The inspiration for Stop Making Sense came when director Jonathan Demme saw Talking Heads perform during the band’s 1983 tour for Speaking in Tongues. Afterward, he approached them with the idea of making the show into a concert film. They agreed and worked together over the next few months to finalize the details. Ultimately, Demme filmed three shows at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983 to create Stop Making Sense.
The concert film presents a retrospective of the band up to that point, with a performance that weaves together songs from all six of its studio albums. The show progresses methodically, opening with Byrne onstage performing “Psycho Killer” alone with a drum machine. After each song, he’s joined by a new band member until Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison are all on stage with him. The group continues to grow throughout the concert as members of the stellar touring band are added: keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir, and back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt.
The band performs 18 songs in Stop Making Sense, including its recent single at the time, “Burning Down The House.” That summer, the song was in heavy rotation on radio and MTV, helping the song become the band’s first top 10 hit in America. It was, however, a different song from Speaking in Tongues that was destined to deliver one of the film’s signature moments. Byrne would perform “Girlfriend Is Better” wearing his now iconic, oversized business suit inspired by costumes worn in traditional Japanese theater. For good measure, a picture of him in the suit also graces the album cover.
Stop Making Sense focuses mainly on music by Talking Heads but does include a few songs recorded outside the band: “Genius Of Love” by Tom Tom Club, Weymouth and Frantz’s side-project, and “What A Day That Was” and “Big Business” from Byrne’s 1981 album, The Catherine Wheel. Limited edition vinyl versions of both of these albums, along with Harrison’s The Red And The Black, will be available for this year’s Record Store Day on April 21.
Stop Making Sense was an artistic and commercial triumph when it arrived in September 1984. The film had people dancing in theatre aisles while the soundtrack sold over two million copies. Just last year, the Library of Congress added Stop Making Sense to the National Film Registry in recognition of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
In the deluxe edition liner notes, the four band members share their thoughts and memories of the project.
Weymouth praises Demme as a collaborator: “…Jonathan was a very enthusiastic, highly adaptive, and imaginative guy who was just as good a listener as he was a talker and collaborator. From the get-go you just got the impression he was as flexible as he was disciplined. Being team players, that boded well for a great relationship and a great film!”
Harrison says the film still holds up today: “To me, Stop Making Sense has remained relevant because the staging and lighting techniques could have been created in a much earlier time period. For example, Vari-Lights, lights with motors to re-aim them, had just come into vogue. Had we used them, there would have been a timestamp on the film, and it eventually would have felt dated...The absence of interviews, combined with the elegant and timeless lighting, created a film that can be watched over and over.”
Byrne says it’s interesting that this album was – for many people – an introduction to Talking Heads. “We had done a live album before this, but coupled with the film, and with the improved mixes and sound quality, this record reached a whole new audience. As often happens, the songs got an added energy when we performed them live and were inspired by having an audience. In many ways, these versions are more exciting than the studio recordings, so maybe that’s why a lot of folks discovered us via this record.”
Frantz recalls the sheer joy surrounding the entire Stop Making Sense experience. “I’m talking about real, conscious, transcendent joy… I’m talking about what the Southern gospel people call ‘getting happy,’ which means ‘to be filled with the Spirit.’ That is what happened to us onstage every night, and from my seat behind the drums, I recognized that this was happening to the audience too. Joy was visible in front of me and all around me every night.”
1. Psycho Killer
3. Thank You For Sending Me An Angel’
4. Found A Job
5. Slippery People
6. Cities *
1. Burning Down The House
2. Life During Wartime
3. Making Flippy Floppy
1. What A Day That Was
2. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
3. Once In A Lifetime
4. Big Business / I Zimbra *
1. Genius Of Love
2. Girlfriend Is Better
3. Take Me To The River
4. Crosseyed And Painless
* Previously Unreleased.