Talking Heads' 'Naked' at 30: Chris Frantz & Producer Steve Lillywhite Look Back on Band's Swan Song

Talking Heads
David Corio/Redferns

David Byrne (left) and Tina Weymouth (right) of Talking Heads perform at Hammersmith Palais in London in 1982.

"We always had the idea of a monkey on the cover," explains Chris Frantz, drummer for New York new wave icons Talking Heads about the band's final album Naked, released on March 15, 1988. "Tina originally wanted to call the album The Higher the Monkey Climb, the More He Expose (laughs), which was a Jamaican saying we had heard. But it was our designer Tibor Kalman, who had come across a painter on 42nd St who did animal portraits named Paula Wright. So he said, 'Why don't we have her do a very formal portrait of a chimpanzee?' And she did it. It was super inexpensive, much cheaper than having Robert Mapplethorpe take your picture."

However, it was the music beyond the monkey that made the group's eighth LP one of the most interesting works of their tenure together. Warm and energetic, Naked didn't sound like the previous Talking Heads album. In fact, when the quartet arrived in Paris to begin work with producer Steve Lillywhite, the majority of them arrived with their families in tow, only adding to the communal glow that encapsulates these songs.

"I remember babies entering the studio in strollers," remembers Lillywhite. "I was there with my wife Kirsty MacColl. I think David Byrne was the only one in Paris who was flying solo."

"We all got really nice places to live," explains Frantz regarding the accommodations at the studio for him and his wife, Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth. "Jerry brought his wife and just one child at the time. We brought our two boys. We had nannies. It was a really wonderful experience."

In the 2005 reissue of the album, guitarist Jerry Harrison states that "Naked was an attempt to return to the recording techniques of Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues: layered, polyrhythmic tracks that interacted with each other to create moving textures as well as melodies and rhythms." And according to Frantz, those roots existed in the old apartment he shared with Weymouth when they first moved to New York.

"Tina and I had a loft in Long Island City, where the band had rehearsed for many, many years," he explains. "We recorded Fear of Music there. We had lived there since 1976—we moved into that loft during the Bicentennial weekend. And we all went back there and recorded these improvs on cassette. We were all very happy, including David, about the direction it was going. We did about 20 of these little musical snippets; not exactly songs, but more starting-off points, and took those with us to Paris."

"I think what the band—Chris and Tina especially—wanted for Naked was to go back to a time when they were all involved in the music rather than just David coming in with a finished song," Lillywhite explained. "It was all done at the same time by all of them, and that was a change-around for them from Little Creatures and True Stories, and I think gave them a lot of energy."

Frantz and Weymouth had originally suggested Wally Badarou, a French-born West African musician who had produced the likes of Level 42 and Marianne Faithfull in the '80s, to sit behind the boards for Naked. The band ultimately decided on Lillywhite, but nonetheless Badarou played a major role on the album as a guest musician and talent scout.

"We brought on Wally to help us find musicians to supplement the quartet," Frantz said. "He also found us our studio in Paris called Studio Davout. It was in a section of Paris where a lot of African people live. It was an old movie theater with the seats taken out, so part of the floor was still slanted. It was enormous."

Talking Heads rose to the task of filling the enormity of that space with sound, employing an amazing ensemble of local musicians, including percussionists Abdou M'Boup and Manolo Badrena, guitarist Yves N'Djock and kora player Mory Kanté among others, to flesh out those germs of ideas they had concocted back in Long Island City into fully realized productions. And according to Lillywhite, it was that emphasis on organic percussion that permeated these eleven songs, which instilled a warmth that didn't quite exist on any prior Talking Heads record.

"One of the reasons for [the warmth] was that we used a lot of percussion on the backing tracks," he explained. "So instead of the signature snare on the two and the four, which is really that big '80s sound, we had rhythms that were a lot more intricate, hitting on other beats even if Chris was playing two and four on the snare. It wasn't made so angular and mixed so loud as it might have been in the past. It was more of a warm sound with all for the beats compensated for. And I, in those days, was known for this big, bombastic snare sound like on U2's War, and I didn't want to do it on this album because I felt I wanted all the percussion to be heard, not just that big beat."

The group called in a few of their U.K. pals as well to participate in the fun. Lillywhite, in particular, was responsible for the involvement of his late wife MacColl, who sang on “(Nothing But) Flowers” and “Bill,” bluegrass legend Eric Weissberg on pedal steel and dobro, Pogues accordion player James Fearnley and, perhaps most prominently, guitarist Johnny Marr, who at the time was fresh out of his tenure with The Smiths.

