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. Read more
Here’s a clip of art-rock foursome, and post-punk pop innovators Talking Heads. It’s their 1980 track “Once In A Lifetime”, a key element to the high-pinnacle album Remain in Light, and also a bright point in the excellent landmark 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme.
The film was shot in at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, December 1983. It captures the band during a point in their history when they’d expanded their live sound from being a tightly-wound and appropriately claustrophobic post-punk four-piece into something of an Africanized pop-funk collective.
Several side musicians from the funk world (members of Parliament Funkadelic and The Brothers Johnson are represented) were installed on these dates to fill out their sound, and effectively reposition their material into a more dance-oriented style, while losing nothing of its spiky, psychologically angular rock impact. Read more
Here’s a clipof New York-based art-pop mavens Talking Heads with their 1983 hit “This Must Be the Place” as taken from their closer-to-pop album Speaking in Tongues.
With this tune, for me at least, it sounds like it’s been going on for a while before we get to hear it; it kind of feels like we listeners catch it in midstream. It’s a huge song, yet at the same time very unassuming. And you get the feeling too, that after it fades, it’s still going on, like a river working its way underground. Of course, the band are carrying forth the same kind of approach which placed an emphasis on groove, the same approach that they’d managed on the album which many consider to be their masterpiece – Remain in Lightfrom 1980.
On that record, the influences of African funk music are evident, and quite clearly it’s had an indelible effect on this track too. But, Talking Heads had played with sound akin to Fela Kuti and Afrobeat before on the track “I Zimbra” off of their equally excellent Fear of Music album.
It’s quite clear that the band was building toward the kind of sound where the melodies they were making would be free to roam around a rhythm, rather than constrained to a set of chord changes. And it’s none so evident than it is on “This Must Be the Place”, where David Byrne‘s vocal kind of wanders dreamily, yet within the bounds of the hypnotic engine which is moving behind it thanks to Chris Frantz’s drums, Tina Weymouth’s bass, and Jerry Harrison’s keyboards.
With funk, a one-chord groove is a characteristic which is a defining element to the style. And certainly with Talking Heads’ approach to it, that strength of a single chord groove is vital to how this song grabs the attention of the listener. But where a lot of funk music is about movement and sensuality, with this band, you get the idea that they’re using the principle in an exactly opposite manner.
With this tune, the interlocking grooves are not about churning bodies dancing together, about togetherness and physicality. It’s about the relentless workings of machinery, the sounds of the city, the sounds of anonymity and, at worst, dehumanization. In this, the principles of post-punk creep their way into the mix. And of course urban alienation is a major theme running through the band’s work, from ‘Psycho Killer’, to ‘Born Under Punches’, to ‘Road to Nowhere’. When it comes to songwriting, as inventive as they were with presentation, they never took their eye off the ball.
Talking Heads were exceptional for a lot of reasons. But one was that you got a sense that all of the songs they wrote were cohesive to an entire body of work, even if they were able to explore different musical areas stylistically. A song like ‘Pulled Up’ from their first album, and ‘This Must Be the Place’ are world’s apart. Yet, they are inextricably Talking Heads songs.
Here’s a clip of Tom Tom Club’s infectious 1981 dance floor filler “Genius of Love”, taken from their self-titled debut album. This is the sound of early 80s dance music at its best, folks: funky, sexy, yet somehow more innocent than the dance music of today. To me, it’s the sound of adolescence.
The group is actually an off-shoot project as led by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, both of Talking Heads, expanding on the more funk-oriented interests of that parent band, along with an exploration of early hip hop textures. The ‘band’ Tom Tom Club was initially more of a collective than a traditional group, with Weymouth and Frantz acting as musical fulcrums for the contributions of guests.
It is important to note that on the New York club circuit in the late 70s-early 80s, dance music was the leader of the pack, and punk coming out of CBGBs, a scene in which the ‘Heads flourished, was just a stray pup trailing behind in comparison. Needless to say, this is a very New York track, as much as any music coming out of the punk clubs of the time. The world which this track typifies is where a young and hungry Madonna would make her name, and build her initial sound.
And of course, then there was the nascent hip hop scene, in which this track would play an important role too. It would be sampled heavily by disparate artists in that genre, starting with Grandmaster Flash and Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. It would later hit the mainstream in the 90s, when it was sampled for the Mariah Carey track “Fantasy”. That’s what I call a groove with mileage, despite what you may think of Mariah Carey.
Through the life of the Tom Tom Club ‘vehicle’, Weymouth and Frantz would release a number of albums spread out across the decades from ’81 to the 21st century, with the project becoming their main focus when Talking Heads broke up officially in 1991. They kept their eyes on the urban scene, using it as a sort of stylistic horizon while adding in influences from other genres. The project remains to be a going concern for the pair, recently playing shows with Devo, their early 80s classmates. Yet, this song marks their biggest mainstream success.
Here’s a clip of David Byrne’s “Dance on Vaseline”, taken from his 1997 album Feelings.
By the end of Talking Heads, Byrne took an interest in Brazilian music, which he promoted on his Luaka Bop label, along with making several solo records which featured Brazilian sounds. On this cut, you can tell that he’s throwing in some of his earlier influences as well, and it becomes something entirely new beyond an established artist who’s trying his hand at world music. This is danceable, sexy, pop music with a little bit of menace lurking underneath.