While official Warner Bros. compilations of the Heads’ mind-bending, envelope-pushing videos allow for a glimpse of the art-rock band at its most creative, this 18-track disc is the next best thing to catching them live — outside of Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense,” of course.
“Chronology” kicks off with a 1976 mic test that captures young David Byrne as disheveled and lanky as ever, making him look like a dead ringer for Italian horror director Dario Argento. After a couple of messy performances in fuzzed-out black-and-white at the legendary CBGB, sparks of the genius to come erupt in a 1975 acoustic rendering of “Psycho Killer.”
The proceedings burst into color on track seven with the satirical “Don’t Worry About the Government,” in which Byrne’s voice charmingly breaks at the final “meeeeeeee.” The band really comes together on “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” recorded at New York City’s Entermedia Theatre in 1978; Byrne’s knees begin to move, and Chris Frantz looks supremely happy as he beats away on the drums.
Also included are an infectious “Burning Down the House,” the Heads’ biggest hit, on a 1983 episode of “Late Night with David Letterman” (I remember seeing this when I was 12, and bought the 45 single not long after), and the obscure “Artists Only” for an unremarkable ’79 appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
The outta-left-field highlight comes with a 1979 gig on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” of all things. Talking Heads is one of the last groups I’d ever expect to see on that teenybopper dance show, but they nail Al Green’s midtempo “Take Me to the River” nonetheless.
After the final note of “River” runs is where things get weird, as Clark makes awkward banter and refers to them as “you people,” as if the four members were a minority race. Never smiling, Byrne admits to shyness and dislking crowds, while bassist Tina Weymouth says they “want to make our mark on music history.”
And that they did. Fittingly, the DVD closes with Talking Heads playing “Life During Wartime” at their 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given all the bad blood, it’s not their finest moment, but it’s agreeably bittersweet. —Rod Lott