[Editor's note: Deathmatch pairs two artists who have something in common, and determines who is better. It's a concept we sort-of ripped off from MTV, except that instead of claymation it's the printed word!]
The statement “Talking Heads are a better band than the Ramones” will draw some incredulous looks. The guy in the leather jacket halfway down the bar may tighten his hand around his beer bottle, as if he would like nothing more than to shatter it over your head. “The geeky guy in the too-big suits?” people will ask. “He's better than The fucking Ramones?”
Yeah, the geeky guy in the ill-fitting suits who dances like he's got a centipede in his pants, otherwise known as musical genius David Byrne. He's music's biggest risk taker since Bowie. Byrne's dynamic personal vision and willingness to experiment with sound are what separates his group from the Ramones, who maintained a straightforward punk-pop ethos throughout their catalogue.
Parallels between the two groups are extensive and interesting. Talking Heads' very first show was opening for the Ramones at CBGB and the bands toured together later. They both embodied a different part of a fringe music culture. “My first impression of the Ramones,” Byrne said in a 2002 interview with The Village Voice, “and the impression probably never changed, was that this was real art rock. The concept was so strong and so focused that it became invisible. People almost didn't notice that it was tongue-in-cheek.” Later that year they would be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the same night.
Nobody is arguing that the Ramones of the late '70s and even early '80s were an extremely important and innovative band. My argument is centered around the mid-'80s, when punk and even post-punk had fizzled out — but new wave was still going strong, still taking risks, still weird, still relevant.
By then, the Ramones had softened into a network television version of themselves, their sound steadily becoming more pop. As they became less cutting edge, they became less relevant; name a single track off of Animal Boy or Halfway to Sanity. It's okay to have a few bad records in a career, but it isn't okay not to strive toward something. With fifteen studio albums released, they had time to experiment, but they didn't.
On the other hand, Bryne and his Heads never stopped experimenting, the culmination of which is “(Nothing But) Flowers” off their final record. In that song Byrne screams, “We caught a rattlesnake, now we got something for dinner!” Nowhere in the entire Ramones catalogue will you find that kind of avant-garde lyricism on a track that still makes you dance your ass off.
Talking Heads are, unquestionably, lyrically better than the Ramones. But their real advantage was their ability to keep innovating long into a storied and comfortable career. Listening to Naked, you can hear you can a distinct musical and thematic progression from Talking Heads 77. The Heads had the wonderful ability to take music making seriously without making overly serious music.
And for what it's worth, Talking Heads don't have a bad record. The Ramones most certainly do. Just try to jam Halfway to Sanity all the way through. See how far you get.