Talking Heads: 77 is the beginning, simple and raw.
The stench of New York City in the ‘70s clung to clothes like cigarette smoke. Times Square was full of junkies and hustlers. Cheap porn venues and crumbling Broadway theaters stood side-by-side. The city’s coffers were as bankrupt as its morals were said to be. Graffiti covered subway cars that never arrived on time. NYC in the ‘70s was Mean Streets, The French Connection and Saturday Night Fever: filthy, dangerous, violent and inspired.
This alchemy of decay and poverty conjured punk rock. CBGB was the cauldron. History has made the place legendary, but it was a cramped, dark hole on Bowery, a grimy vein of flophouses and industrial spaces on the Lower East Side. The acronym stands for “Country Bluegrass Blues,” but what the club’s founder, Hilly Kristal, got was a movement in music and fashion against disco and the epic guitar solos that so characterized the rock ‘n’ roll of the era. Punk meant going back to the basics of short songs and limited chords. It meant anyone could make music if they had the passion to do so.
By 1977, punk rock was ready to evolve past three chords and the truth. The androgynous glamour of Patti Smith and the dirtbag chic of Television and the Ramones had filled CBGB for three years. Talking Heads entered the club looking like a Peter, Paul and Mary cover quartet that had gotten lost on the subway. Sweater vests took the place of leather jackets. They wore chinos and polos instead of ripped jeans and torn T-shirts. Despite the normcore aesthetic, the band brought a precision and irony to their music that set them apart in the punk scene and would define them as its next great band.
Their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, sat on the racks at record stores like a burning totem. A 12×12 field of bright red, the title was written across the top in painfully vivid green italics. It was a cover meant to jar, the sort of image that the former students of the Rhode Island School of Design, David Byrne (lead vocals, guitar), Chris Frantz (drums) and Tina Weymouth (bass), might cherish for its pop art audacity. Joined by keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison, they crafted one of the great debut records in the history of rock.
In interviews, Byrne describes some of the “negative” rules the band had for creating music in the early days: don’t play guitar solos; don’t duplicate what anybody else plays; don’t use clichéd pop music vernacular unless used ironically.
The rules were meant to catalyze the creative process, and as a result, the tracks ebb and flow between earworms and more earnest lamentations about life in the then-modern world. The result is an album that, according to Rolling Stone, conveys “a taut earnestness that’s bursting with energy.”
While duplication and cliché were forbidden, the hook was not. The album opens with “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town.” It’s a surprisingly sweet frolic of a song, as irreverent as the title would indicate. “Tentative Decisions” beats like a march, the refrain sticking in your head. The screeching guitar and thumping bass line of “Psycho Killer” are so immediately captivating—the lyrics so ominous and funny—that the song has served as a gateway drug into Talking Heads for decades.
In Byrne, Talking Heads has the anti-frontman in his gestational period. As pop instruments go, his twitchy warble will always be more persona than impresario, but he writes perfectly to his strengths. The songs display a range of narrators, either unconfident (“Tentative Decisions”), blissfully naive (“Don’t Worry About the Government”) or fastidiously menacing (“Psycho Killer”).
Byrne is the band’s defining characteristic, eccentric and outlandish. While proud of this music, he has stated that he has no nostalgia for it or the particular era. He has evolved into a world-renowned artist with an unquenchable desire to push his talent and interest beyond the expectations of his fans. He need not be burdened by nostalgia, which is an element essential to fandom but not to the artists they follow. Talking Heads: 77 is the beginning, simple and raw. It is a sound that the band and its frontman will never recapture again. Listen to it when pining for simpler times.