Happy 40th Anniversary to Talking Heads’ Debut Album Talking Heads: 77, originally released September 16, 1977.
By no means were Talking Heads a conventional band. They were vastly different from any of the other bands that came out of the talent pool at CBGB. They certainly weren’t punks, but they definitely oozed 1970’s New York.
The staggered rhythms, disconnected lyrics and the monotone, almost detached delivery of the vocals on their debut album Talking Heads: 77 exemplified the Big Apple. It was a city on edge, bathed in grittiness and terrorized by a serial killer. Under normal circumstances, these combined elements would send the average person running for the hills, but there was something different about Talking Heads.
Lead singer David Byrne came off as that weird, but likable neighbor of yours who is in a band that much to your surprise, is pretty damn good. Drummer Chris Frantz and self-taught bassist Tina Weymouth attended the Rhode Island School of Design with Byrne. They added multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison, formerly of Jonathan Richman's band The Modern Lovers in 1977 in the midst of recording Talking Heads: 77.
Throughout their career, Talking Heads managed to take their love of late-60’s pop, Motown and Caribbean music and turn it on its head. The opening track “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town" makes this case. It may be one of the few rock songs I’ve ever heard with a steel drum in the background. It’s sort of like Talking Heads were testing the waters to see if they could pull off integrating the Afro-Caribbean sound with their music. It would become a staple of their music on future albums.
The next five tracks are more representative of their early days at CBGB. "New Feeling,” "Tentative Decisions,” "Happy Day,” and “Who Is It?” are choice examples of how Talking Heads, while economical in their sound, give you tons to chew on. No one overplays their instrument and it is this restraint along with Byrne’s “man on the verge of possibly raising his voice” vocals and smart, nonlinear lyrics that gives these songs depth with a touch of whimsy. Lost in all of this is the grossly underrated rhythm section of Weymouth and Frantz. When conjuring up well known bass and drum combos, their names rarely come to mind, but Weymouth and Frantz are steady and give the band a strong foundation.
“The Book I Read” shifts the band into a more accessible territory, even if the title may suggest otherwise. Talking Heads manage to cut loose and show some energy. Gone is the tension and uncertainty of what comes next and the promise of joy and hope slowly creep in as they segue into "Don't Worry About the Government.” In retrospect, this song reminds me of the world that existed before the one depicted in their 1988 song “(Nothing But) Flowers,” with lines such as, “It's over there, it's over there / My building has every convenience / It's gonna make life easy for me / It's gonna be easy to get things done / I will relax alone with my loved ones.”
This begins the slow buildup to “Psycho Killer,” a tune written by the three founding members Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth. It was the second single released from the album, peaking at #92 on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time of its release, it was thought by many that the song was about David Berkowitz a.k.a. Son of Sam, the serial killer who terrorized New York City throughout the summer of 1977. The truth is, Byrne, Weymouth and Frantz wrote the song in 1974. Byrne’s initial idea was to tell the story of a serial killer. Byrne once explained his thought process for writing this song by stating, “When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad…Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.”
The album is capped off by the energetic “Pulled Up,” a bouncy tune that is an excellent transition into their next album, 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food. Talking Heads:77 is an exciting introduction to a band that found their voice long before they even signed their record deal. They’re the local band that cut a record and you were happy for them. They were the last of CBGB’s big four (Ramones, Patti Smith and Television being the others) to record an inaugural album, but Talking Heads: 77 is an inspired album that doesn’t beat you over the head while listening to it, but still commands your attention.