Listen to this track by New York-based art rock and new wave quartet Talking Heads. It’s “Psycho Killer”, an early composition that would eventually appear on the band’s appropriately titled 1977 debut album Talking Heads 77 and become its second single.
The song was released in the winter 1977, months after New York City was menaced by The Son Of Sam, a serial killer later revealed to be one David Berkowitz, who claimed that he was driven to kill six young women at the behest of his neighbor’s dog Harvey, who according to Berkowitz, was actually a demon in dog form. Despite this song seeming to be a direct reference to this series of events, the song actually pre-dates them, written in 1974 around the time the band was formed. Maybe it was chosen as a single because of its relevance during a time when psycho killers were on everyone’s mind.
Singer, guitarist, and co-writer David Byrne has been quoted as saying that this song is about the Alice Cooper meets Randy Newman interior monologue of a single, and very pretentious killer. Yet, I think this suggests something beyond that that has more to do with us listeners than it does with any one bad guy.
Beyond the compellingly disjointed lyrics and tenacious bassline, the real engine of this song is our own curiosity about the person at its centre. Who is this guy? What drives him? What’s the reason for his being so disturbed? Why are we so drawn into his narrative? I think it’s because at some primal level, we identify with the central character of this song in a way that is perhaps more than we’re comfortable with.
Humanity is attracted to darkness, from stories of serial killers and other true crime stories, to villains in works of fiction. Being a psycho killer is far on one side of that struggle between social cohesion and the darker forces of single-minded self-interest. But, even if most of us never get to that far end of things, it remains to be on our moral spectrum, waiting. That’s why social cohesion and community is worth fighting for. It’s our connections with others that help keep us on the moral path. When we’re isolated and anonymous, we are vulnerable to our propensity to the dark side.
By 1977, this human dynamic played out on the news all over the world after the events around David Berkowitz’s killing spree unfolded; an isolated and anonymous man who acted out his darkest fantasies at the cost of six lives. This put a face onto New York City’s worsening reputation by that era due to its social and financial degradation, and all of the human tragedy they bring. That unhealthy environment seemed to make being anonymous, disconnected, and forgotten the norm.
Interestingly, this violent and dangerous environment also led to the grassroots movements in music and art for which this particular era of New York City’s history is also known, including punk and art rock movements out of which Talking Heads came. It seems that danger brings out the best and the worst in people especially when crammed together in such tight spaces. Perhaps that’s what made this song sound so much like an anthem of its times; a vibrant, artistic city that was being swallowed by darkness of all kinds, from serial killers to literal 25-hour blackouts. The strength of civilization against the forces of chaos were being sorely tested.
Similarly, the struggle between life-affirming artistic expression and selfish acts of violence were two undeniable moral solitudes that can be found in much of Talking Heads’ music. This is an early example, and probably one of their best, that seems to trace the breadth of human vulnerability by placing it into hostile and unhealthy environments, while contrasting that moral gravity by being impossibly funky and easy to dance to, musically speaking.
Talking Heads broke up officially in 1991, interestingly around the time when New York City began to bounce back, away from the edge of the precipice.
You can visit David Byrne’s official site to see what he’s up to these days, which is quite a lot.
You can catch up to ‘Heads bassist and drummer respectively, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, on their site, too. Their one-time side project Tom Tom Club is now their full time concern, which you can learn more about here.
For more about New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when the city was in decline financially, not quite as tourist-friendly and gentrified as it is today, but still the center of great artistic movements, check out this article from the New York Times Style Magazine.