Every other week, Anthony Kozlowski pens the Atwood Magazine column Tunes & Tumblers, pairing new and classic albums with cocktail recipes. He quickly found however that drinking alone is a sad business. So he invited his friends Pedro Isaac Chairez and Ryan James into a recording booth to aid in mixing delicious drinks and to discuss the music that they all love. Strap on your headphones and enjoy a cold one on us.
Atwood Magazine’s band of intrepid podcasters take on the live music arena by diving into one of the most influential concert films of all time, Talking Heads’ seminal 1984 documentary “Stop Making Sense.” Accompanied by former concert costumer Alex Marino, the gang discuss the show-making process and what exactly it is about David Byrne and his big grey suit that continue to be so enduring in the pop world today. Qu’est-ce que c’est!
🎶 🥃 🎶 🥃
A single spotlight spills over the grimy stage floor. For a moment, the silence is deafening, the proverbial calm before the storm breaks. Or before the dance erupts rather. This pensiveness gives way as a figure approaches. Scuffed Chucks plod across the floor as a cheering crowd rises in sudden crescendo. They, like us, wait in nervous anticipation, breaking as these feet take a sudden right and stop.
“Hi,” a voice says, slicing through the applause. “I have a tape I want to play.” He sets down a boombox and hits play. Minimal percussive loops silence the crowd as our mystery guest plucks along on acoustic guitar. Steadily, a stripped-down “Psycho Killer” takes shape on the cavernously vacant stage. David Byrne, lead singer and auteurist craftsman of new wave psychonauts Talking Heads lay the foundation for what will soon become one of the most iconic live performances of all time.
In December 1983, fans packed Hollywood’s Pantages Theater over a course of four nights to catch Byrne and his band of kinetic art rockers supporting their latest album Speaking in Tongues. What would emerge from that stint is perhaps more remembered than the album itself. A concert film that set the bar for what live videography could conceivably be.
Stop Making Sense is the live experience against which all others are measured. It boasts a flurry of motion, a bursting immediacy, and an almost quaint lack of flair that calls attention to its artful moments. Over the years, it’s become such a visual shorthand that pop artists still take notes from it when constructing their own shows. Documentary Now even took playful swing at it in a stellar Season 2 homage. To quote our resident music multi-hyphenate Ryan James:
“What do you mean you’ve never seen this film before?”
Tunes & Tumblers unplugs the jukebox this week and boots up the projector to enjoy this classic the way it was meant to be. We busted out the folding chairs, popped some Orville Redenbacher in the microwave, and invited over our good friend Alex Marino – a costumer who cut her teeth dressing stars on mega pop tours – to bliss out 80’s-style. And true to form, Pedro whipped up a cocktail that captures the magic of this performance in a glass. Raise it and join us on our first audio-visual daydream. Please burn down the house responsibly.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
a Talking Heads Concert Documentary by Jonathan Demme
Those without an Amazon Prime account are in luck! The entire Stop Making Sense concert event exists in audio form for your listening pleasure. But honestly, that doesn’t do it justice.
Before the film’s 1984 release, concert films existed, but were propelled mostly on the merits of the music. Wide shots and scattered close-ups covered all the bases — the epitome of “it’s fine, it’s fine” film-making. Movies like The Band’s The Last Waltz and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same took this approach. But thanks in part to Talking Heads and Stop Making Sense, pop music begin to move into the realm of performance art by the 80’s. If you love the pageantry and intricate staging of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, or Muse, tip your hat to them.
The film’s success is twofold. First is the performance itself. Talking Heads tossed $1.2 million of their own money into bringing Stop Making Sense to life, and they don’t skimp on the details. From Byrne’s isolated entrance, the show steadily blossoms and takes shape. Stagehands wheel on a drum platform and band members take their place one by one. Then the entire band engage in what can only be described as a rigorous dance-off (in Pedro’s words, “This is the most in-shape band in history.”) Roger Ebert’s original review expounds:
“Watching the Talking Heads in concert is a little like rock ‘n’ roll crossed with ‘Jane Fonda’s Workout.’”
But the film is perhaps best remembered for Byrne’s frenetic dances (that run the gamut from the “knock-knee dance” to the “lamp dance” and the timeless “David hits himself like Ernest Angley” dance, all self-described on the DVD commentary mind you) and that “big suit” tattooed on pop culture history.
