Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jerry Harrison - Casual Gods

Jerry Harrison gets no respect.

Here's a guy who was a major contributing member of not one, but TWO seminal bands - the first a hugely influential proto-punk group linking the arty sound of the Velvet Underground with the raucous punk rock yet to come; the second one of the most innovative and critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s - and you almost NEVER hear his name mentioned in relation to them. It's really too bad, and it does a grave disservice to what Jerry Harrison brought to each of these groups.

A talented and all-around smart guy, Jerry Harrison started playing keyboards with bands in his native Milwaukee, and continued finding groups to play with while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard. In early 1971, just before he graduated, a local musician buddy of his, a VU fanatic named Jonathan Richman, convinced him to join his band, The Modern Lovers. Within a year, the Modern Lovers were getting a lot of attention from some major labels, and in the spring of 1972 the band flew to L.A. to record some demos with John Cale, songs that were eventually released in 1976 on the now-classic album The Modern Lovers. Despite all of the industry attention, a deal never came through, and by 1973 Harrison had parted company with Jonathan Richman and returned to Harvard to teach.

Teaching was his gig in Cambridge for the next couple of years, along with playing music with several local bands. Then Harrison began a new course of study in architecture at Harvard. One night in April 1976, he went across the Charles River over to Boston, to the Berklee School of Music there to check out a visiting band, a quirky New-York-by-way-of-Providence trio called Talking Heads. He enjoyed the show, but was convinced that the band was missing one essential ingredient - himself. He began campaigning for inclusion in the group, and by September of that year, he was a full-fledged member. Talking Heads signed with Sire Records the following year, and the rest is history . . .

When people talk about the sound or the success of Talking Heads, a lot of that discussion centers around David Byrne (of course), or the rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. Heck, even Brian Eno gets more than his rightful share of credit for the development of their sound. Many people seem to forget that Talking Heads had been playing since 1974, and had recorded several demos, but hadn't gotten anywhere in the industry until Harrison and his keyboards joined the group. It's no coincidence that the major label signing came mere months after he joined up. That fact is conveniently forgotten. In many ways, Jerry Harrison is sort of the Lindsey Buckingham of Talking Heads - the factor that pushed their respective bands over the top, that no one seems to remember or talk about (heck, Harrison and Buckingham even look somewhat alike!).

Harrison was a loyal soldier within Talking Heads, unlike Frantz and Weymouth, who chafed under the semi-benevolent band dictatorship of initially Byrne and Eno, then Byrne alone. Frantz and Weymouth's side project, Tom Tom Club, and the release of their self-titled first album in 1981, was basically an act of defiance against Byrne. Harrison also released his first solo project in 1981, The Red And The Black, but it was done more for something to do during the band's two-year hiatus between Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues. As a debut, Harrison's album was superb, expanding upon the sounds and ideas present on Talking Heads' Remain In Light (and using a lot of the same personnel, like Nona Hendryx and Bernie Worrell).

Harrison's second solo release, Casual Gods, came out six years later, just as Talking Heads was falling apart. "Man With A Gun" was part of the Something Wild soundtrack, and when I saw the movie that year and heard the song, I knew instantly that it was by Jerry Harrison. I think I got this album shortly after I purchased the movie soundtrack. In Casual Gods, Harrison winds down the percussive funk of his debut, moving into more of a looser, groovier, more radio-friendly vibe. That's not to say that he sold out on this album - au contraire! The songcraft and selection are totally solid, and even Harrison's singing improves slightly on this album. He even got a semi-big radio hit off of this release, "Rev It Up".

Since the demise of Talking Heads, Jerry Harrison has gone on to be an in-demand producer of successful albums for a host of bands, including Violent Femmes, General Public, Live and No Doubt. He also was one of the founders of, which showcases unknown independent bands. His own music-making days may be over, but the guy left a small but excellent legacy of his own work behind.

Check this out, and let me know what you think. Rev it up!

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  1. Whoa, we have virtually the same thoughts about Harrison (even down to the Buckingham comparison)! He's truly an underdog and rarely gets the credit he deserves. But from interviews I've read, bless him, he's a good sport about the whole thing.

    On a side note, The Red and the Black is one of my favorite albums of all time. And I've been meaning to revisit Casual Gods, you've inspired me.

    Glad to have stumbled upon this!

  2. It's almost sort of an unwritten rule in rock that the last guy to join usually gets the least amount of credit for a band's success, notwithstanding the quality that he/she brought to the band that it didn't have before that helped them achieve their later success. This could be called "the Ringo Rule", but an argument could be made to name it after Jerry Harrison. Yeah, Jerry never seemed to brood about his level of credit - I guess he was too busy counting his money(!) . . .

    Thanks for the comment - keep coming back!

  3. This is probably hands down the best thing written about him, unbiased and very nicely put. It is so unfair how he gets no respect. There's a ton of reasons why he's such an integral part of the group. He's responsible for so much - which goes unnoticed, unjustifiably. Jerry is the man!!

  4. Woo!!! Just when I've convinced myself that no one reads or cares about my little blog, I receive an excellent commentary like downtown81's, and it completely lifts my spirits once again! Thank you, downtown91, for your excellent and thoughtful words! Messages like yours remind me why I love writing this blog! Keep coming back - more to come!

  5. Just ran across this entry, and I think you're totally right about Jerry, and this album, being under-appreciated. This has been one of my favorites since it first came out, many years ago, and I randomly just picked it to play again tonight. Googled it out of idle interest, and found this...well done.

  6. Well said, Mr. H - Thanks!


  7. Cet opus est un de mes albums préférés. Il est indispensable pour une bonne discographie du groupe Talking Heads. Je ne l'ai pas écouté depuis longtemps. Alors maintenant je vais prendre plaisir à déguster Jerry Harrison ;o)))
    Thank you for your BLOG, and best regards from France.

  8. Such a great album. Thanks so much for posting this! Appreciate all these gems on your blog