It’s the part of the show everybody always talks about. The rhythm section locks in on a mean strut as the singer bobbles over to the microphone. His suit must be 10 sizes too big. He tics and jiggles, throwing whole bolts of polyester with every jerk, the way a hula girl throws her grass skirt with her hips. He marches, he shimmies with his shoulders, he seduces like a lounge singer, crooning “It’s always show time, here at the edge of the stage.” It looks hilarious and that means it looks perfect. The audience dances and hollers along: “Stop making sense, stop making sense.” The spotlight blows his shadow across the back wall.
Thirty years after the performance first captivated theatre audiences, fans and film critics, you’d hardly even notice that that silhouette isn’t David Byrne’s and that the players behind him aren’t the Talking Heads. The name of this band is This Must Be The Band.
For the last seven years, the group has toured the Heads' catalogue from Costa Mesa, California to New York City. And while they’re always well-received their most popular date is undoubtedly the annual hometown Stop Making Sense recreation — a note-for-note, prop-for-prop performance of what's often called "the best concert film of all time." Last November, they played in front of 2,000 bouncing fans, a near-sold out crowd at Chicago’s historic Riviera Theatre, almost the size of the performance it's restaging.
Chicago musician Charlie Otto was born in 1984, the same year Stop Making Sense hit theatres. It’s sort of been his own private zodiac; the band, and more specifically, the film itself have become powerful presences in his life. For the better part of a decade, Otto has made a living as the leader and David Byrne impersonator in, quite possibly, North America's finest Talking Heads tribute act. Their annual Stop Making Sense recreation has developed a legend of its own.
Though it's a big suit to fill, the band’s commitment to the highest fidelity recreation is a huge part of their draw. It’s a commitment so strong even the frontman’s barber is in on the gig; Otto always shows up at his Irving Park barbershop the week of the performance to get his side burns squared up above the ear, just like Byrne. He brings along a still frame from the film, but it isn’t necessary. Even Jon, the guy behind the clippers, knows the movie well.
Today, Stop Making Sense turns 30 years old. The film, by future The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 24, 1984, before scoring a wider theatrical release that fall. It captures the band over three performances at Hollywood's Pantages Theater in support of their 1983 release Speaking In Tongues — the height of their stage-packing ecstatic funk revue. More than a concert film, their performance elevates the rock show to high art.
While Stop Making Sense has certainly benefited from years of appraisal, it’s not some darling of hindsight. On its release, Roger Ebert wrote: “the film's peak moments come through Byrne's simple physical presence. He jogs in place with his sidemen; he runs around the stage; he seems so happy to be alive and making music…. Starting with Mick Jagger, rock concerts have become, for the performers, as much sporting events as musical and theatrical performances. STOP MAKING SENSE understands that with great exuberance.”
It’s on precisely those terms — as a piece of musical theatre, as a feat of sheer athleticism, as a delirious, joyful expression — that This Must Be The Band, too, mounts their revival. In their ten expertly-blueprinted performances of the show, they’ve spent more time considering its architecture than near anyone alive… maybe even Byrne.
The group began with a Craigslist post. In 2007, Otto was planning a one-off show of Talking Heads material. He wanted to play the part of Talking Heads collaborator Adrian Belew (also of King Crimson and a session player for David Bowie, Frank Zappa and, most recently, Nine Inch Nails). But finding a suitable David Byrne proved to be a tall order. Perhaps he hadn’t looked closely in the mirror; Otto was already a dead ringer. When asked why he hadn’t noticed, he points to the Remain In Light song “Seen and Not Seen”:
“He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books/ He thought that some of these faces might be right for him/ And through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his mind/ Or somewhere in the back of his mind/ That he might, by force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal”
His, too, was a slow transformation, he says. It took about a year of close study before he could reasonably imitate Byrne’s voice. But as the one-off show became a sustained project, Otto fell headlong down the rabbit hole. To this date, he’s rerecorded every note of the albums Remain In Light, Speaking In Tongues, and Stop Making Sense. He’s learned nearly the band’s whole catalogue on every instrument, so that he can teach his revolving roster of 25 or so musicians. Somewhere along the way, tackling Demme’s Stop Making Sense just seemed to, well, make sense.
I let my body discover, little by little, it’s own grammar of movement — often jerky, spastic, and strangely formal.
The Heads turned their attention to choreography, staging, lighting, and costume. Over dinner, fashion designer Jurgen Lehl told Byrne “everything on stage needs to be bigger.” That chestnut along with an interest in the wardrobe of Noh theatre birthed the famous big suit, an exaggeration of Byrne’s bookish, neurotic WASP character stitched in polyester. The Heads decided the performers and instruments should emerge one by one. The stagehands and their work wouldn’t be made invisible; they’d move set pieces into place right before the audience’s eyes. It was to be the 8 1/2 of concerts, a meta-performance designed around the very idea of staging a performance. “The magician would show how the trick was done and then do the trick,” Byrne writes, “and my belief was that this transparency wouldn’t lessen the magic.”