In an interview with the Lincoln City Film Center years later, Byrne said that the purpose of Stop Making Sense was to “show how a concert gets made” even as it was happening. Though a lot of the credit for goes to the band itself, who were riding high on the recent success of “Burning Down the House,” it wouldn’t have reached classic status without director Jonathan Demme. With him at the helm, Byrne was able to birth a concert film like none before and none since. He leans on intimate point of view shots that drop you in the thick of the performance. And he largely avoids crowd reaction shots. As Byrne noted, this creates the illusion that you’re a member of the band and not merely a spectator. It’s an aesthetic that has imitated often since, though few have succeeded.
But that isn’t enough for the Tunes & Tumblers gang. We sought to heighten the experience even further with a craft cocktail that would have sat comfortably on Chris Frantz’ drumming platform.
A Qu’est-ce Que C’est
- 5 oz Parfait d’Amour
- 1 oz Lemoncello
- 5 oz Almond Milk
- Pour ingredients into tumbler over ice. Do an improvised dance and enjoy.
At first blush, this performance doesn’t have a whole lot of frills. Very stripped-down, very simple, and yet so influential. We wanted to create something that doesn’t look that interesting, but sticks in your mind days or even weeks later. The Qu’est-ce Que C’est takes its name from that teasingly spat line of “Psycho Killer.” Anyone who sees it will likely exclaim, “What the f*** is that?”
We start with two types of liqueur. The first, Parfait D’Amour, is a French spirit bursting with sweetness, a smooth texture, some rose and vanilla notes, and hints of sugared almonds. We mix that with , limoncello, known for its tart lemon flavor. For all those color geeks out there, slamming purple and yellow together will give you a silky grey not unlike that suit of repeated mention. Top it all off with some almond milk. The end result is smooth, velvety, and beyond refreshing.
Take a step back and admire your handy work. Maybe you can’t tell immediately what’s going on, but once you drink it, its bright notes pop you in the mouth. As this week’s esteemed guest accurately describes, it’s a lot like the milk after cereal, which you may recall from those sugar-bombed Saturday mornings of youth. It may appear simple, but it’s exploding with surprising elements that become apparent the more you sip. Like Stop Making Sense, it’s more than meets the eye.
Top yourself off and cue up the episode.
This week adds another sense to Tunes & Tumblers’ patented blend of taste and sound. The live element of music is one often overlooked in our branch of journalism. Or at least isn’t recognized as the wholly separate experience it is. A studio recording and a live show from the same artist can be as different as chocolate cake and a swift punch to the nose. A band that rocks your world in a basement bar on a Tuesday night can sound lukewarm on their merch booth EP and vice versa.
What Talking Heads achieve with Stop Making Sense is perfect harmony of sight and sound, a sensory feast in ninety minutes. Unfortunately, a podcast can only fill one of those niches. So cue up your ex’s Prime account and bust out the Boston shaker to join the Tunes & Tumblers fam on this week’s journey.
Guest Alex Marino gives us a peek behind the curtain of live concert production from concept down to the roadies’ shoes (spoiler alert: Byrne made some “choices” here). She used to do wardrobe on pop tours, working with the likes of the Black Eyed Peas, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Meghan Trainor. If you’re an up-and-coming artist looking to add a little glam to your tour, she’s got pointers on where to start. She and Pedro also operate on the same wavelength, so if you wondered what it would be like if he had a twin (honestly, who hasn’t?), this week’s episode gives a window into that parallel universe.
As of today, the Tunes & Tumblers jingle contest comes to an end. With several submissions to wade through, we now began the process of settling on our new intro music. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for our decision!
Let’s face it, not all of us have the $50 plus rip-off venue fees to sit in arena nosebleeds. Stop Making Sense has a leg up on the “being there” experience. It places you right in the throng, better than the best seat in the house. That’s the power of a good concert documentary. Take a night off and turn your living room into the Hollywood Pantages c.1983. The music is funky, the dances are wild, and the drinks are cold, refreshing, and silky. Qu’est-ce que c’est, lovelies!
Tunes & Tumblers 009:
Talking Heads and a Qu’est-ce Que C’est
Catch up on Tunes & Tumblers wherever you listen to your podcasts!
Watch Stop Making Sense on Amazon Prime.
If you want to add any of the music discussed to your library, check out the full episode playlist below:
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© Pedro Isaac Chairez