Friday, December 21, 2007

No. 290: Talking Heads: 77


Band: The Talking Heads
Album: Talking Heads: 77
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The Talking Heads' debut album is nothing if not unique. David Byrne's off-kilter lyrics and singing plays perfectly with the band's dance-ish beats.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: The album is raw. The production doesn't always do the songs justice. Also, the Heads' better work was their later work, though this album remains great.
Best song: "Psycho Killer" and it's not really close.
Worst song: "The Book I Read" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Yes, if a little raw.

I'd like to posit a theory: The New Wave era was the most diverse era in American and British pop music. CBGB's, specifically, housed tons of bands with totally different sounds, all of whom had the luck to come through New York at about the same time.

Think about it. The Talking Heads' irony, Blondie's reggae disco, the Police's reggae rock, the Cars synth pop, the Ramones' punk, Television's art rock and Patti Smith's spoken word, uh, nonsense stuff.

The Heads' proto-nerd rock (which we'll examine later in the week with Weezer's first record) was something to behold. While the band stretched itself out in its later years, "Talking Heads: 77" is raw. It's disjointed and it attempts to be jointed. It's sincere while not expecting to be.

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I know I can't really complain -- considering some of the work I've done around here -- but Rolling Stone's piece in their 500 list is nonsense. It only talks about how the Heads wore button-up shirts instead of punk rock t-shirts. Big whoop.

Style is important -- without it, David Bowie is just a dude -- but the Heads' brilliance is in their music.

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But, what of the songs?

There are three songs on the record that really draw me in. The first is, of course, "Don't Worry About the Government." I still cannot figure out if the song is a sarcastic look at political idealism or if it simply reflects that political idealism. It's the type of intelligent songwriting that made Rolling Stone once call the Heads "the great Ivy League hope of pop music. "

The slide guitar work on "No Compassion" reflects the oddness of the song. Following the influences of Camus, the song's viewpoint of a savage, non-empathetic world is the kind of thing English majors delight in discussing and conservatives delight in actually practicing. The song's ending stanza is reflective of what would become the next decade:

In a world where people have problems
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


Oddly enough, the song's one hit, "Psycho Killer," has a similar and darker theme. As Byrne fmaously explained:

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's musical structure is strange, if only because the staccato guitar is played over Tina Weymouth's simple -- but effective -- bass line. Like the best Heads songs, it's danceable while being lyrically sinister. Byrne's singalong about murder is something to behold and likely the band's signature song.

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It's strange to contrast "Talking Heads: 77" with the band's more successful -- and, in my eyes, better -- work. Brian Eno had yet to get involved with the band. The band's sound was simpler in 1977. I, personally, prefer the fuller sound, but some of the songs on "Talking Heads: 77" are undeniably great.

1 comment:

Tymon said...

My friends and I play Psycho Killer at coffeehouses and open mics around DC. The Heads were such a great (if admittedly bizarre) band.

They just kind of grow on you.