Classics Revisited: Talking Heads - 'Talking Heads: 77'
In this next installment of our regular series, Freya takes us on a journey back to a 1970s new wave classic via the tape deck of her car.
As soon as I set eyes on my 20-year-old purple Nissan Micra, I was overjoyed to discover that it had a tape deck. Finally, I could make use of the old crusty tapes knocking about the house or in the bottom of buckets in charity shops! A cheap way to listen to classic albums in their entirety! I dived into my new passion of cultivating the World’s Greatest Tape Collection with zeal, and while the shadowy corners of the city’s record stores yielded a handful of gems (I’m looking at you, Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits), there was one evasive album that I was subconsciously and consistently searching for: Talking Heads’ self-titled Talking Heads: 77. The debut record from arguably one of the most iconic and pioneering post-punk outfits of the last century, TH:77 arrived at the dehiscence of the 1970s and helped to establish a new genre of art-school punk culture in its wake.
Released in 1977, Talking Heads: 77 catapulted the relatively underground art-school band, alumni of Rhode Island School of Art in the mid-1970s, to the forefront of the radical and unabashed new musical movements New Wave and Post-Punk. In the era of early Talking Heads, these two terms were pretty much interchangeable, new wave being the preferred term for many bands in an effort to disconnect their music from the historical and slightly distasteful connotations of punk music. While these two genres diverged at the dawn of the 1980s and became two genres in their own rights, Talking Heads caught the post-punk / ‘art pop’ wave at its conception and TH:77 remains firmly rooted in the conflation of these genres, a hallmark of this clunky, but often flamboyant way of making music.
Talking Heads emerged from a musical epoch beginning in the late 1970s, rubbing shoulders simultaneously with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and robotic German synthpop such as Kraftwerk. Within the realm of art pop, post-punk and new wave, Talking Heads managed to carve out their own cranny in a scene populated by all combinations of genres stemming from the arty musical perusals of The Velvet Underground, and followed by a miscellany of bands such as Devo and The Ramones.
What makes Talking Heads irrefutably unique and frustratingly iconic is of course the lyrical meanderings and uncomfortable, jerky squawking of David Byrne, vocalist and guitarist. During the unfurling of this album, Byrne manages to fluctuate from industrial, militaristic chanting in the regimented Tentative Decisions to a fluid and hiccupping Happy Day, featuring his characteristic falsetto but still not losing the disjointed and nervous feeling that Talking Heads project throughout the album and rouse in many of the tracks. Byrne’s straining vocals, microscopically but purposely off-key, are rambling and almost unsettling in many ways, carrying the listener along strange diversions around his and fellow guitarist Jerry Harrison’s melodies to create a flighty and unpredictable narrative at odds to the stalwart bassline (Tina Weymouth) and cuboidal drums (Chris Frantz), intriguingly employed to particular effect in New Feeling.
'What makes Talking Heads irrefutably unique and frustratingly iconic is of course the lyrical meanderings and uncomfortable, jerky squawking of David Byrne, vocalist and guitarist'.
Within the Talking Heads’ music, particularly on Talking Heads: 77 and indeed characteristically of the post-punk movement, the previously underrated bass guitar is finally given the precedence and the acknowledgement it desperately deserves. The humble underdog of music since its creation in the 1930s, the bass is often the barely discernible foundation around which an entire track is built, like the puppeteer who masterfully operates the strings of the puppet. It is a presence hardly noticeable when there, but take it away and the track is hollow.
However, listen to the first three seconds of Tina Weymouth’s introductory bassline in Psycho Killer and the track is simply unmistakable. Indisputably one of Talking Heads’ most famous tracks and certainly the catalyst to their initial success, this track is a perfect example of the interplay between Byrne’s kinetic stream of consciousness and the mechanical syncopation of the bass, which creates the instantly recognisable skeleton upon which the body of the song is hung. The true effect of this musical relationship is best witnessed in one of Talking Heads’ live performances of Psycho Killer, a mainstay of their live set. The wavering and unsettled Byrne undulates on stage and flits back and forth to the microphone while harnessed by Weymouth, almost seething against the restraints of her bassline like a wild animal kept in a too-small cage, eager to break free from the stoic rhythm but equally fettered to each note.
'The humble underdog of music since its creation in the 1930s, the bass is often the barely discernible foundation around which an entire track is built, like the puppeteer who masterfully operates the strings of the puppet'.
In Don’t Worry About the Government, Weymouth unifies with drummer Frantz to create a simple but solid rhythmic structure upon which the flickering guitar and keys (played by Jerry Harrison) are able to bounce. Weymouth fiercely and undauntedly flouted the dogma of the 1970s male-dominated post-punk scene, paving the way for generations of inimitable female bassists, such as Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth) or Sara Lee (Gang of Four, B-52s).
As a band, it is undeniable that Talking Heads influenced and helped to define a new genre of music in the US and, spreading across to the rudimentary DIY punk of 80s Britain and the ensuing Britpop of the 1990s, managed to create an entirely new and innovative sound in the 11 short tracks of Talking Heads: 77 while still avoiding much of the pretension which so often accompanies ‘art school’ music. Talking Heads left cohorts of bands in their aftermath, from their punk contemporaries such as Joy Division to a spectrum of modern bands including Vampire Weekend and Radiohead, as well as more recent and famed art school bands of this decade such as HMLTD and Walt Disco.
To my delight, I did eventually track down a rather decrepit but nevertheless functional copy of Talking Heads: 77 among the catacombs of the internet’s cassette stores, and trust me, it is worth every penny – I intend to play this tape on car journeys for many years to come, until either the tape or my poor ancient car gives out, whichever happens first. Until then, with the help of The Talking Heads and this beautiful little cassette, every day is a Happy Day.