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AARON ARADILLAS: Jagger and Byrne Define and Redefine the Rock and Roll Frontman

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by Aaron Aradillas
February 28, 2012 9:36 AM
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VIDEO: Watch the two embedded clips to compare the performance styles of two iconic front men: The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and The Talking Heads' David Byrne.

The front man of any worthy rock band must act as conductor, medium, communicator. He must use his voice and body—his presence—to create a memorable performance. He must also channel the band’s energy while feeding off the immediate response of the audience, creating a kind of communal call-and-response. In this regard probably the greatest front man remains the late James Brown. He used his body to lead the band, with his feet laying down the beat, one arm conducting the horn section and the other leading the audience in his trademark audience participation sessions.

Two recent music DVD releases, Talking Heads Chronology and The Rolling Stones: Some Girls – Live In Texas ’78, offer a fascinating look at two of the most indelible band leaders in rock history. One is a performance-artist deconstructionist, while the other set the standard for all future rock gods. Both know how to move.

talking-heads-chronology

When Talking Heads came on the scene in 1975 they were labeled as preppy art punks. This wasn’t entirely by accident. Television, what with their prog-rock leanings, extended guitar solos, and apocalyptic lyrics, were too committed to their music to be mistaken for anything other than a band. But Talking Heads, at least in the beginning, were toying with the idea of what it meant to be a band. When you listen to More Songs About Buildings and Food or Remain in Light you feel challenged, not because you need footnotes in order to understand the songs, but because you know you are listening to a band stretching the possibilities of a pop song while adhering to the rules of pop. Unlike current art-rock outfits like The Fiery Furnaces or Arcade Fire, Talking Heads, for all their conceptual-art trappings, rarely forgot the skill and talent it takes to create a perfect pop song.

Talking Heads front man David Byrne, who at times resembles a cross between Anthony Perkins younger, more demented brother and Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg, remains the unlikeliest of rock stars. Long before Bono created his alter ego The Fly, Byrne was deconstructing what it meant to be a rock star. His emotionless stage presence gave him a spooky-cool quality that forced you to lean in a little closer. He wasn’t entirely detached from life, but he was engaging it on his own almost autistic-savant terms. He shunned normal modes of expressions like smiling—or frowning. And Talking Heads made it a point not to write songs about typical rock & roll topics like sex or cars or lust or decadence. Instead they wrote about imagining a world without love (“I'm Not in Love”) or a guy losing control because someone was rude (“Psycho Killer”). They were a quintessential New York band.

Talking Heads Chronology consists mostly of videotaped performances of the band. The early clips are kind of riveting as we see the band as a trio, struggling to create a full sound. (Rhythm guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison hadn’t yet joined the band.) Seeing them perform a song like, say, “I'm Not in Love” at CBGB’s in 1975, you can see how even a sketch of a song could be excitingly unpredictable. Byrne’s punk guitar riffing is thrilling. In the early performances at places like CBGB’s or The Kitchen you can see Byrne trying to overcome an almost crippling shyness. He rarely leaves the mic to prowl the stage. But you sense something is burning inside. You can see it start to come out as they rush through “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” a punk version of a galloping country ditty. (Would that make it rockabilly punk?)

As the band grew in popularity they made it a point to play it cool, especially when performing on nationally televised shows. Byrne proves himself a brilliant minimalist when they appear on American Bandstand. Considering all acts that appeared on Bandstand were required to lip-sync and basically mime their performance, the Heads retain their dignity as they showcase their slowed-down cover of “Take Me to the River.”

As Talking Heads expanded their sound and the band, Byrne would give himself over to the rhythm. The highlight on the DVD is a performance of the Fear of Music cut “Animals” for German television. Byrne’s spastic head movements are charming and a little unnerving. (He reminded me a little of DeNiro’s jerky dance in a key moment of Mean Streets.) The song’s climax is given a visual punch when Byrne starts to bob and weave around the stage.

The DVD unfortunately omits the key period of Talking Heads evolution. I assume because of rights issues, there are no clips from Jonathan Demme’s transcendent concert film Stop Making Sense. That’s too bad, because that film shows Byrne (and the band) at their peak. To see Byrne’s gymnastics workout during “Life During Wartime” is simply exhilarating. By the time we see the band reunite to perform “Life During Wartime” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame they’re still in sync (even thought they hadn’t performed together in nearly 20 years), and Byrne seems able to show a trace of emotion. He displays the slightest hint of bemusement at being a rock star.

Legend has it that Mick Jagger didn’t start to cut loose until after seeing Tina Turner perform. This isn’t entirely true. Jagger always had a roiling energy itching to get out. You can see it when the Stones perform “It’s All Over Now” on The T.A.M.I. Show. By the time you get to the death-of-a-dream documentary Gimme Shelter, Jagger dances like he’s the prince of darkness. When he shimmies and shakes at the climax of “Sympathy for the Devil,” as if possessed by a demonic spirit, it’s both mesmerizing and frightening. (You wonder how come there wasn’t more violence at Altamont.) Even better is his joyous shoulder moves throughout Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.

