This is the companion album to Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense movie, as released in 1984. The album was phenomenally successful, which perhaps wasn’t that surprising given the astronomical budget of the project, but for a 1984 album to have stood the test of time so well, is rare.
This is not just an album packed with great songs – it also exhibits a very cool style of production, which is worlds apart from some of the over-processed rubbish perpetrated by other artists of the time. It’s not awash with gated reverb or dirged out with bland ‘pads’ and hi-gain axe-work. Everything is well separated and sitting in its own space, and the overall mix and frequency control is lovely.
In many ways the production sounds quite recent, and given the limitations that still prevailed when the band recorded the set live on stage at the end of 1983, that’s some achievement. Music technology was moving into a very gimmicky phase (before it was focused for more practical use), and resisting the temptation to flood recordings with such gimmicks proved too great a challenge for many.
Not for Talking Heads though. They expertly trod the very delicate line between innovation and commercial appeal, and must surely rank as one of the most widely respected and accessible bands of the post punk era. Few bands can retain their cred through chart success, but Talking Heads didn’t need to ‘sell out’ in order to attract mainstream interest. The cred and the catchiness, unusually, came from the same place.
Songs included on this cassette, such as Psycho Killer, Burning Down The House, Girlfriend is Better and Life During Wartime are immortal pop classics, whilst the heavily gospel-influenced Once in a Lifetime is quite seriously one of the greatest works to come out of 1980s popular music. And it all still sounds as vital today as it did thirty plus years ago. “Same as it ever was” indeed.
XDR QUALITY SYSTEM
One of this cassette’s most interesting inlay notes relates to the early to mid 1980s XDR system of mastering and duplication. Here’s how the technology was pitched to the customer, exactly as it appears on the inlay…
This cassette is a product of the XDR quality system which encompasses a range of technical improvements throughout all stages of the production of pre-recorded musicassettes.
The one-inch duplicating master uses a wide track format to provide optimum dynamic range and alleviate momentary signal loss problems.
The duplicating masters are transferred direct from the digital master tape without an intermediate analogue stage.
Duplicating signal electronics have been revised to ensure lower distortion and noise, and higher head room which increases the capability of the tape to handle the very highest and lowest sound levels. The tape guidance system has been improved to ensure proper tape-to-head alignment, azimuth and phase integrity so as to optimise the stability of the stereo image.
The encoded tone sequence (or “toneburst”) recorded at the beginning and end of this cassette is an integral part of the continuous monitoring of XDR automatic quality control.
XDR cassettes are made with high performance tape designed and manufactured specifically for high-speed duplication.
NOTE: for optimum sonic fidelity the playback heads of your cassette machine should be checked for correct alignment.
Of course, some of the above was putting a spin on the fact that elements of production (quality control, for example) had been streamlined and/or automated, and a professional sound duplication op should have been controlling the alignment properly anyway, regardless of the technology. There’s also what I interpret as a disclaimer at the end, translating roughly to: “if this doesn’t sound as good as we’ve hyped it to sound, it’s your tape deck’s fault”.
The setup undeniably did work though, and the duplication process was sound, so this wasn’t purely hot air. However, there is a key 1984 buzzphrase missing from the blurb: chromium dioxide. This is not a chrome tape – it’s a cheaper ferric, and as such, some of the more subtle qualitative improvements in the XDR system were basically a waste of effort. A chain is only as good as its weakest link.
Like a lot of relatively expensive ’80s ferric pop cassettes which really had no excuse for not using a chrome tape coating (other than cost cutting, obviously), this one was recorded with Dolby B-Type. However, because it’s only a ferric, to get a level of brightness that competes with chrome you actually need to play it without Dolby. That means you’ll hear some background noise at times, although the type of content, coupled with the well optimised, high volume signal, means hiss is not a serious problem.
It’s interesting to note that EMI – the label issuing this product – was much more rigorous in maintaining standards in its materials when it came to classical cassettes. You can see an example in my EMI Chromium post. There was often the sense that labels treated the pop audience with rather less respect than that with which they treated the buyers of ‘serious music’.
But if you quit whining, switch the Dolby off, turn the volume up and sit back, this tape does deliver the spectacular highlights of one of the very best live projects of the 1980s. Yep, it’s annoying that businesses could mark up to an expense of seven quid for a commercial album and palm the customer off with cut-cost media, but I’d still much rather have the tape than an even cheaper compact disc.