Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: TALKING HEADS
Album: TALKING HEADS: 77
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Way back in April 2011, as I was approaching the end of my inaugural blog series on Van Morrison, I posted my first poll which asked readers to select the next artist whose discography I would revisit & write about. By a slim margin over The Band, whose catalog I would soon take on, the winner was Talking Heads. The following month I began a 4-part series that covered their relatively brief but hugely influential recording career. After an introductory post where I discussed my history with their music (I had never been more than a casual fan but still owned all of their albums), I enthusiastically praised their 1977 debut album in Part 2 of that series. I haven’t played their music much since then, but after giving this record a fresh spin last week I’m happy to report that it still sounds as fresh & vital as it did six years ago, and remains timeless in spite of the fact that it was recorded 40 years ago. Following are the thoughts I shared on this wonderful record, which highlights 8 of the album’s 11 tracks. The other 3 (“Tentative Decisions,” “Happy Day” and “Don’t Worry About The Government”) are nearly as good as the others, and were only omitted in an effort to bring some brevity to my blog posts, something I was starting to struggle with at the time. It’s also worth noting their debut non-LP single, “Love → Building On Fire,” which preceded the album by 7 months. This horn-infused song was as quirky, catchy & unique as anything on Talking Heads: 77, and is a worthy bonus track on the expanded CD version.
Since I wasn’t a fan of Talking Heads from the beginning of their career, and I didn’t hear most of their individual albums until 2005 (even though I knew a lot of their songs), I have a different perspective on their output than someone who was a fan in 1977. To my ears, it seems like they came out of nowhere. There were obvious influences, like David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, etc., but right from the start they didn’t sound like anyone other than Talking Heads. As I’ve explored their albums recently, I’ve uncovered some other influences on individual tracks, but more often I’ve noticed how they influenced other artists, which makes their output over a relatively short period of time (just over a decade) that much more impressive.
Their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, is my favorite re-discovery, and I would now put it on the list of greatest debut albums of all time. Album opener “Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town,” has a loping Stax-like R&B rhythm, yet it’s not a soulful song (surprising, considering how they would embrace many groove-based styles in the future). “New Feeling” follows with its herky-jerky feel and a slightly dissonant guitar melody that clearly influenced future King Crimson member and Talking Heads collaborator, Adrian Belew. “Who Is it?” has a great nervous energy, and it quickly became a new favorite. I love the way the rhythm shifts dramatically a couple of times during “No Compassion,” almost like two different songs were glued together. I know I can’t be the only one who hears how the slower section of this song must have influenced David Bowie a couple of years later on his song “Ashes To Ashes.” The other section has a propulsive pseudo-disco beat that comes as a surprise the first time it’s introduced.
The intro guitar figure on “The Book I Read” has an African feel, something they would embrace more regularly a couple of years later. Then they adopt a Latin feel for “First Week/Last Week…Carefree” with the cabasa pushing the groove, but add a twist by introducing vibes and a horn section. “Psycho Killer” is the best-known song here, with the bass guitar intro bearing a similarity to Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug.” It’s hard to tell if lead singer David Byrne is singing in character or about a character, but the lyrics fit the melody perfectly, and it’s not surprising that this might be their most popular song. The album ends with “Pulled Up,” a straight 4/4 dance rhythm mixed with their most rocking, crunchy guitar sound; a perfect way to close out a near-perfect album.