Since its birth 40 years ago, “punk rock” has been progressively watered down. To many, it’s a cliché of chainsaw guitars and scream-singing about The Man at breakneck speed, all while dressed in ripped-and-pinned Hot Topic garb. But back in 1977, “punk” meant something more. Sure, bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks would lay the foundation for that popular conception of the genre, and others, like Patti Smith and Television, would bring a romantic beatnick spirit and an angular guitar style to the sound, respectively. But then there was Talking Heads — something else entirely.
For Talking Heads, it was hip to be square. Their nerdy, norm-core style was, in a sense, a rebellion to the sound and scene that had become en vogue in the rock underground — and their debut, Talking Heads 77, released four decades ago Saturday (Sept. 16), was a revelation.
Dressed like four paper-pushing insurance company accountants — their cardigan-wearing frontman, David Byrne, was a deadringer for PBS’s Mr. Rogers — the band played funky, colorful rock that explored the limits of the sound a quartet could even produce. Byrne’s lyrics ranged from purposely tame observations about the government and apartment buildings to live-wire tributes to serial killers, shedding his composure like a middle manager on the verge of a mental collapse.
Talking Heads 77 is dancey, funky and definitely a little weird — it’s arty and fresh, but not overbearing or pretentious. It’s the sound of young art school kids redrawing the borders of “punk” to their own liking. And that’s about as punk as it gets.
In honor of the LP’s 40th birthday, let’s make an attempt at the impossible: ranking its 11 tracks. Here it goes…
1. “Psycho Killer”
It’s the song that made this album — and ignited one of the most creative careers in rock. A stomping bass line builds with slashing guitars as Byrne slips into character as a murderer on the loose: “I can’t seem to face up to the facts/ I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax,” he sings with a chattering tic. “I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire/ Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire.” Then we get the oh-so-memorable chorus line — “Psycho killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est!” — and Byrne’s wild “fa-fa-fa-fa-fas.” Though written in the early ’70s, when Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth played in The Artistics as students at Rhode Island School of Design, the song was coincidentally released amid the Son of Sam murders in New York City, causing controversy. It’s since become the band’s signature track. Beware… it’s a killer.
2. “Pulled Up”
Byrne’s nervous, jittering energy boils over in a tribute to a pair of very helpful parents — a solid-gold resource for a young, starving artist in the big city. “Mommy, daddy, come and look at me now/ I’m a big man in a great big town,” he sings over crunchy guitar jangling. “I was complaining, I was down in the dumps/ I feel so strong now ’cause you pulled me up.” There’s ace guitar work from Byrne and Jerry Harrison, the former Modern Lovers member who joined Talking Heads to round out the core quartet. But it’s all about Byrne — his ADHD flowing through the veins of the song as he gnaws at every syllable.
3. “Don’t Worry About the Government”
This track finds Byrne pocking fun at the “normal” state of American life. “My building has every convenience/ It’s gonna make life easy for me,” he talk-sings in a high-toned, robot-like tone. “I see the states, across this big nation/ I see the laws made in Washington DC/ I think of the ones I consider my favorites/ I think of the people that are working for me.” The sound is fun and New Wave-y, with electric keys meeting with frantic guitar and reggae-like bass — Talking Heads’ signature sound takes shape.
4. “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”
The album-opener is Talking Heads’ take on late-’60s funk/R&B — and it’s sooooo groovy. A guitar riff bounces as Byrne warns of the dangers of intoxicating love, a topic he expressly avoided writing about for much of his musical career. “Jet pilot gone out of control, ship captain on the ground/ Stock broker make a bad investment when love has come to town,” he sings in his lower register. “Where, where is my common sense?/ How did I get in a jam like this?” Then come the steel drums and you can’t help but shake it.
5. “The Book I Read”
It’s easy to see why Byrne later steered his band towards the sounds of West Africa on later albums. The hints are there, especially in the twangy, note-jumping riff that opens this tribute to an impactful tome. “I have to sing about the book I read/ I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart/ When I found out you wrote the book I read, so,” Byrne sings. The drama builds with organ and a looping piano melody and Byrne goes deep: “The book I read was in your eyes.”
6. “New Feeling”
The experimental guitar twangs continue here as Byrne and Harrison bend their strings. The chaotic sound matches Byrne’s jumbled words; he’s like a child incapable of properly articulating himself, acting out in protest. “I feel like sitting down, but… I’m still thinking… thinking about my friends/ In my garden… moments/ But now I’m speaking out.” The band’s lyrics and music complement each other, the chaos and bottled, nervous energy of both increasing the impact of the other.
7. “No Compassion”
We all have our problems, right? Right. But Byrne really doesn’t care about your issues. “Other people’s problems overwhelm my mind/ They say compassion is a virtue, but I don’t have the time,” he sings, barking like a grumpy robot. Musically, there are seismic shifts, from the gliding opening bit to a middle segment with choppy guitar, then back again. “My interest level’s dropping/ I’ve heard all I want to, I don’t want to hear any more.” Burn!
8. “Tentative Decisions”
Byrne apparently processes (cough, downloads) the relationships between men and women like a floppy disk in an antiquated computer. Over a jaunty, twangy riff, Byrne squeals, “Girls ask and I/ Define decisions/ Boys ask and I/ Describe their function.” Then the song opens into a rolling military march and the group come together for a powerful gospel-style vocal: “It’s hard logic, I know.” Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, right?
9. “Who Is It?”
Prepare to move your booty — it’s funky town, Talking Heads style. A snappy guitar riff will have your head swiveling and your shoulders sliding side to side, as Byrne rattles off, “Who! Who! Who! Who! Who is it?!” It’s her, of course, and now love is ablaze on the dancefloor. “Watch out now baby ‘cause I’m in love with you/ And if you don’t love me, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Here’s what you’ll probably do: dance a bit more.
10. “Happy Day”
Piano melodies and twinkling guitar take the lead for this slow waltz, as Byrne gets straight to the point: He is very happy. He’s just having a little trouble with his words: “In… my… sensations… I believe that I was… born with the things that I know… I want… to talk.” But can you, David? He gets there eventually: “I feel nice inside,” Byrne sings, “I feel like my heart has a will of its own/ I feel nice inside/ Such a happy day for me.” Byrne’s locked up energy can push listeners to the point of discomfort, but they’ll always come back for more.
11. “First Week / Last Week… Carefree”
Mr. Byrne is apparently hearing voices. Over Tropicalia percussion, tightly-wound electric guitar and a brass section, the singer fesses up: “I heard the voices first last week/ I heard it myself,” sings Byrne. “Made a reference to me. And that’s myself. This report’s incomplete. I see for myself.” He really gets into character, howling “I-I-I-I-I-IIIIIIIIIIIII!!!” and “whoah!-whoah!-whoah!” over and over, and the lounge act, tiki music brings it to a whole new level of unnerving. I heard voices, too — the sound of Byrne and Talking Heads kicking off a career and all new sound.