Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Naïve Melody

Back in the ‘80s, I’d often drive by a billboard that read, “If you lived here you’d be home by now.” I liked the sound of that, even though the sign was used to sell on-ramp-adjacent condos near a high-density traffic patch on a freeway commuter route. You have to figure the campaign was conceived by a Don Draper-styled (m)ad man (or more likely his underpaid female assistant), though whoever came up with it knew about creating the essential connection between consumer goods and comfort: It’s what we human creatures crave, and if cash can buy it, it’s hard for the body to resist. Which I guess is why I like the line, “Home is where I want to be / But I guess I’m already there,” from Talking Heads’ song, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).”  It’s one of their atypically earnest love songs; the melody is simple and the groove flows in unity with the words. “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” isn’t cluttered with Talking Heads-style nervous energy or ticks; rhythmically it’s in the pocket, and the whole jam is comforting and warm—two words I generally don’t associate with their music. Best of all, this “home” isn’t asking you to buy it; you can live there as long as you like. It might just be the best song they ever made.

“This Must Be the Place” earned its parenthetical “naïve melody” for the way it was recorded: The band used instruments that were otherwise not assigned to them. Tina Weymouth traded her bass for Jerry Harrison’s guitar, who in turn cradled the bass; David Byrne plays the keyboards. Special guest Wally Badarou sits in on keys, and downtown performance artist/percussionist David Van Tiegham bangs on bottles and other items. Placed as the last track on Speaking in Tongues, the album would become the band’s first million seller, and might’ve been overlooked were it not released as a single following “Burning Down the House.” It was further enshrined in the band’s mythology when they performed it on the Stop Making Sense tour. Preserved on film by director Jonathan Demme  the Stop Making Sense performances (widely considered to be a  masterpiece of the concert movie genre) marked a unique time in the band’s history: Working in an expanded lineup and at the height of their creative and live powers, the circumstances at home in the band were less than harmonious. Tensions were highest between Weymouth and Byrne, though it didn’t dim the dance that takes place between him, the band, and a lamp in the live show. The studio track has enjoyed many further subsequent celluloid uses, perhaps most notably in both Wall Street films, though it’s funny that the Talking Heads most unironic song is used with a twist: “Never for money, always for love,” as the line says.

Since its recording in 1986, the song remains one of the most-covered of all Talking Heads tunes—it may in fact be one of the most done songs by an alternative band from the mid-‘80s, period. Versions of interest include those by MGMT, Animal Liberation Orchestra, and the String Cheese Incident. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin was performing it and turned in a meek version on Cover Girl back in 1994. The Arcade Fire really got the contemporary revival of the song going somewhere in the middle of last decade when they too started performing it live; they released a version of it recorded at Irving Plaza in New York with David Byrne as the b-side to their 2005 single, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone paid homage to the song, bearing out Talking Heads’ status as the ultimate touchstone for East Coast art-rock stylists. But here’s the real test: How many ‘80s classics can survive a kid’s chorus? Talking Heads and these kids at New York City’s PS 22 pass the test.

“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”” was the cozy final track on Speaking in Tongues which made way for the Little Creatures album, an even warmer, some might say folksier, version of the Talking Heads. With cover art by primitive painter Howard Finster, the Talking Heads expanded on their urbane landscapes and reached into the Americana tool kit of twang; they told tales of newborn babies for their now older audience who they helped educate, listeners who may’ve come up hard and punk, but who now weren’t averse to a little slide guitar in the mix. But while the Talking Heads had finally arrived at the top, the bottom was officially falling out of the band and within a couple of years, the split was official.

Upon nearly finishing my research into the origin of this song, I consulted David Bowman’s book titled This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century to see if I could find any further clues and insights into their most enduring track. He writes, “The notes wrap themselves in each line like a perfect piece of sushi.” How totally ‘80s to drag sushi into the mix, though I kept reading and found this: “The notes are like taking a different freeway home and enjoying the view so much you don’t care whether the trip was longer or shorter than your regular route.” Exactly. Evoking a spirit similar to the one I feel when I think of the song and that “If you lived here you’d be home by now” billboard, there is no doubt Talking Heads hit home on the head:  “I guess this must be the place.”

Portions of this piece appeared in in the author’s Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song

Filed under: Origin of Song, , , ,

Keep on Pushing (Again)

Everybody’s humming “Keep On Pushing” again, thanks to it being the soundtrack to a new ad, but there are a few details that even LeBron’s smart phone doesn’t know about the wonderful song that also stands in for the title of my book concerning political movement and music.

Among the  young songwriters who knew the power of an anthem and made the Freedom Movement swing was Curtis Mayfield of Chicago. Just 17 and straight out of the Cabrini-Green housing projects when he hit it big with “Your Precious Love,” recorded by his vocal group the Impressions, Mayfield was a highly conscious, conscientious, and musicially gifted individual. By the early ‘60s he had already sustained the departure of his childhood gospel choir buddy, Jerry Butler, from the group and was leading Samual Goodens and Fred Cash on his own as he became a formidable writer of inspirational R&B hits.

The Impressions captured the ephermeral spirit of gospel’s lift and married it to Mayfield’s layered melodies with a message. In 1964 Mayfield came up with the black-powered “Keep on Pushing,” its sentiment and language  borrowed from a gospel groove and easily adapted to the civil rights cause:  “Hallelujah, hallelujah, keep on pushing.”  “Keep on Pushing” was in perfect synch with Dr. King and the march forward; it has been characterized as one of the movement’s unofficial anthems.  “Move up a little higher,” “I’ve got my strength,” “keep on pushing,” all phrases from the song, also borrowed from gospel’s language and its inspirational intent.  These were elements that never strayed far from Mayfield’s consciousness, and combined with the melodious strains to which he set his words, he could disguise the tougher sentiments by weaving them into the complex harmonies, while never losing the threads.  As time went on, Mayfield became more direct lyrically, but these early works were foundational to setting soul music in its new direction while they also passed in the mainstream.

The Impressions album Keep on Pushing was a Top 10 hit, making its impression on the masses as well as on two major 20th Century songwriters:  images-1Bob Marley had begun performing with his vocal group the Wailers in Kingston Jamaica, as if they were their country’s answer to the Impressions.  “Amen” and “I Made a Mistake” from Keep on Pushing were an important part of their early repertoire.  In 1965, Bob Dylan featured a picture of Keep on Pushing on the cover of his own album, Bringing It All Back Home.  That same year, the Impressions hit again with “People Get Ready,” a song Mayfield was first inspired to get busy on following the March on Washington; it ultimately became the song for which he would be best known.  “When humans from all walks of life can experience a piece of music and feel the same way—that’s soul,”  he once said.  Fifty years later, “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” are still turning heads and inspiring people to singalong, though sadly Mayfield is gone.  Following a distinguished career as a groundbreaking solo recording artist and performer, Mayfield became paralyzed as a consequence of an in-concert accident (a lighting rig fell on him). He still wrote, but didn’t perform; he died the day after Christmas in 1999 of complications from diabetes.

You can read more on Curtis Mayfield and “Keep on Pushing” in Keep on Pushing. And next time you see that LeBron spot, I hope you enjoy the Curtis song just a little bit more.

Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?

Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner” and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Pushing, , ,

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