I saw Stop Making Sense for the first time at a house that Eric and Brandt lived very close to campus in during college. I’m pretty sure it was on my grad school visit to Ohio State when they were recruiting my cohort. What a weird trip that was. I recall on my last day there, Eric, Mike, Heather, and I made a special trip to Used Kids (iconic record store across from campus) and parked near the then-notorious and now-departed 4 Kegs. It is the Frat Boy Bar to end all Frat Boy Bars. I remember this because as we were getting out of the car Eric took stock of the spring-feverish mass of drinking-age Ohio State students and “charming,” a word Pete and I use to describe aggressive drunken college antics to this day.
All that said, Stop Making Sense didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but fitting that the introduction was in such a collegey atmosphere. I of course knew of Talking Heads from the well-played video for “Once in a Lifetime” as well as a song of theirs being featured prominently in Revenge of the Nerds. The Alpha Betas were rocking out to “Burning Down the House” when they set their house on fire. This is both ironic and appropriate. Appropriate of course because they burnt their own house down, but also, why were the jocks and face men listening to Talking Heads? I wasn’t in college in 1984 so I don’t know, but this does not seem right. Talking Heads are a band full of exceptionally good-looking geeks and their music does not attempt to cover this up, quite the opposite.
Given all this would you honestly believe that I never really got into Talking Heads until two or three years ago? This is a source of shame for me, particularly given that at this point in history, they’re as much on my regular rotation as the Ramones. They just clicked for some reason. The start of this Talking Heads kick coincided with David Byrne’s American Utopia tour. The day of the show was--not an ideal day for a big-deal concert. It was the same day we adopted Halloween Jack, so we were kind of tired and stressed out, since he immediately didn’t get along with our girl Betty. It was HOT AS A BITCH for mid-May. There was some crazy Metro closure situation we didn’t anticipate and then had a hard time getting a car and were running late. I didn’t make reservations at the only solidly vegetarian-friendly at the newly revitalized Wharf and we waited forever for a table and then for our food.It did end up being a lovely dinner with our buddy Jeff who was also on his way to the show. Walking to the venue, the sky opened up and we were treated to a signature Mid-Atlantic thunderstorm. I’d paid extra for floor tickets, which I thought would be ok because they’d put seats in, but of course everyone stood so as a short person I was miserable on the floor. The seats were also too close together and bolted together in each row. Ugh, it was rough. David Byrne was great, but I just wish it was a more normal day.
I started this detour with mention of Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads’ absolutely legendary concert film. Along with its soundtrack, it is one of the productions for which Talking Heads is best known and deservedly so. I think what disappointed me when I first saw it was that there isn’t much to it. I guess I expected there to be more frills, but now I see that the lack of frills and the power of the performance is what makes it so special. Stop Making Sense is completely relevant to a discussion of “Girlfriend Is Better” because the enduring image of Stop Making Sense is David Byrne’s oversized suit, which he puts on leading up to “Girlfriend.” He used the giant suit for two major visual tricks. It enhanced that shadow effect Byrne still uses, where a spotlight is put right in front of him and projects this giant shadow on the wall behind him. He also uses it as a prop to enhance the herky-jerky style he appropriately uses when dancing to this song. The motion of the fabric draped over his thin frame is part of the dance. Genius. They’re so good.
I bring all of this up because I have to. When this song comes up, people visualize Byrne’s suit (hahaha) and the legendary concert film, but I fell in love with the album version of this song, net of the truly excellent performance. Bands from the 70s and 80s are often really upfront about the debt they owe to Motown-era R&B and later funk, but this influence was never on display more skillfully and artfully than it was on this track. It’s SO GROOVY. I’m going to credit Tina Weymouth’s bass for this and she DESERVES IT. Most rock n’ roll songs with a bassline as obtuse as it is on this track (and I think other Talking Heads songs as well) fail to balance very well with other elements. You’re left with just a strong impression of bass. It’s here where I think the entire band takes their best cue from funk. Bass leads, but it’s a coordinated effort.
God help me if I don’t also love Byrne’s atypically effortless vocal performance on this song. This is weird to say about a legend like David Byrne, but he very rarely sounds solidly *cool.* He’s great at sounding agitated, frazzled, forceful, and even frequently vulnerable and sweet. But rarely cool like he does on “Girlfriend.” Thematically, it’s also off-brand. It’s from the perspective of a man in a committed relationship internally debating taking the opportunity to cheat. David! You can’t see me, but I’m clutching my pearls. He transformed himself completely to fit the song. That’s David Byrne magic for you.