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Shriek of the Week: Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”

July 11, 2014

After this month’s installment of LitMonkey, which I posted earlier this week, could my Shriek of the Week have been anything but this song?

Even so, it’s hard to figure out which is the cause and which is the effect: did I read Helter Skelter and Kitty Genovese because I was listening to Psycho Killer? Or is the other way around? I think it must be a coincidence that I suddenly found a really cheap copy of Talking Heads: 77, the bands 1977 debut album, which features this song as its one hit single. (Thank you Hold Fast Asbury Park.) But I bought many other albums that day – this is the one that I can’t seem to take off my turntable for anything else.

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I don’t think I have to sell anyone on the brilliance of Psycho Killer. The lyrics are meant to evoke the thought process of a serial killer, which is particularly menacing coming from the vocals of David Byrne. Tina Weymouth provides “one of the most memorable, driving bass lines in rock & roll” according to AllMusic. This combination makes the song at once both threatening and catchy, a rare combination. It’s both really weird and really pop. In that way, it was a signal for what was to come for Talking Heads over the next decade plus – the kind of music that would be both a critical and commercial success.

It may have been the only hit off of the album, but people in the know knew that Talking Heads would emerge from the CBGB stage and go on to great things. The album wasn’t a huge commercial hit at the time, but it was critically very well received and, from all I’ve read, there was a feeling that Talking Heads were the next big thing. The notoriously tough Village Voice critic Robert Chritstgau gave Talking Heads: 77 an A- grade, saying:

A debut LP will often seem overrefined to habitues of a band’s scene, so it’s not surprising that many CBGBites felt betrayed when bits of this came out sounding like Sparks or Yes. Personally, I was even more put off by lyrics that fleshed out the Heads’ post-Jonathan Richman, so-hip-we’re-straight image; when David Byrne says “don’t worry about the government,” the irony is that he’s not being ironic. But the more I listen the more I believe the Heads set themselves the task of hurdling such limitations, and succeed. Like Sparks, these are spoiled kids, but without the callowness or adolescent misogyny; like Yes, they are wimps, but without vagueness or cheap romanticism. Every tinkling harmony is righted with a screech, every self-help homily contextualized dramatically, so that in the end the record proves not only that the detachment of craft can coexist with a frightening intensity of feeling–something most artists know–but that the most inarticulate rage can be rationalized. Which means they’re punks after all.

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In Rolling Stone, Stephen Demorest was way more effusive, calling the album “an absolute triumph.” Some other quotes from is 1977 review:

“[Talking Heads] are the great Ivy League hope of pop music. I can’t recall when I last heard such a vital, imaginatively tuneful album.”

“David Byrne’s music is refreshing, abundantly varied and fun to listen to. He takes the buoyant, post-Beatles singles format of the Sixties — brisk pacing, great hooks, crisp playing, bright production — and impulsively veers off on unexpected tangents that are challenging without becoming inaccessible.”

“Not only is this a great album, it’s also one of the definitive records of the decade.”

For me, having never really listened to this album before, it’s like 1977 all over again (kind of cool since I hadn’t even been born yet). Despite all of the hits I know so well and the 1980s Talking Heads albums I’ve come to know and love, this debut album has really blown me away more than I thought it would. More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light – the Brian Eno-produced trilogy – get all the love now (as well they should), but I believe that Talking Heads: 77 should be remembered on par with those four classics.
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Watch a video of Talking Heads performing “Psycho Killer” here:

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