Photo courtesy of NME: The Talking Heads, photo taken backstage at a concert in 1980.
Post-punk is an endlessly fascinating genre of music. Although deemed the style of music that followed the boom of punk rock music in the mid-70’s, post-punk bands existed even before the punk rock explosion. The output of these post-punk pioneers simply could not be placed into a genre, and therefore were only categorized when there was a phrase to claim the style of the bands. One of the most important groups of the post-punk era was The Talking Heads. Formed in 1975, before the Sex Pistols or the Clash, the ever changing, poppy, and angular sound of the Talking Heads made them revolutionary in modern music. Their debut album, Talking Heads 77, turns 40 years old this year. However, it still sounds fresh and experimental, providing a template for post-punk that decades of artists proceeded to build off of.
Talking Heads 77 is restless. It is cunning. Most of all, it sounds like nothing anyone had ever made before that time. The Talking Heads were part of the CBGB club scene in the mid-70’s New York, and with their contemporaries Television and Blondie, they effectively invented post-punk. Talking Heads 77 is a perfect distillation of the style of The Talking Heads. All instrumentation on the album is perfectly clean. There is not a beat out of place. Every note sounds perfectly orchestrated. This polished style makes the voice of David Byrne stand out that much more on the album. Byrne does not sound like a conventional rock singer. He is often off pitch, monotone, sometimes singing in multiple languages on the same track. His lyrics are cryptic, often almost paranoid, and take multiple listens to decipher completely. The experience can be confusing, but is completely enjoyable due to the truly beautiful instrumentation backing him.
Although the entire album is immensely enjoyable, it is the closing two songs that solidify the album as a certified classic. The first of the two is “Psycho Killer.” One of The Talking Heads most popular songs, the stark bass line and sing along chorus is immediately memorable. The melodies are frighteningly catchy. You may find yourself singing it days later. The song following it is “Pulled Up.” In all senses of the word, “Pulled Up” is exhilarating. The Talking Heads were all about tight instrumentation and pointed lyrics, and this is where they let loose. The song is about finally succeeding after time spent as a disappointment, much more optimistic than the song prior that described a psycho killer. The song is nearly bombastic in a sense, with Byrne almost yelling the chorus, and the backing instrumentation becoming increasingly raw and exciting. It is a whirlwind of a song, and a great way to end the album.
The bands that The Talking Heads inspired went on to have a massive impact on modern music. It’s easy to hear the pure, clear, poppy instrumentation in modern groups like Vampire Weekend or Phoenix. And Byrne’s voice, fractured, uneven, and extremely passionate, helped dispel the myth that the lead singer needs to inherently have a perfect voice. It’s hard to imagine bands like Joy Division and Arcade Fire existing without The Talking Heads breaking through, proving that passion in lead vocals is more important than hitting the actual notes. The importance of the band to modern music is almost incalculably large.
The Talking Heads hold a special place in the echelons of music, and Talking Heads 77 was a brilliant debut for the group. It showcased a perfect balance of experimentation and perfectionism. Everything sounds extremely weird, but it is easy to tell that the band intended it to be portrayed that way-. The Talking Heads understood the conventions and rules of rock music at that time. And the reason that they are so monumentally important, is that they were able to break those rules, and show groups for many years to come how to do the same.
By Sebastian De Lasa