Talking Heads' Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth screen Chronology in Fairfield on Nov. 21

New York City, not the sanitized, post-Giuliani one-percenter playground but its grittier, darker 1970s precursor, is on the minds of a lot of people these days, from Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott, whose memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York chronicles the era, to Queens native Will Hermes, who recently published Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. (There’s also Patti Smith’s 2010 Just Kids, her tribute to the city whose music — along with her own — helped define the decade.)

Adding to the swirl of memories is Talking Heads: Chronology, a DVD collection of performances shot between 1975 and 1983, with additional footage of the quartet reuniting at the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. On November 21, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth (they are husband and wife) will attend a release party and screening of Chronology at a benefit for Bridgeport’s WPKN Community Radio at Fairfield Theatre Company.

“[The DVD] is something that’s been getting organized for quite some time, six or eight years,” Frantz said by phone from his home in Fairfield, where he and Weymouth have lived for the last 27 years. “What happened with a lot of the stuff was that you have to get permission to use it, find out who shot the footage, a lot of the really rare stuff and also the David Letterman and Dick Clark shows. It took a long time to put together.”

Frantz and Weymouth, along with fellow Rhode Island School of Design alumnus David Byrne, started the band in 1975, adding Modern Lovers guitarist Jerry Harrison in 1977. Early YouTube footage shows a band that’s surprisingly contemporary; visually and musically, they could pass for an aspiring indie-rock act in any small club in 2011. Though not as garish as the big-suit, MTV version of the band, there’s a striking visual component as well.

“You see how weird we were in those days,” Frantz said, referring to the earliest clips on Chronology. “It was definitely something that was different. The band especially stood out from the crowd. Our appearance was very conservative, especially when you look at the New York Dolls or Queen. We didn’t have the big hairdos, and we wore the clothes our moms gave us. Even having a girl up there was different.”

At its peak, around the time of the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads had swelled into a funk powerhouse, adding singers Mabry and Edna Holt, P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, percussionist Steve Scales and Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir to live shows. They expanded their disjointed, rhythmic folk-pop to include seemingly disparate sounds that were swirling around NYC’s African-American community at the end of the ’70s: hip-hop from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Baambataa, repetitive Afrobeat tics from Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti and minimalism from composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Generation X grew up with this later version of the band; provocative videos for “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere,” in heavy rotation on MTV, stood apart from other fare, and Stop Making Sense was that generation’s The Last Waltz. True Stories, Byrne’s underrated 1986 feature-length satire of American life (with music), felt like the band’s last gasp; they officially disbanded in 1991.

“We were art students, or in Jerry’s case, he was a student of architecture at Harvard,” Frantz said. “So we all had a strong interest in visual stuff... I think you can see that from our album covers. They weren’t just pictures or advertisements making the band look good. They were deeper and more far-fetched.”

Jonathan Demme, who directed Stop Making Sense, was the first director to approach the band about making a concert film. “We thought this was a good version of the band, and that the show was an exciting show, and that it was worthy of being made into motion picture,” Frantz said. “That was the ambition at that time, and there weren’t a lot of concert films out there.” The band was impressed with Demme’s Melvin and Howard, a bittersweet 1980 comedy starring Jason Robards as Howard Hughes. “He seemed like a cool head, a cool guy,” Frantz said. “It also happened to be the first concert film shot on digital video tape, so the sound is really good.”

Chronology, Frantz stressed, is video, not film, some of which was shot by NYU students on borrowed Portapaks, early portable video recorders invented by Sony. “We used [Portapaks] at RISD when we were there,” Frantz said. “The quality is a little wobbly since it was all hand-held.”

Frantz also said he’s read Wolcott’s memoir and believes all the attention to and romanticizing of the early days is completely justified.

“It was a great period,” Frantz said. “It was kind of rough, not something, like, out of the pages of Vanity Fair, not a glamorous type of romance, but gritty, tough, sort of underground. What we were doing with Patti Smith and Television and the Ramones and Blondie: it was not mainstream stuff at the time. It was very much kind of what we called ‘underground music.’”

Talking Heads: Chronology Release Party & Screening, Nov. 21, 8 p.m., $20, Fairfield Theatre Company’s StageOne, 70 Sanford St., Fairfield, (203) 259-1036, fairfieldtheatre.org

Write to mhamad@hartfordadvocate.com Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad

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