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.
“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.