird mix soon to be christened new wave. It is befitting that the genre was such a mishmash of inspirations considering the heady stew of the song that was central to forming it. As Byrne mused: “There’s a mixture of the sacred and the profane, sex and God and Jesus. The imagery, tome, was fascinating.”