By Chris Jones
Twelve years after a final messy divorce it's time to make flippy floppy once more. Everybody's favourite art school punks are a peculiar entity to any historian of popular song. Wilfully geeky and angular in their earliest work while, barely two years later, writing the template for white ethnofunk (and, thus, a whole slew of what we now know as 'world' music) they are a fine example of the kind of band that, having set a precedent, almost made themselves redundant. Talking Heads may have receded in the public consciousness, but Once In A Lifetime should serve as a useful aide de memoire.
Once...is naturally, in this age of luxurious back catalogue revamps, a sumptuous package brimming with stuff to bring a smile to any aging new waver's face on Christmas morning. Here we get an elongated book stuffed with high quality photos, essays, band reminiscences etc. Three discs encapsulate the band's career while a fourth gives us an updated DVD version of their video greatest hits, Storytelling Giant. The inclusion of this disc is significant in that the Heads were prime movers in the early days of the promo format. Their hilarious video for ''Once in A Lifetime'', with David Byrne's twitchy Middle American preacher in horn rims, remains as compelling as it was in 1981. And how many other videos can you say that about?
The music is trickier. Discs one and two contain virtually everything from their first four albums. From the sweaty neurotic Talking Heads '77 (highlights: the beautifully edgy ''Psycho Killer'' and the naïve surprise of ''Uh-Oh Love Comes To Town'') to the dense, danceable sway of Remain In Light. In between we get a wealth of alternate takes and rarities. Notable inclusions are a take of Fear Of Music's ''Drugs'' with Robert Fripp's guitar buzzing like a mosquito, and a version of ''Cities'' from the same album with additional lyrics.
And herein lies the only flaw. The weight of material taken from the 1978-1981 period belies the band's true worth. After luxuriating in the playful sonic palette (and fine cast of notable collaborators) that Byrne's one-time mucker Brian Eno brought to the band's studio productions, the listener's rudely woken by the later work. By Speaking In Tongues they had the chops, but the edge was being replaced by more commercial concerns. ''Slippery People'' coming after ''Crosseyed And Painless'' sounds dry and harsh - no longer sinuous and supple, and lacking the mysterious suburban dread of their earlier work.
This is not to say that, after Eno's excommunication, they were now devoid of greatness. ''Blind'', ''And She Was'', ''Road To Nowhere'' etc. are all great singles. They just seemed to lose the ability to make a coherent album. With this in mind the compression of their later years into one disc is just what's required in such a worthy compilation. It's also worth remembering that all four members worked together on this release. As box sets go, this still sets a new high benchmark and is a timely reminder of a time when it looked like geeks could rule the Earth.