“I was friends with Johnny before I worked with Morrissey,” recalls Lillywhite, who worked on solo Moz faves as Vauxhall & I, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted. “I had only worked with Johnny because he was a fan of Kirsty MacColl’s and played on the albums I produced for her. So I had invited him over to Paris to play on Naked, and he came out and spent a day jamming on the songs in the same way all of them did on this album.”

“Johnny Marr was a delightful guy to work with on this album,” said Frantz. “You know, he did this very British thing when he came to Paris. None of us had any roadies or techs that we brought with us. I set up my own drums, Tina sets up her own bass, and Jerry with the guitars and keyboards and David with his equipment. And Johnny comes in with one of the most famous guitar techs of all time, and doesn’t lift a finger (laughs). Everything was set up for him, which we all found amusing. But I gotta say, it sounded great when he played with us. And we had fun afterwards, too.”

Also, if you are a particularly astute reader of album credits, you will notice that avant-pop legend Arthur Russell also guested on Naked, playing cello on the song "Bill."

"Arthur was a friend of ours," Frantz states. "We had known him for a long time. In fact, he played on the sessions for our first album, namely a different mix of 'Psycho Killer' that we ended up not using. Arthur was someone we saw quite a bit, because he was playing in a band called the Necessaries with Ernie Brooks, who lived in the loft upstairs from me and Tina. So Arthur was there all the time."

The band finished Naked at Sigma Sound Studios in New York, where the horn section -- arranged by Angel Fernandez, with Saturday Night Live musical director Lenny Pickett on saxophone and Robin Eubanks on trombone -- was overdubbed onto the material that was made in Paris. And the brass is the first thing you hear on the album, featured quite prominently on its first two songs, lead single "Blind" and "Mr. Jones," a pair of tracks that perfectly encapsulate a Fela Kuti-meets-Tito Puente-meets-Manu Dibango spirit.

"Many of the horn players would end up on David's first big solo album Rei Momo," states Frantz. "Angel Fernandez went on to put together the band for David. But while the horn arrangements were done in New York, the real essence of Naked was done in Paris."

The album's second single "(Nothing But) Flowers," meanwhile, served as the vibrant flagship for the ecological mindset that existed through the crux of Byrne's lyrics for Naked, no doubt inspired by the singer's love for Brazil and its rainforests, which were being decimated by the late '80s. The environmentally conscious tone struck a chord with music critics at the time of Naked's release.

"Ideas about leaving civilization behind filter into the country-and-soukous-flavored 'Totally Nude' about a character who's 'absolutely free/living in the trees,'" explains veteran critic Jon Pareles in his review of Naked in the March 20, 1988 edition of The New York Times. "'Ruby Dear,' with its insistent Bo Diddley beat behind a curtain of guitars, forecasts the opposite: an ecological breakdown."

"The human race consists of some pretty cool people, Naked seems to be saying, but it's got a pretty destructive monkey on its back," surmises Anthony DeCurtis in his four-star review in the April 7, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone. "Human survival is not guaranteed. With humor and good heartedness, hope and fear, Talking Heads contemplates a world on the eve of destruction on this important record."

Thirty years later, we're still here, albeit by a thread. But with Naked, Talking Heads would unexpectedly make their final statement as a cohesive unit in 1988, which remains a hard reality to grasp considering the warmth and community that bathes its backstory. 

"It doesn't sound like a final record, does it?" asks Lillywhite. "Normally a final record doesn't have energy, because no one has the energy to do it at that stage. But this was such an energetic record."

But while the album itself was a wellspring of kinetic motion, it masked the writing on the wall in terms of Byrne's desire to carry on with the band, which Frantz feels impacted the potential for Naked to be a bigger hit than it was.

"David refused to tour," he reveals. "That's why [the album] didn't do any better than it did. I think it was a gold record, but it should have done much better than that. Tina and I did a promotional tour where we went around talking about the record. We did what we could, but David's heart just wasn't in the band anymore."

There was one last Talking Heads song to hit radio and MTV in 1991—the Naked outtake "Sax and Violins," which was featured on the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World. But the song came with the news that the band had officially broken up. For Frantz, however, the fond memories of making Naked far outweigh the sour grapes of its aftermath.

"We had a really good time making this record, especially when we were in Paris," he admits. "It was just a great pleasure; we hadn't done anything in a while and things went so well that it gave the rest of the band hope that there would be more. And why shouldn't there have been? We were, in my opinion, reaching another level in our sound. Sadly, it didn't work out that way, but it was fun while it lasted."