Record Review: Talking Heads:77 [part 2]

Talking Heads once played in somebody’s living room. See? Proof.

[…continued from previous post]

Side one of the album ended with, what was for me, the key song on the album. “No Compassion” certainly lived up to its title, and if taken at face value, definitely points to Byrne having a lack of empathy common to those with Asperger’s Syndrome. The bracing track seemed to show not just a lack of compassion, but active disdain for the very idea of it. The underlying musical structure of the song began with slow-tempo, almost queasy slide guitar lines that supported the verse structure until the song came to an apparent stop [several times] and the frenetically upbeat chorus structure then took center stage. At the song’s midpoint, it stopped cold for several seconds before the amazing guitar solo by Byrne urged the tune back to life again, reluctantly.

Byrne’s solo here was all the more astonishing because to these ears, it seemed to lay the foundation for much of the tone that Adrian Belew explored during his initial time with King Crimson… four to seven years afterward. Seriously. The solo here was nothing less than a blueprint for the lead lines in “Man With An Open Heart.” When Belew helmed King Crimson’s “Discipline” album of 1981, I think we all noticed his vocal resemblance to Byrne; it was unmistakable. But listen to the guitar playing of Byrne here and Belew all but cops it outright on the later Crimson material cited.

That in 1977 he was playing guitar with Frank Zappa means that I have never heard his earliest recorded work. The next year he was touring with Bowie and the year after that his playing on “Lodger” was probably the first of his body of work I’d heard. By 1979, Talking Heads were getting Robert Fripp to guest on their third album, and the next year Fripp was enlisting Byrne to sing on his. That Belew ended up in Fripp’s next Crimson lineup in 1981 was probably preordained by that point. I maintain that if you scratch Belew; he would bleed Byrne. Not just vocally, but on his main instrument as well.

Side two of the album led off with one of the most unique and creative love song’s I’ve ever heard. “The Book I Read” used clever and unique metaphors to express adoration that were completely free of cliché. He even allowed sensuality to creep into the lyrics yet never descended to the common vernacular. The instrumental chorus here was uncharacteristically blissful. It boggles my mind that Shaun Cassidy [The Justin Bieber of his day?] covered this song on what was his final album, “Wasp,” [see right] as produced by Todd Rundgren. I simply can’t imagine the result.

The rollicking “Don’t Worry About The Government” uses building as state metaphors to explain the singer’s relationship to the body politic; and it with him, in a variety of optimistic ways. For a song written undoubtedly in the last days of Watergate, this was a defiantly contrary tone to take, but the song was unimpeachable in its delightful qualities. Was that a mandolin being picked in the intro? Byrne’s melodic line he sang in the chorus was infectiously upbeat and delightful. The soft Fender Rhodes electric piano chords that Jerry Harrison couched the song in ensured that it had no rough edges to alarm the listener.

This lack of anxiety was extended on the following tune, “First Week/Last Week… Carefree,” which mat have been a medley of two different songs that shared a common, casual vibe. The Latin scratcher percussion with the velvety marimbas of Harrison imbue this tune with the sunniest South of the Border vibe this album had to offer. When insouciant mariachi horns join in it could hardly get more relaxed and indeed… carefree.

When the famously throbbing bass line of the next song began, it signaled an abrupt volte-face back to the abstract anxieties contained in songs like “New Feeling” or “Tentative Decisions,” but “Psycho Killer” staked a much more anti-social claim than those two merely disconnected songs. After all, this was a clinical look into the head of a murderer right in the middle of the David Berkowitz/Son Of Sam era. That bass pull… perhaps the most sinister and insinuating bass line ever by Tina Weymouth; it can repeat in the mind for hours at a time.

The song had its genesis in the unlikely, but commercially leaning, thought that since when they were forming, Alice Cooper was the height of rock success. Therefore, why not do an “Alice Cooper type” song to get a commercial leg up? Except that Alice Cooper did not have songs with verses sung in French.  Or feature guitar solos that sounded like dying chickens. Ironically, the infectious song did manage to scrape the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, so… it worked! It can be argued that this underground hit, in the best sense of the word, paved the way for the Top 40 triumph that occurred with their next album release.

Having explored the edge of madness with a characteristically cold eye, the band closed out their debut album with a straight dose of joyous euphoria. “Pulled Up” featured a deliciously ringing guitar riff that mirrored Byrne’s tale of having been given the boost he needed to overcome his travails. The ebullience of the cut almost effortlessly transcends euphoria near the climax of the song where Byrne sounds like he’s ready to bite through the straps; resorting to animalistic grunts and growls to express his state of mind before the album side reaches a place of no return.

