As far as early attempts at songwriting go, Psycho Killer by Talking Heads is pretty impressive. Amazingly, back in the winter of 1974, it was the first original song that the group’s frontman, David Byrne, showed drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth, his then bandmates in The Artistics, a group formed at Rhode Island School Of Design.
Until this point, the group had been finding their feet with covers by The Kinks (All Day And All Of The Night), The Who (I Can’t Explain), Smokey Robinson (The Tracks Of My Tears) and Al Green (Love And Happiness), among others. Psycho Killer was an altogether different proposition. Writing about the song for the sleevenotes of the 1992 compilation Once In A Lifetime: The Best Of Talking Heads, Byrne recalled an unlikely inspiration: “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.”
“It reminded me more of Lou Reed than Alice Cooper”
In his 2020 memoir, Remain In Love, Frantz elaborated on the collaboration that turned Byrne’s intriguing sketch into a post-punk masterpiece: “When David came to us on that winter afternoon, he said that he’d been writing a song and he hoped we would help him with it… He showed us his notebook and read to us the first verse: ‘I can’t seem to face up to the facts/I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax/I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire/Don’t touch me, I’m a real live wire.’ I really dug this. It reminded me more of Lou Reed than Alice Cooper.” Enthused by their bandmate’s off-kilter lyric, Frantz and Weymouth set to work.
Byrne had the idea that the bridge lyrics should be sung in another language to emphasise the narrator’s fractured state of mind. Weymouth spoke French and suggested that she work on the translation. Inspired by Norman Bates’ character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the mistrust he had of women he deemed promiscuous, Weymouth’s lyrics conveyed a sense of a split personality, helped along by Byrne’s staccato delivery. Meanwhile, Frantz set about brainstorming the lyrics for the song’s additional verses. It would be the only Talking Heads song credited to Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth.
Sinister and drily funky
Despite Byrne initially considering it a “silly” song, Psycho Killer became a staple of The Artistics’ setlists and, later – when Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth moved to New York City – it survived into Talking Heads’ live performances. The song marked them out as a different proposition to other bands on the CBGB punk scene: Weymouth’s bassline was sinister and drily funky, and the song’s lyrics allowed Byrne to inhabit a character – an important development in him becoming one of the best frontmen of the post-punk era.
Psycho Killer was eventually recorded for Talking Heads’ 1977 debut album, Talking Heads: 77. Before they arrived at the instantly familiar version of the song that ended up on the record, the band tried an arrangement with a choppy cello part played by composer Arthur Russell, which upped the sense of musical menace. According to Frantz, they even toyed with the idea of adding an entire string section before thinking better of it and stripping the arrangement back.
“Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play…”
As it was, Psycho Killer was instantly received as one of the best Talking Heads songs. Released as single in December 1977, it was the group’s first song to break the US Billboard chart, where it peaked at No.92, and it hit the Top 20 in Belgium and the Netherlands. It also provided an iconic opening to Jonathan Demmer’s 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, with a solo Byrne walking onstage armed only with an acoustic guitar and boombox, announcing, “Hi, I’ve got a tape I want to play…” and giving an unforgettably animated performance of the song set to a pre-recorded drum machine.
Psycho Killer continues to inspire new generations of artists, most recently Selena Gomez, who sampled the bassline on her 2017 single Bad Liar. Not bad for a “silly” first attempt at writing a song.
Check out our best Talking Heads songs to find out where Psycho Killer ranks.
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