That wealth of detail is what makes Stop Making Sense such a compelling project for This Must Be The Band. Otto replicates every tiny detail, but with a budget nowhere near as lofty. He’s got the white Keds shown in close-up as Byrne walks out for “Psycho Killer,” his Tina Weymouth, played by Jamie Jedrzejewski, wears the same sky blue arm warmers on her second outfit change, his drummer’s kit is blacked out to match Chris Frantz’. With the help of costume designer Ariana Anderson, they’re on their third build of the big suit. “Does it look big enough?” he asks. It looks perfect, but his question emphasizes the whole spirit of the exercise: things can always be made more exact.
"The show hinges on the movable risers," Otto says. They’re crucial to the whole concept. He employs up to 12 stagehands to push out instrument rigs, control curtains, screens and lights, and, just like in the film, to deliver Byrne his glasses or take his jacket. Otto’s fiancé Kasey Foster, who often plays Ednah Holt, has mapped out all of the choreography from Weymouth’s crab gallop in “Genius of Love” to the running man on “Life During Wartime.” Otto learned the Fred Astaire-aping lamp dance for “This Must Be The Place” by practicing along with the film in his room. He’s written a brief, self-sensical instruction manual to remind himself how the sequence goes: “1. hold and Charlie Brown 2. bring forward, wait, start to turn it around fast from outside….” He guesses he’s seen the film about 1,000 times.
The band’s uncanny attention to every bit of minutia elevates what’s by all accounts an excellent concert film into a cult phenomenon. Continuity blunders caused by tiny inconsistencies captured between the three filmed performances become plot points for This Must Be The Band. Theirs is a celebration of even the film's folly. They recreate a shot wherein a beach ball that’s seen thrown at the stage never seems to land by stringing a ball up to the ceiling rigging and zipping it into the rafters. Otto imitates Byrne blowing a dance cue on “Life During Wartime,” something the group says he shouldn’t bother doing because the audience might just take it as his own mistake. But he insists: “that's not how the performance goes." Has he heard that Weymouth’s bass changes between cuts from a teal Veillette-Citron to a brown Höfner? “Maybe we could have someone playing her parts off-stage and do a switch,” his mind wanders. He’s already imagining how they could work it into the show.
As much as Otto looks and sounds like the art school guy who came of age at CBGB, his introduction to Talking Heads came later than you’d think. A junkie for jam bands through college, he was introduced to “Burning Down The House” by a mislabeled Widespread Panic song downloaded off Limewire. Quickly, he began to understand the Talking Heads as an important touchstone in jam band culture, the same way others might migrate to them from their mother’s record collection, a flip through Please Kill Me, or an interest in Parliament-Funkadelic (where they scooped many of the side players for Stop Making Sense). The point is: many roads lead to the Talking Heads.
Beyond the sheer impressiveness of their recreation, Otto likes to think his band’s appeal centres on nostalgia. Their fans are mostly a generation removed from the Heads, listeners who were children when the band was still active. “It's people appreciating the music their parents played around the house when they were kids.” And unlike most other tribute acts, Otto says, playing their music is just an invitation to get bodies moving. That’s what they did best; they asked people to engage with them at the most instinctual level.
But what can be learned from embodying a band for so long? Does Otto have any special insight into David Byrne after studying his poetry and mannerisms so intimately? He describes the character as an archetype: “If you sing and dress this way,” Otto says “you act like this, too.”
If you sing and dress this way, you act like this, too.
However, Byrne’s compulsions as an artist look anything but ordinary. It takes a particular audacity to put on such an ambitious stage show, heralded a triumph all around, and then unceremoniously retire the band from touring altogether. That ardour is visible in Otto, too. It takes a certain kind of person to dedicate a significant portion of his life to mapping out and replaying a 30 year old concert every year, sometimes multiple times a year, let alone to make his living always paying tribute to the great works of somebody else.
Byrne says that the idea of playing in a cover band, no matter how good, presented him with a limitation too big to be overcome. In a certain regard, This Must Be The Band has exploded that idea, turning their pursuit of fidelity into an art project itself. But Otto agrees with Byrne. He can’t foresee playing the Heads forever. He wants to write his own music — he plays in 3 or 4 or 6 other bands, depending how you count them.
Otto obviously loves the tunes, he delights in being able to make people happy, and frankly, it pays the bills. His is a unique and valuable service provided by him and very few others. It’s a small, but impassioned market he’s stumbled on: 25 years after disbanding, audiences will gladly pay money to witness the magic of Stop Making Sense live and in person. Byrne may refuse to reunite the Talking Heads, but their big, bobbly shadows still dance across our walls.