It must have been in 1978 that I first heard of Talking Heads. The song Psycho Killer had just been released in the Netherlands. I thought it was a great song. When I accidentally bumped into the album Talking Heads: 77 somewhat later at my local recordstore, I decided to take my chances and buy the album. Never regretted it.
David Byrne met the couple Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (they married in 1977 and are still together today) at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1973 they formed their first band: The Artistics. A year later they disbanded already. They moved to New York and lived together in a loft. Because finding a bass-player seemed to be impossible, Frantz encouraged Weymouth to learn bass. The first shows under the moniker Talking Heads took place on June 5th, 1975, at the infamous CBGB club in New York, as support-act to The Ramones.
The name Talking Heads was picked after reading about the term: “A friend had found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action.’ It fit.”, stated Weymouth in 1992.
Also in 1975, the band recorded some demo’s for CBS, but a contract wasn’t offered. Along the way the band grew more popular around New York and soon had their own following. Sire Records got interested and signed the band in November of 1976. February of 1977 saw the release of the first single: Love → Building On Fire. In March Jerry Harrison, a former The Modern Lovers member, was added as keyboard player.
Talking Heads: 77
The first Talking Heads album was released on September 16th, 1977. The preceding single Love → Building On Fire was not part of the album’s tracklist. The album’s first single was Psycho Killer. It became their first hit; many would follow. The album’s release also started the rave reviews. In the years to come almost every Talking Heads album was hailed as the next wonder of the world.
But, at the time I bought the album, I knew nothing about that. I had to get acquainted with the music and David Byrne’s voice (even though I heard it before on the single). Despite that, the album impressed me greatly and I played it a lot.
The first song Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town contains the lyric I’m a know-it-all, I’m the smartest man around / That’s right, you learn real fast, you’re the smartest girl in town. Apart from the fact I think it’s funny, it kind of summarized my view on the music. Intellectual, not meant or made for the Top-40 charts. Until that time the charts were my main source for music. I knew little outside of that. I think this album was the first one that made me realize that there’s much more music than what I was accustomed to.
As I revisited the album, one thing stood out: it’s much more funky than I remember. The rhythm-section’s swing was present since their early days. David Byrne’s guitar-playing stands out as well: very staccato and innovative. King Crimson’s Adrian Belew must have been paying attention, because it reminds me strongly of King Crimson, incarnation IV. Just listen to New Feeling and the similarities are obvious.
The album’s songs sound very direct and barely produced, even though the guitars are clearly multi-tracked. It all sounds very organic and spontaneous. The album is also rhythmically diverse, even within the course of a single song, like in one of the highlights No Compassion, which is lyrically funny as well: Go talk to your analyst, isn’t that what they’re paid for?.
Talking Heads was initially marketed as a punk band and later as part of new-wave. The link to punk is just silly and the new-wave angle rings true for a few songs on this debut-album. In the end, Talking Heads: 77 is too diverse and broad to label.
The song that started it all for me: the single Psycho Killer. It stems from the time Talking Heads operated under the moniker The Artistics. It is said that the song was the first song ever written by David Byrne. Not a bad start. Around the time of the single’s release, in December of 1977, New York was still preoccupied with the New York serial killer Son of Sam, who had been arrested in August of the same year and whose trial was underway. Many presumed the song was a reaction to Son of Sam.
Originally intended as a ballad, it turned into a funky new-wave classic, with a propelling bass motif. Lyrically the song seems to reflect the thoughts of a serial killer. The remaster of Talking Heads: 77 contains copies of the original lyrics. Initially the lyrics started with a description of an actual murder performed by the killer. In the liner notes to the 1992 compilation album Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads David Byrne states:
When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad. Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.
The song has been released as a live-version on two Talking Heads live albums. The first time 1982 on The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (in two versions) and in 1984 on Stop Making Sense.
The song’s refrain is classic and immediately identifiable:
Qu’est-ce que c’est
Run run run run run run run away
All songs written by David Byrne, except Psycho Killer (written by David Byrne, Chris Frantz & Tina Weymouth).
- Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town
- New Feeling
- Tentative Decisions
- Happy Day
- Who Is It?
- No Compassion
- The Book I Read
- Don’t Worry About The Government
- First Week / Last Week… Carefree
- Psycho Killer
- Pulled Up
With Talking Heads :77 the band melted art-rock and new-wave. And not for the last time. From day 1, the band was a critic’s darling and could do no wrong with the (primarily New York based) American press (just like LCD Soundsystem 30 years later). Rightfully so, by the way. The band would grow out to be an important force within 1980’s music. Album after album, it was all beautiful: More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), Fear Of Music (1979) and highlight Remain In Light (1980) succeeded each other fairly quickly. The live-album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982) underlined Talking Heads’ strengths as a live-band. Speaking In Tongues (1983) was the band’s last real highlight, with concert movie and soundtrack Stop Making Sense being a commercial highlight. Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1986) and Naked (1988) each contain hits and good songs, but were considerably less. Talking Heads disbanded, only to come back together one last time on March 18th, 2002, when the band was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
I presume other stories about Talking Heads albums will follow. What do you think of their debut? Are you just as excited as I am? Let me know!
Talking Heads Live 1977 image: vulture.com
Talking Heads – Love → Buiding On Fire image: rateyourmusic.com
Talking Heads – Punk categorization on Philips pressing of first single image: pinterest.com
Son Of Sam sketches image: longisland70skid.com
Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (single) image: ultratop.be
Talking Heads image: somebodystolemythunder.blogspot.com