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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Talking Heads, "Talking Heads: 77"

Talking Heads
"Talking Heads: 77"
Sire (1977)

1001 Album You Must Hear Before You Die

David Byrne has earned his place in music history, and it's not because of his work with the Talking Heads. He's one of the biggest promoters of world music (as we've seen with Waldemar Bastos, and we'll see again) and he's advanced sampling through his experimentation and work with Brian Eno ("My Life In The Bush of Ghosts"). Still, the Talking Heads kind of set the standard for new wave, so albums like "Talking Heads: 77" deserve a listen.

During its first go, the Talking Heads didn't need synthesizer to make them new age. There's an organ on occasion ("Happy Day") but the genre was really about taking same old instruments and veering off the path being set by rock 'n' roll. At the time (1977), rock was heading in, by my estimate, three directions. The "classic" sound was becoming more bombastic by way of Led Zeppelin and T. Rex, and punk was proudly not that. New wave opted to avoid glamor in the same way punk did, but it also avoided the dense cacophony punk created. The name of the game was efficiency.

Consider Talking Heads' best known song to this day, "Psycho Killer." The opening bass line is about as simple as it gets, but fills its purpose splendidly. There's a bit of tremolo picking in the opening riff, but it drops back when the lyrics begin. During the entirety of the famous hook (35 seconds during the first instance), a mere dozen chords are strummed as Byrne meanders between English and French. Chris Frantz drums with an even more bare-bones fashion. There's a reason new wave is alternately known as "art punk": The genre captures punk's simplicity without yielding to reckless abandon.

Of course Byrne's subject matter is also entirely unlike that of punk. Aside from one Devo-esque satire ("Don't Worry About The Government"), Byrne takes the '60s pop approach to songwriting, focusing on the romantic tribulations of his high school self. The frontman writes differently than typical pop however. Although the Beach Boys and young Donny Osmond may have delivered tales of puppy love (see what I did there?) in poetic form, Byrne's protagonist recites his lines less than melodically, often not rhyming, as if he doesn't know what to say (the first four tracks on "77" sum this up pretty well). In my experiences, talking to girls during high school was tough (but I wasn't Chief Keef or anything). Kudos to Byrne for earning my sympathies, and reflecting much of the world's reality.

Anyway, Talking Heads are great and all, but it's only one of the facets in which we'll see Byrne during the duration of this blog. Through his work as a musician, collaborator, producer and label owner, Byrne may be the most well represented individual in the 1,700 albums or so we look at.

INTERESTING FACT: As I mentioned a few posts ago with Randy Newman, it's tough when people take your work literally. Byrne may have thought this when Ice-T revealed that the song served as an inspiration for Body Count's notorious hit "Cop Killer."

Psycho Killer by Talking Heads on Grooveshark

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