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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Talking Heads: '77

TALKING HEADS: 77 (1977)

1) Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town; 2) New Feeling; 3) Tentative Decisions; 4) Happy Day; 5) Who Is It?; 6) No Compassion; 7) The Book I Read; 8) Don't Worry About The Government; 9) First Week/Last Week… Carefree; 10) Psycho Killer; 11) Pulled Up.

General verdict: An album that marks the beginning of a new era in music, so we might as well pardon the fact that many of its individual songs tend to fuse into one gloriously paranoid mess.

The sternly informative title of the band's debut sort of seems to suggest that they were releasing it for their own «in crowd» — like a yearly digest, so that all those in the know would clearly understand what it is that separates Talking Heads '77 from Talking Heads '76 or Talking Heads '75. Actually, there was something: the Heads had only just added Jerry Harrison to the line-up, setting the stage for some of the most fascinating guitar weaving techniques known to mankind and significantly raising the stakes when compared to their first set of demos that they had recorded for CBS back in 1975. But who would really have guessed that outside of the immediate radius of CBGB? So, chalk this one up to the usual adorable arrogance of David Byrne. Like, what, you are in 1977 already and you mean you have never heard of Talking Heads? So, like, maybe you're still proudly wearing your dirty Woodstock underwear or something?..

It does seem odd, though, that after years and years of mostly relistening to Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, now that I am throwing on this debut again, it seems so... slight in comparison. Like a Please Please Me to whatever would come later (implying that it took the Heads at least a year or two less to traverse the road that separated them from their peak than it took the Beatles; though, admittedly, their personal distance from the foot of the hill was just a tad shorter). It is still a very good album (the Heads never really made a bad record), and it establishes the basic Heads formula as perfectly as could ever be asked for a debut album, but at this point in history it could still be possible to not take the band too seriously.

One song obviously stands out head and shoulders from the crowd, and if you know anything about Talking Heads at all, I need not even mention which one it is. Everything is strange about that song, starting with the fact that it is literally made by its first five seconds — one of the most instantly memorable and thoroughly ominous bass lines in rock history — and that those five seconds aren't even all that typical of the Talking Heads sound, because that bass line is not funky at all: more like «martial pop», hammered out by Tina Weymouth with as much brutality as can be transferred to a couple of fingers, but then it takes two more guitar players to take it up to the Modern level, and usher in a new era of musical conscience in the process.

What is it that ʽPsycho Killerʼ really does to the organism? It is certainly not a «creepy» song of the ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ variety — Tina's bass is its only genuinely menacing component, and once Byrne's and Harrison's guitars start to do their jerks and perks around it, the atmosphere is very quickly rerouted to something lighter (though the bass always keeps that menace in the background). But that choppy, scratchy, syncopated, high-pitched guitar sound steadily reminds me of one thing — alarm bells — and this is precisely what the Heads came here to do to us. Taking the musical arsenal of the past decade of largely African-American innovation, they are turning it around and showing how that weird, mystical, dangerous funky sound is actually symbolic of what goes around — how perfectly it describes and how aptly it adapts to the feeling of insecurity and paranoia that haunts so many of us in this post-industrial-whatever society. "I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire / Don't touch me I'm a real live wire" — those words are the perfect counterpart to that bass and to those guitars, and they might have never sounded sharper than in '77, even as they remain 100% relevant in 2017 and beyond.

There is no reasonable explanation to why so many lyrics are in French, or to why there is that Otis Redding-inspired "fa fa fa fa" bit in the chorus, but David Byrne is not a cryptographer, and, in fact, according to his memories, he was really writing a song about «just» a serial killer, never intending it to be deeply symbolic or anything. Fortunately, he did not succeed. Serial killers are boring, after all, and Mick Jagger and Alice Cooper had already told us everything about serial killers that we needed to know. But instability, insecurity, paranoia, madness in general — that is pretty much an inexhaustible topic, and the Heads' marriage of pop and funk gives it a spin that creates the ultimate New Wave track: ultimate in part because, unlike so many other New Wave tracks instantly dated by their production gimmicks, this one is all about the rhythm, the har­monies, the feels, and it plays out as fresh in the 2010s as it did forty years back. (For a laugh, check out the 2017 crap pop hit ʽBad Liarʼ by Selena Gomez that «samples» the bass line — as ridiculous as it gets, for sure, but without an ounce of «retro-flavor» to it).

Now comes the expected cold shower: not a single other song on Talking Heads: 77 sounds as immediately awesome as ʽPsycho Killerʼ — even if it could be argued that all the other songs on Talking Heads: 77 more faithfully represent the stereotypical Talking Heads sound than ʽPsycho Killerʼ does. With less prominent bass, funkier rhythms, somewhat whinier, more capricious vocals, and more pronounced influences from playful Caribbean genres, these remaining ten songs paint a slighter, more frivolous picture of an intelligent, but indecisive young guy trapped in modern life's intricacies and complexities. The guy in question, impersonated by David Byrne, is so nerdy, so jerky, so afraid of society and at the same time so strongly attracted to it that it all sounds like a parody of some Woody-Allenish stereotype — but when you think of it, there hadn't really been that kind of anti-hero in pop music prior to the appearance of Talking Heads. There are influences and predecessors, for sure: from the shy humility of Ray Davies to the frustrated stutter of the early Who to the comedic psychologisms of Randy Newman... and yet, here we have a radically new type of act, not yet polished to perfection but already so resplen­dently bizarre that it is easy to understand why, despite all the contemporary critical acclaim, the Heads had to struggle so hard to find a commercial market while retaining artistic integrity: instead of playing «pop», they play «anti-pop», and in that line of work it might have been much harder to find a market in 1977 than it was for Jethro Tull prog to find a market in 1972.

