Two military families, a Scottish blue collar one and a Harvard grad? Why, that’s a perfect combination for a your typical punk rock band! But, the Talking Heads, during their genre-spanning two decade career, was anything but typical. Even in their own scene, they were an anomaly, forgoing the spliced t-shirts, blue jeans and leather jacket uniform of bands like the Ramones for collared shirts, clean hair and, later in their career, one really big suit. Instead of playing as fast as they could and refusing to learn anything more complicated than the C, G, and D chords, they were more mid-tempo and embraced complicated rhythms. The Talking Heads were smarter than your average punk band (and I’m assured, had they frequented Jellystone Park instead of the Bowery, they would have totally stolen all the pick-i-nick baskets). Even on their debut, Talking Heads ’77, you could hear signs of something more, something absolutely exciting to come. Is that a steel drum on album opener “Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town”? Why yes, I do believe it is! Despite being the comparatively normal ones in a scene of outcasts, the Talking Heads could always surprise you.
Talking Heads ’77 is their most pure album. Singer/guitarist David Byrne is often criticized for his pretentious lyrics but Talking Heads ’77 is surprisingly earnest and straightforward in its lyrical content. The Talking Heads were never so much political as they were paranoid. While there are hints of the skepticism and paranoia of later albums, such as Fear of Music‘s “Life During Wartime” and Remain in Light‘s “Once in a Lifetime,” in songs like “Don’t Worry About the Government” and “Psycho Killer,” most of the songs on Talking Heads ’77 are about love. Simple, unadulterated love. But I guess love with the Talking Heads is never just love. Byrne’s taut voice makes even the most tread-upon and clichéd topics seem new and interesting, giving a certain urgency to their songs. On “Psycho Killer,” Byrne sings, “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,” and you’d be damned if you didn’t believe him. He sounds as if he’s always on edge, always just a couple seconds from completely going off his rocker. Byrne’s voice is a cornerstone without which the Talking Heads would not be the formidable band that they have become. Talking Heads ’77 is, believe it or not, kind of funny. The Talking Heads lost most of the humor by the middle of their career but Talking Heads ’77 is laced with goofy lines and sharp, sarcastic barbs. In the song “No Compassion,” Byrne sings, “They say compassion is a virtue, but I don’t have the time.”
On their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food (there’s that Byrne humor again), and their third outing, Fear of Music, the Talking Heads hooked up with Brian Eno. From Fear of Music on, the Talking Heads took advantage of every empty sound they could find, filling it with angular guitars, complex rhythms and keyboardist and sometimes guitarist Jerry Harrison’s crazy inventions. But Talking Heads ’77 is a more stripped-down affair. It’s sparse and bare and gives the record a tense feel that perfectly compliments Byrne’s spasmodic voice. Bassist Tina Weymouth comes to the rescue, giving the record a warmer feel with her slinky, often funky, basslines, creating perfect harmony with Byrne’s spasticity.
The Talking Heads were one of the most critically acclaimed and universally accepted bands to come out of the New York punk scene. While Talking Heads ’77, in retrospect, is an album that lays the groundwork for future endeavors, it also has the ability to stand alone as one of the best albums of 1977, even if the band did wear collared shirts.