Like its eye-dazzling, neon red and green cover, Talking Heads: 77 was a little hard to get into focus when it was released on 16 September 1977. The power-pop short song format sounded familiar, but those herky-jerky rhythms, eccentric melodies, and strained yelping vocals were something else. And were these buttoned-down nerds really singing about being a psycho killer?
By calling the album Talking Heads: 77, Talking Heads seemed to be planting their flag in rock history—this is our first chapter and the first version of ourselves. Indeed, they were quickly dubbed part of the “new wave”, a further attack on the attenuating institution of rock after punk. Talking Heads were linked with other clever and smart-alecky new performers like Television, Elvis Costello, and Devo, wielding irony instead of just fury.
At the time of the album’s release on Sire Records, New York was in post-traumatic shock: a blackout unleashed an unprecedented night of looting, and residents were enervated by the horror movie come to life of the “Son of Sam” killer, who terrorized the city for months until he was apprehended that August. Talking Heads were aligned to the moment with their songs of confusion, dada-esque detachment, and bristling energy.
Talking Heads: 77 had been incubating for several years at the renowned club CBGBs and elsewhere in downtown Manhattan, where Talking Heads built its repertoire and began turning heads. However, the band started at the Rhode Island School of Design as a trio of art students: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth. Guitarist and keyboard player Jerry Harrison, formerly of the Modern Lovers, joined the band as it was getting the thumbs up from a record label, rounding out their bare-bones style.
While Talking Heads’ powerful rhythms situated them firmly in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, they plowed into unfamiliar ground and tackled perennial topics like love from unlikely perspectives, as if these powerful human emotions were alien to the songs’ narrators. These efficient art-rockers were disengaging rock toward the intellectual and away from its visceral origins, though the band would build bridges to that soulfulness in later albums.
Talking Heads: 77 opens with “Uh-oh, Love Comes to Town”, where Byrne reports on the effects that storied emotion brings to humans like – or unlike – himself. Instead of embracing love, the uneasy narrator recounts how “Jet pilot going out of control / Ship captain run aground / Stockbroker make a bad investment / When love has come to town.” Like many of the songs, the steady, jaunty rhythm here regularly pulls at its leash toward crescendo, but Talking Heads, in typical fashion, undercut the intensity here by switching to lilting, Caribbean-flavored steel drums (foreshadowing Frantz’s and Weymouth’s tropical grooves with the Tom Tom Club).
The second song, “New Feeling”, introduces Talking Heads’ early reliance on herky-jerky rhythms, oddly turned melodic lines, and Byrne’s strained vocals. “I’m still thinking about my friends / In my guarded moments,” the naïf narrator sings about the everyday feelings of friends as if he was a puzzled observer from another planet. The “Stranger in a Strange Land” observer continues in “Tentative Decisions”, an oddly robotic anthem that seems to eat its own seriousness with nonsensical declarations about the characteristics of boys and girls.
The short “Who Is It?” mixes a crooning Byrne with a choppy mix of power chords and bass thumping, intensifying repeatedly. Byrne’s somewhat-confused narrator eventually fills with bravado, arriving at “Watch out, baby, because I am in love with you,” but pulls the rug out from that straightforwardly expressed desire with a comically strangled yelp.
Talking Heads: 77‘s first side ends with “No Compassion”, which seems descended from a staple of the early 1970s rock canon – a long-form song that builds in power like the Doors‘ “The End”. Here, though, the deadpan narrator dissects the quotidian topic of social interactions. “In this world / Where decisions are a way of life / Other people’s problems / They overwhelm my mind / They say compassion is a virtue / But I don’t have the time.” The narrator – fed up with hearing his friends complain – begins to berate them as the music builds: “Talk to your analyst / Isn’t that what they’re paid for?” It’s a shocking moment in rock music, a genre that had been so geared toward encouraging human connection. This wasn’t music that called for pushing back on the powers that be; this was music calling for pushing back on your friends.
The second side jump starts with the crisp pop of “The Book I Read”, where the singer expresses some relatively straightforward love and yearning for an author. It’s one of Talking Heads: 77‘s more conventional love songs, even if the scenario is a bit unusual. It gives the band another opportunity to showcase its ability to rock out on the muscular rhythms of Frantz’s to-the-point drumming and Weymouth’s creative bass playing.
“Don’t Worry About the Government,” is Talking Heads’ tongue-in-cheek irony honed to a sharp edge. With its carnivalesque bouncy rhythms, Byrne’s absurd narrator sings about how “my building has every convenience / It will make life easy for me.” He goes on to praise his loved ones, civil servants and concludes he is a “lucky guy to live in my building”. The narrator’s ominous conclusion: “Don’t you worry about me.”
“First Week/Last Week…Carefree” shows off Talking Heads’s versatility, adding in some Latin sounds, hinting at the enormous sonic leaps they would make in the years to come with albums such as Remain in Light. Here they add a marimba and a horn section for its most carefree-sounding song, which belies some of the opaque, sometimes-discomforting lyrics: “Every sentence I use refers to women and their names,” Byrne murmurs.
Talking Heads: 77‘s undercurrent of discomfort explodes to the fore with the menacing, unstoppable thumping bass intro to “Psycho Killer”. Here, Byrne’s deadpan, sometimes-strained vocals become disturbing as his narrator barely contains his fury amid random banal observations such as “I hate people when they are not polite.” After a non sequitur skein of profound announcements and pained warbling, he veers into nonsensical French. The song builds to a climax as drums and bass pound away, Byrne’s guitar screeches, and he yelps as if fighting off internal demons. While Talking Heads have said they wrote the song before the arrival of the “Son of Sam” era in New York City, its release surely got New Yorkers’ attention.
The record ends with Talking Heads’ brightest straight-up rocker, “Pulled Up”. Anchored onto a snapping drum rhythm and a matrix of guitar riffs, the song flips back and forth into a tight bridge, then into Byrne’s eyes-rolled-back-into-his head gurgling, and they build to Talking Heads: 77‘s final and most powerful crescendo. The final guitar chord draws down the curtain on a debut like few others. Talking Heads had arrived, were expanding the boundaries of rock, and were going to come back for much more.
Talking Heads: 77 garnered the band an adoring following that wanted to think—and not necessarily feel—while it danced. Talking Heads grew their sound so exponentially over the years that the first album with its seminal quartet format now seems quaint and simple, but it laid out the foundation for what was to come. It was indeed the first chapter of a story that remained artistically innovative while becoming more emotionally resonant as Talking Heads partnered with a growing family of musicians and producers.
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