The worst thing that can be said about the album (and, running slightly ahead, it applies even stronger to their sophomore effort) is that the Heads' style, while so strikingly distinct from any­body else's, tends to get monotonous fairly quickly. Byrne always plays the exact same character, the scratchy twin guitars mostly just scratch their ways through the songs, and since in those pre-Brian Eno days the production remained rigidly minimalistic (the band worked with producer Tony Bongiovi, who had previously overseen two Ramones albums), the only thing that occasio­nally spices up the sound is Jerry Harrison's pleasant, but unexceptional keyboard playing. Throw in elements of self-repetition (ʽPulled Upʼ is essentially ʽUh-Oh, Love Comes To Townʼ sped up), and it is not difficult to see why only ʽPsycho Killerʼ and nothing else would remain in the band's setlist by 1979-80. And, speaking of setlists, once you hear the live versions of some of these tunes on the The Name Of This Band... retrospective, you will very likely never want to go back to the studio originals anyway — much of the Heads' primal energy and army-style tightness was inexplicably rubbed away when it came to fleshing out the studio takes.

But if taken one by one on their own merits, most of the songs do their humble jobs pretty damn well. ʽUh-Oh, Love Comes To Townʼ opens the record on an almost exceptionally joyful note: if Talking Heads are the Beatles of New Wave, then this is their ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ — Byrne's explosive discovery of that funny feeling, of course, discovered in that unique Byrne way ("where, where is my common sense? how did I get in a jam like this?") and, perhaps sarcasti­cally, given a slightly sunny, nonchalant feel by Harrison's «Caribbean» keyboards. ʽNew Feelingʼ is the paranoid antidote — the first announcement of the arrival of classic Talking Heads nervous tension, set to a panic-attack riff that, interestingly, rips off The Doors' ʽMy Eyes Have Seen Youʼ (no idea if this was intentional or coincidental, but some of Jim Morrison's reactions to women must have been quite close to David Byrne's); even more interestingly, the music here is like one part Keith Richards, one part ska, and one part funk — not as much defying genre con­ventions as failing to recognize their existence in the first place. And it all fits.

While I am not going to mention every track, it is worth noticing how many «love songs» there are: compared to future releases that would concentrate more and more on the "tense and nervous and can't relax" personality aspect in relation to the world at large, '77 dwells a lot on girlfriend issues, which is, perhaps, also somewhat responsible for the monotonous feel of the album. Aside from ʽPsycho Killerʼ, the only other big exception is ʽDon't Worry About The Governmentʼ, possibly the second best track on the album, for which I have always had a special kind of interpretation (most people think that it is about a politician or a CEO, but I think that the best way is to think of it from the perspective of a lunatic locked away in a madhouse — then the lines "my building has every convenience, it's gonna make life easy for me... loved ones visit the building..." take on a completely different attitude, and doesn't David actually sound like a mentally deranged patient here, rather than a politician or a CEO?); but regardless of how you might want to interpret it, it is the closest that Byrne ever got to the «little man» style of Ray Davies, and the creepiest he ever got in his cuddliness.

The thing is, from the get-go this band was too smart, too cynical, too bleak to engage in acts of pure, unadulterated, tonge-out-of-cheek happiness. Just as ʽLove Comes To Townʼ seems to open the album on a happy note (but leaves it hanging), so does ʽPulled Upʼ seem to close it with a frantically life-asserting message of gratitude, but the guitar melodies that drive it are so funny, the vocal delivery so exaggerated, the words so ridiculously overblown ("I cast a shadow on the living-room wall / Dark and savage with a profile so sharp"), that it cannot be perceived as anything other than a vicious parody on the corresponding attitude — actually, screw «parody», because that word would diminish the song's importance. ʽPulled Upʼ is not happy pop: it is depressed and confused pop on steroids and a wild assortment of energy drinks. (As is, for that matter, most of the material produced by the Heads.) It is also a deeply satisfying conclusion, significantly hookier and punchier than most of the other songs here, and a good remedy if, like me, you thought that the record tended to slightly drag in the middle.


  1. Your curious personal take on "Don't worry about the government" opened up a whole new ground of interpretation for this song, at least for me. Wonder why I've never looked at it this way. In this context the only problem seems to be the "I'll be working, working..." line. Working on my mental health, perhaps?

    1. Or pretending I'm doing something productive and meaningful in here even though I'm not.

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  3. A pet favorite of mine from this album has always been “First Week/Last Week... Carefree.” For some reason, Talking Heads-style neurosis and tropicalia percussion and horns make for a really intoxicating combo. It definitely helps that Byrne manages to bring such a sweet yearning to his vocal delivery, too.

    Along with the Stop Making Sense soundtrack, Little Creatures, and Fear of Music, ‘77 ranks as my favorite Talking Heads, and it’s weirdly underrated, it seems, in the pantheon of their very impressive works.