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Talking Heads: 77: Where It All Began For NYC’s New Wave Pioneers
Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Talking Heads: 77: Where It All Began For NYC’s New Wave Pioneers

As a debut album, ‘Talking Heads: 77’ revealed the group’s musical versatility while hinting at their glorious future as post-punk royalty.

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Though Talking Heads cut their teeth playing shows in legendary New York City punk venues such as CBGB and Max’s Kansas City at the same time as Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Blondie and Television, their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, released in the autumn of 1977, showed how they’d outgrown the restrictions of punk while most other groups were still grappling with its most rudimentary elements.

Listen to ‘Talking Heads: 77’ here[Linkfire].

“We were always outside the CBGB scene”

While most band are desperate to rush out their debut album, Talking Heads benefitted from taking time to craft theirs. Singer David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist-to-be Tina Weymouth arrived in New York City in late 1974. During their time at Rhode Island School Of Design, Byrne and Frantz had previously played together in a short-lived group called The Artistics, and, on seeing Ramones at CBGB shortly after their arrival, they were inspired to give music another shot. They couldn’t find a suitable bassist in the city, however, so Weymouth stepped up, despite never having touched a bass guitar before. The trio then practiced for six months before booking their first gig, fittingly, in support of Ramones at CBGB in June 1975.

Two years then passed before the release of Talking Heads: 77. During that time Jerry Harrison, formerly of The Modern Lovers, joined on guitar and keys, and Lou Reed offered to produce the group as part of a recording deal, drawn up by Reed’s then manager, Jonny Podell, that Talking Heads quickly realised was not in their best interests. After turning the proposal down, the group’s musical horizons were broadened considerably by both the New York nightlife – where disco and salsa packed the city’s dancefloors – and by the company they kept, working with pioneering musical talents such as producer Arthur Russell, minimalist composer Philip Glass and avant-garde jazz trumpeter Don Cherry.

The wait paid off. Immediately setting the group apart from the CBGB pack, Talking Heads: 77 also pointed the way to post-punk’s fast-approaching future. As Tina Weymouth told Melody Maker’s Caroline Coon in May 1977: “In a way, we were always outside the CBGB scene. They were very snotty to us there because we didn’t dress like the New York Dolls.” Rather than rely on image, Talking Heads’ material had been honed by gigging, as the group worked up a self-assured sound unlike any of their contemporaries’. Rather than the crash and wallop of their NYC punk pals, Talking Heads dealt in slinky grooves, memorable melodies, inventive arrangements and tetchy funk. And, in David Byrne, they had a singer with a style all his own.

“No way will I make the music more mainstream”

The album’s best-known song is also one of it’s least typical. While most of Talking Heads: 77 teems with energy, Psycho Killer introduces itself in an altogether more sinister way, with Tina Weymouth’s stark, instantly recognisable bassline joined by agitated, choppy guitar before Byrne enters, utterly inhabiting the titular role with an astonishing performance that suggested he was as much a method actor as he was a lead singer. His lyrics, too, set the group apart, avoiding hammy horror tropes in favour of a narrative delivered right from the mind of a psychopath. It was the first song Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth wrote together, and to this day it remains one of the best Talking Heads songs.

Elsewhere, Talking Heads: 77 hints at the group’s future. Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town rides an infectious groove; New Feeling shows Talking Heads’ ability to make swift handbrake turns, flitting between galloping, near-ska verses and reflective breakdowns; Happy Day showcases a blissed-out gentle side that would later come to the fore on songs such as Speaking In Tongues’ Naïve Melody (This Must Be The Place); Don’t Worry About The Government’s lyrics are an early example of Byrne using a functionalist way of thinking (“My building has every convenience/It’s going to make life easy for me”); Pulled Up makes for a barnstorming closer, with Byrne shrieking, grunting and howling as the band hurtle towards the album’s conclusion.

Released on 16 September 1977, Talking Heads: 77 was a modest hit, making it into the Top 100 of the Billboard 200. But it set the wheels in motion for the group to create some of the most groundbreaking albums of the 70s and 80s while also reaping major financial rewards. From the outset, however, that wasn’t important to the band. “Naturally we want commercial success, but never again, no way, will I make the music more mainstream,” Byrne asserted to Melody Maker. “If we aren’t successful then I’ll just think that our initial ideas weren’t refined enough and that we weren’t communicating well enough. If anything, I think we would then have to be more unusual – well, not just unusual, exactly. We’d just have to do what we’re doing better.”

Check out our best Talking Heads songs to find out which ‘Talking Heads: 77’ tracks made the cut.

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