Arguably, out of all the bands to play in the New York punk scene in the mid-1970’s, Talking Heads proved to have the most lasting commercial appeal well into the 1980s, with the possible exception of Blondie.
Initially, the core trio of David Byrne (guitar and vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums) produced a nervous, skeletal sound. The songs seemed to have little commercial appeal, made less so by Byrne’s yelping vocals.
But so the story goes that Seymour Stein of Sire Records heard the band singing “Love Goes To Building on Fire” as he was passing CBGB’s one night. He heard a hit and subsequently signed up the band.
“Talking Heads: 77,” which turns 40 years old this week, was conceived in this mindset; it’s the spot in between the raw nerve of the live CBGB line-up and the acclaimed studio productions that the band would make with Brian Eno.
As such, Talking Heads’ debut is a magnetic listen, but severely flawed by forced commercial appeal. Songs are peppered with Caribbean drums and horn blasts in an attempt to spice things up, and ironically while the band would use these kind of elements later on to great funky effect, here they come off as stale and dated.
And yet the band itself, without studio embellishments and with the addition of ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison, is inherently funky. Byrne is an underrated guitarist, playing guitar feverishly to the funky rhythms of the Weymouth & Frantz combo while Harrison puts flesh on the band’s skeleton.
Byrne’s lyrics at this stage of the band’s career are awkward and detached while retaining none of the eccentric charm that would draw fans later on. Songs like “New Feeling” and “No Compassion” analyze human relationships as a series of math equations and figures with little or no humanity injected.
It’s no surprise that both of these elements are most successful in the album’s breakout song and one that would define the band for the rest of their career: “Psycho Killer.”
Byrne had said in interviews that he wrote the song as an experiment to see if he could. It’s simple but effective, propelled by Weymouth’s iconic bass riff under Byrne’s fragmented lyrics reflecting the mind of a serial killer. The band would later deconstruct this song and build it back up to towering heights of funk with their 10-person lineup in 1980. But even on this album version, the track is still inherently danceable.
The brilliance of Eno as a producer was his identifying the strongest points of a band and bringing them to the forefront. He immediately saw the Weymouth and Frantz combo as central to the band, and their next few albums starting with 1978’s “More Songs About Buildings and Food” would take the band to critical and commercial success.
Talking Heads’ debut often remains forgotten, sometimes with good reason. At the very least, it is an interesting portrait of a unique band on the verge of super-stardom.