The genius of the song “Moves Like Jagger” is that it’s such a perfect summation of what it means to feel the beat. Jagger’s moves are working-man gyrations with a heavy dose of sexual aggression—both masculine and feminine. He doesn’t use any kind of thought-out choreography. Charlie Watts’ drumming dictates his movements. When Adam Levine says he’s “got the moves like Jagger,” we know what he’s really saying is that a moment of happiness can only be expressed through dancing. The phrase “moves like Jagger” is nothing short than a declaration of living in the moment.

some-girls-texas

Filmed in Fort Worth, TX. in support of the Some Girls album, Live in Texas 78 shows the Stones at first looking a little defensive, as if having something to prove. Their previous two albums (It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and Black and Blue) and tour were met with indifference by everyone except the most hardcore fans. The song “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” was seen as an affront to everything the Stones once stood for. They were now the Establishment. And Punk and Disco were re-invigorating pop music in much the same way the British Invasion did a generation earlier. It almost looked as if The Rolling Stones were no longer relevant.

But Some Girls was a major achievement, a disco-spirited gallop through the seamy side of NYC with punk attitude lyrics. It was a rude, nasty, and cautiously romantic record.

They start the concert a little wobbly. They open with a rather rote cover of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock,” treating the song as a palette cleanser. They seem to be going through the motions on the classic Exile cut “All Down the Line.” Jagger’s moves seem a bit mechanical, while Keith looks close to happy. (The fact he had just dodged jail probably explains this.) And nothing seems to surprise the astonishing Charlie Watts.

But then they go into the underrated Goats Head Soup cut ”Star Star” and you see things start to come alive. Then, in an unprecedented move, they go into a seven-song tear through Some Girls. (Apparently, on some nights they would do eight out of the ten songs from the record.) Considering the album was only a little over a month old, this shows the confidence the band had in the new material. (Most major acts will play three or four cuts at he most from their new album on the supporting tour. They implicitly know audiences want to hear the hits.)

They kick things off with the un-PC “When the Whip Comes Down,” a song about leaving home and trying to make it in he city. Lyrically, the song is pretty abrasive (“I was a fag in New York/I was gay in L.A.”), and the hustling beat borders on confrontational. Jagger plays guitar throughout most of the concert and he seems truly energized by both his playing and the songs.

Both “Beast of Burden” and “Miss You” get the extended treatment, with Jagger using his arms to express the emotional yearning in “Burden.” There are extraordinary close-ups of him singing both “Burden” and “Miss You” and he looks lost in the moment. In fact, the whole band rarely comes together in any traditional kind of way. They give workman-like fat-free performances that somehow manage to still connect. On “Miss You,” a stripped-down blues number given a disco-inflected beat, Jagger prowls the stage with purpose. He even points the neck of his guitar down in that exaggerated way that Hendrix made famous. He looks like he’s about to explode as he jumps up and down right before going into the song’s insinuating come-on.

Other highlights include a ridiculously fast “Respectable” and “Love in Vain,” a song the Stones never fail to turn into a showstopper. There are no indulgent numbers like “Can You Hear Me Knocking” or “Midnight Rambler” or “Sympathy for the Devil,” which I’m guessing they still had a moratorium on after Altamont. Instead they manage to liven up the one weak Some Girls cut, their cover of “Just My Imagination.” Jagger almost matches the heartache of the Motown original. (The best version of the song can be found in Martin Scorsese’s terrific Shine A Light.) Tellingly, the Stones don’t perform the controversial title track. With its racially insensitive lyrics (“Black girls just wanna get fucked all night/But I just don't have that much jam”), the Stones decided to play a little nice. (Although, at one point, Jagger says, “If the band is slightly slacking in energy it’s because we spent all last night fucking!”

By the time they perform Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” Jagger has put down the guitar in favor of some of his trademark moves. (He playfully changes one lyric to “tight dresses and Tampax.”) He even does some classic rock star gimmicks like taking off his shirt and dousing the audience with buckets of water. Live in Texas 78 shows the Stones in transition. Later concert films would show them forsaking the music in favor of spectacle. (Hal Ashby’s 70mm stadium images in Let’s Spend the Night Together upstages the band. The same goes for their IMAX movie At the Max. It wouldn’t be until Shine A Light that they would let the music speak for itself.) The Rolling Stones have long since stopped being dangerous (whatever that means). And when we now see Jagger dance it rarely looks spontaneous. It looks more comforting than anything else. At least we have Live in Texas 78 as evidence that that wasn’t always the case. 

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

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