One of the most iconic images of the 1980s in general, and Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne specifically, remains the giant gray suit he wore in the concert film Stop Making Sense.
In a new talk with Entertainment Weekly, he discusses the genesis of the offbeat costume — and how he kept from overheating while wearing it.
1984’s Stop Making Sense, praised as one of the best rock films ever by critic Leonard Maltin, was shot by director Jonathan Demme during three nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood as the Talking Heads toured in support of Speaking in Tongues.
In an interesting effect, Byrne walks on stage and then, as the film progresses, is joined by other members of the crew and band — which included Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison. Guest performers include Lynn Mabry and keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, and Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir.
Byrne doesn’t appear in his oversized garb until late in the movie, during the song “Girlfriend is Better” — which gives the documentary its title. The suit, Byrne says, was inspired in part by Noh theater.
It quickly became the centerpiece of conversation about the film.
“Yeah, a friend made a kind of quip, while I was trying to think of what to do on this next tour, what to wear, and he said: ‘Well, you know what theater is – everything has to be bigger,'” Byrne tells Josh Stillman of EW. “And he didn’t mean the clothes had to be bigger, he meant that the gestures were larger, the music had to be more exaggerated, on stage than they would in real life. But I took it very literally and thought, ‘Oh, the clothes are bigger.’ I’d been in Japan recently and had seen a lot of traditional Japanese theater, and I realized that yes, that kind of front-facing outline, a suit, a businessman’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rectangle with just a head on top.”
For all of its bulk, however, Byrne tells EW that he never found himself too hot and bothered. That’s a credit to its unique construction.
“The actual suit hangs, barely touches your body,” Byrne says. “It’s got these giant webbed shoulder pads and a webbed girdle that you wear around your waist and pads inside that give you incredibly wide hips and no butt. So when you’re facing sideways you look normal and when you turn to face the front, you’re incredibly wide. Most of the suit isn’t even touching you; it’s just hanging from this scaffolding.”
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Here’s a look at our recent thoughts on David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
DAVID BYRNE AND ST. VINCENT – LOVE THIS GIANT (2012): Somehow, working with St. Vincent has brought Byrne back to the textures, tics and triumphs of his time with the Talking Heads. After years of exploring the outer edges of his writing craft (a process that occasionally has seemed more curatorial than effervescent, almost like a studiously focused act of moving away from the thing that made him most famous), Byrne appears to have come full circle without necessarily even trying to.
SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: TALKING HEADS: The Talking Heads seemed to do what so few manage – start a career almost fully formed, then gradually grow without giving up their signature style. They emerged weird, polished that weirdness, and let the world catch up. You really have to put your mind back in the 1970s to imagine how different they were: There’s disco here, hard rock and heavy metal over there, and to that other side is punk. And then, right here, tucked away in this little corner, is a found-object quartet of funky art-school nerdiness. They were, really, a tremendous relief. And, even as we’ve gotten older, the Talking Heads are still making sense.
TALKING HEADS – CHRONOLOGY DVD (2012): An often fascinating look back at the short, but trailblazing career of one of rock and roll’s most unlikely success stories, as viewed through the rear view window of music video and documentary footage. But you won’t find any of the live sequences from the great Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, nor the MTV videos for songs like “Burning Down The House” here (though there is a performance of that song from the old David Letterman show). Instead,Chronology tells the Talking Heads story through the use of more rarely seen footage, that stretches from the band’s earliest days at New York punk rock clubs like CBGB, to their reunion upon the event of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
CAETANO VELOSO AND DAVID BYRNE – LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (2012): The only question, really, is why this concert has been sitting on a shelf since 2004. That spring, Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso invited David Byrne, leader of the Talking Heads from 1976–88, to participate in a special event at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Veloso is been best known as a cofounder of the avant-garde theater, poetry, and musical movement called Tropicalismo, along with Gilberto Gil and others. They were inspired, at least in song, as much by American rock and pop artists as they were by the native language of bossa nova, and that plays out here in the way that Veloso effortlessly blends in — even while adding his own subtle shadings — on familiar Talking Heads tunes like “Heaven” and “Nothing but Flowers.” He’s completely absorbed these tracks, and that allows him to effortlessly improvise around the edges.
TALKING HEADS: THE NAME OF THIS BAND IS … (1982): A definitive entry in the Talking Heads’ catalog this was somehow out of print at one point for, what, nearly two full decades? I was lucky enough to stumble upon a bootleg copy of the vinyl a while back but the sound quality was pretty rough; there was no doubt it came from a well-loved copy of the vinyl. Then, in 2004, Rhino reissued this amazing live compilation spanning the years 1977-1981 with a whole slew of bonus tracks, filling out both discs to near-capacity.