Above the roaring of the crowd, David Byrne walks onstage with a boom box and guitar. He sets the player down and says, “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play.”
So begins the Talking Heads’ 1984 live album, Stop Making Sense, which spent over 2 years (118 weeks, to be exact) on the Billboard 200 chart.
The live album is inextricably tied to the concert documentary of the same name, an expansive set of performances featuring David Byrne famously wearing his big suit and singing to a lamp, and arguably the best concert film of all time. The songs and footage were shot at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre over three nights in December 1983.
Stop Making Sense came out when Talking Heads were at their very peak as a band, and the live album captures the energy that propelled them – it’s a snapshot of the sweet spot of the influential New Wave group.
Byrne envisioned the live album not as a traditional soundtrack, but as a separate experience, which is why the original release of the albums contains only 9 songs from their performances.
The 1999 special edition contained 16 tracks from the documentary to satisfy disappointed fans.
Live albums are a strange animal. The performance is intended for the audience, to be experienced in that moment. Translating that to a recording comes with questions. Can a dynamic performance really be captured? Does recording it make it lose some of its magic? In the case of Stop Making Sense, it’s done masterfully.
David Byrne’s creative genius shines live, from the way he opens the show to the vocal techniques he employs. On the second track, “Swamp,” he growls the lyrics over the heavy-footed stomp of the song, occasionally throwing his voice high for a moment in Michael Jackson-esque hoots, only to slip back down into his menacing delivery.
The audience sounds become part of the songs, as essential at the beginning of “Psycho Killer” as Byrne’s voice or the drum machine. Byrne and the band feed off the crowd’s energy, and in turn they feed off theirs, carousing together in what sounds like a whole gosh-darn lot of fun.
The entire album pulses with playfulness, energy and life. “Burning Down the House,” especially, is played with wild abandon.
Byrne and the rest are in their element, at the high point of the musical mountain. And there’s nothing more fun than being a part of something so dazzlingly joyful.
Stop Making Sense is a radiant example of music and performance done right, a solid live album, paired with a genius documentary.