Talking Heads certainly broke a fair share of new ground on this album, which in a musical sense, was not really all that adventurous. Where it entered the realm of the singular largely rested on Byrne’s wiry shoulders. The rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz gave accomplished support to these songs, and fourth member Jerry Harrison gave the band a more thorough reach with his secondary guitar, keys, and backing vocals, all seriously augmenting the songs and arrangements. But it was Byrne’s themes, unique artistic point of view, coupled with his fearless and expressive vocals [not to discount his excellent guitar playing which had clearly left an imprint on Mr. Belew] that made this a pioneering album of the New Wave which would leave an imprint on many that were to follow in its wake.

Byrne was mapping rock music to new emotional territories that were not possible earlier in the game; during rock’s primeval birth pangs or rebellious adolescent phase. The songs here reflected a post-adolescent energy, and though the examinations of the states of mind in many of the lyrics were filtered through an almost childlike sense of observation, much of the depth of what they dealt with were strictly adult. There were some love songs here, but they were fabricated from tropes that were far from routine. Byrne managed to put fresh spins on the subject matter that showed how far out he had set his sights even when dealing with most common subject in music. It is telling that each one of the Talking Heads albums to follow until the band’s near split in 1981 relied less and less on the subject matter of amour as grist for their creative mill. In 1977, Talking Heads set the pace for an exciting merger of art rock and pop with other exotic strains entering their music until the point was soon reached where the band sounded not a whit like the fresh-faced explorers who committed “Talking Heads: 77” to tape in the eponymous year of its title.

– 30 –

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1 Response to Record Review: Talking Heads:77 [part 2]

  1. Echorich says:

    Monk you said everything there is to say about No Compassion. I am glad you left it for part two as it really stands alone on the album.

    Side Two of Talking Heads 77 is a perfect album side.
    Side One is brilliant, filled with a range of pathos, and some amazing musicianship.
    But for these ears, Side Two offers songs that, 40 years later, I can sing every lyric to, matching Byrne’s tones and patterns. It is an album side that represents the New York City Lower East Side of my youth.
    Read It In Books is one of the 3 most important Talking Heads songs for me – along with Life During Wartime and Born Under Punches. It opens with a quiet, almost sneaky/private guitar tickle. Byrnes lyrics and delivery seem like they are coming strait out of his thoughts and daydreams. The Byrne we are treated to on 77 to this point was awkward, inward and lacking empathy, but in this dream song, he lets go and celebrates his infatuation with an ecstatic abandon until the song climax. It is also one of the songs on the album that points to the amazing production work done by Ed Stasium, Tony Bongiovi and Lance Quinn.
    Don’t Worry About The Government is a martial, pop nursery rhyme. It reminds me of growing up as a teen in NYC and all the dreams my friends and I had for our future. Byrne matches the music with a certain confidence and focus not found on the rest of the album.
    There’s a liberation in the tango/boss nova flavored First Week Last Week…Carefree. Whether Chris and Tina had a hand in the sound of this tune might be up for grabs, but it does speak to their future sound.
    Psycho Killer is a night song. You can PLAY it during the daytime, but that daytime will immediately turn to night once THAT bass line begins. To this day I find this song creeping into my mind at the oddest and completely random moments. For a lot of my friends and I, this was our Stairway To Heaven, our Dark Side Of The Moon, our Satisfaction. I bought a t-shirt from Trash and Vaudeville on St. Mark’s Place back in the day that read Psycho Killer on the front and “Qu’est-ce que c’est ” on the back and wore it to High School until it just fell apart.
    Being a bass guitar fan, I once had the opportunity to ask Sara Lee of Fripp’s League of Gentlemen and Gang Of Four what she thought of Tina’s bass line on Psycho Killer – she responded, and I paraphrase here, that it was the sound she was always looking for.
    That Talking Heads 77 ends on such an upbeat and powerful song as Pulled Up, is just what you describe Monk, joyous euphoria and triumph.
    Your final thoughts are spot on. I would give a large amount of credit to that rhythm section of Tina and Chris as I feel they are as integral to the sound of 77 as Byrne’s vision and delivery. As I have matured with 77, I have moved it out of the categorization of New Wave, which it certainly was at the time, and consider it one of the foundation albums of Post Punk from either side of the Atlantic. Along with Wire and Magazine, Talking Heads were changing the Pop and Rock musical and lyrical vernacular. Popular Music was beginning to escape the cage it was living in through much of the 60s and 70s. Yes, the safety of that gilded cage would find Pop and Rock returning to its protection in less than a decade, but for a number of very heady years, the rule book was rewritten.


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