When you put it all on paper, there’s something decidedly punk about the beginnings of Talking Heads, one of the foremost band of the seventies New York scene. Three friends, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who had graduated from art school made their way to the Big Apple, rented a dirt-cheap loft just around the corner from CBGB’s and went about plying their trade in the grime-covered rock Mecca. So far, so good.
The moment the band split from their punk alignment was Talking Heads 77, the group’s debut album. The record not only set out a path for Talking Heads to begin their ascension to the top of the new wave pile but, through its conception, its welcoming of different genres and styles, and its connection to the world around it, David Byrne and Talking Heads ended up quickly making punk look just a little bit silly.
There’s a lot about the punk ethos that can appeal to us as music lovers as opposed to music creators. The get-up-and-go attitude that has propelled some of the world’s best DIY bands likely started in earnest when the surge of punk rock bands suddenly flooded rock venues across the globe. It was a tantalising prospect, gather some friends, learn a few chords and chuck yourselves out on stage ready to put attitude ahead of knowledge and power ahead of precision. It was a system that worked for several acts—but not Talking Heads.
David Byrne and Chris Frantz weren’t so concerned with music when their first band together, The Artistics, ended up folding before they left Providence in Rhode Island. Having attended the Rhode Island School of Design, the duo, plus Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth, headed to New York with only vague notions of starting a band again. When they arrived, they quickly began to see that the power of the city would end up changing their minds.
One night, Frantz and Weymouth went down to CBGB’s, a local haunt just down the road from their $250 a month loft that the group shared and were left stunned by the bands they had witnessed on the cramped and grimy stage. The murmurings of punk were picking up where acts like The Stooges had left off and the new style of sonic delivery was intoxicating. Brash and unabashed, the Ramones have hardly changed since and were still the heavy metal bubblegum joy they always have been—but they showed the band a new path.
Frantz understood that something new was happening and that they had to be a part of it. He implored Byrne to pick up the mic again and start writing some songs but they had one problem—there was no bassist. Most punk acts at this time would simply write a few single-note strum patterns, pick up someone who looked the part and put them in place ready to go on stage Friday night. But Talking Heads are always a little bit different. Instead, Frantz and Byrne encouraged Weymouth to pick up the bass and become their new member, throwing away opportunities to take to the stage as they waited, but championing a member they knew would work well with them for the long term.
When they did eventually arrive as the support act for the aforementioned heroes of punk the Ramones, the band were nearing full fruition. They soon picked up Jerry Harrison from Modern Lovers fame and completed their band—the call for a new record was growing ever stronger by the day. But Byrne and the band weren’t to be deterred, they had their path and were clear they weren’t about to rush down the road for anybody. It saw them turn down a record contract, instead preferring to bide their time and ensure they had the right guys on board for what would become Talking Heads 77.
With Ramones carving out their niche in the dungeon of CBGB’s in New York and the Sex Pistols upsetting pretty much everybody in London, by the time Talking Heads released their debut album, the word punk was being touted across the airwaves in radio and TV stations across the world. In fact, for many, the genre was already dying.
Foundational artists of the genre, like Iggy Pop and Joan Jett, were always quick to put down any notion of ‘punk rock’ being anything but a type of music but it didn’t stop major corporations trying to cash in. The ongoing popularisation and commercialisation of the style and its devotees meant that Talking Heads would never really be accepted as part of the scene and here is where the band made everyone who would reject them look a little foolish.
If you happen to find yourself browsing online punk communities you will know that a large part of the dialogue within them is focused around what is or isn’t defined as ‘punk’. It would seem, in the grandest of all ironies, the genre of music that refuses to be categorised or defined by anyone but themselves is constantly labelling bands and artists as punks or posers.
The same can be said back in 1977, too. As the wolves of the modern business began to circle the notion of punk, those within the scene moved hell and high water to defend it. They did so largely by rejecting anyone who didn’t fall into their determination of what punk really was. It meant that while the decade was bursting full of some of the best music the 20th century would ever see, the bands and groups within the industry rarely acknowledged their closeness and the audiences defended their favourite acts like deities on crusades. Not so for Talking Heads.
Instead, Byrne and his band would gladly celebrate and revel in it. They were keen to show off the rhythmic joys they had found in a city full of life and culture. New York City may have been both figuratively and literally burning as arsonists tried to cash insurance claims amid a bankrupt government, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t all sway our hips and shuffle our feet to get over it. So Byrne and the group welcomed the influence of artists and genres with whom they had become acquainted, including jazz legend Don Cherry who lived in the same building, or the wonderful composer Philip Glass or even the incredible Arthur Russell, all of whom had some influence on the album. For Talking Heads, nothing was off-limits.
What punk music seemed to have missed at the time was that you could have the anger, the frustration, the refusal to be pigeonholed within your songs and still make your audience dance rather than pogo. With Talking Heads 77, the band were able to show the darker side of the city without compromising their sound meaning songs like ‘Psycho Killer’—a track literally about a murderous psychopath—and ‘No Compassion’ could find their way on to countless dancefloors, the latter being the band’s last real connection with the punk scene. If there’s one thing this album does, apart from making you dance, it is that it defines the band’s sound.
From the very first notes of album opener ‘Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town’ we can hear the band’s incandescent ability to infuse everything they do with an unstoppable effervescence. Whether it is the disco shuffle, the funky groove or the inescapable hook, Talking Heads were acting as musical magpies, picking the shiniest jewels to add to their collection—and what a collection it is. Across the album, there are songs that make you think, songs that make you dance, songs that make you cry and of course songs that make you laugh. It was a rejection of the machismo that had flooded rock ‘n’ roll, it was an album that stuck two fingers up at attitude and put the focus back on artistry.
It’s a feat that could never have been achieved without Talking Heads opening themselves up to the world and trying to connect with it. This is where Talking Heads makes punk look stupid. With their debut album, the band proved that they were the most open, connected, free-spirited, artistically uninhibited, non-conformist, welcoming to its audience and all-round unreproachable punks you’d ever seen. But, despite that, they were turned away from the scene because they liked to use a keyboard.
Instead, Talking Heads 77 confirmed one thing, the band were not only set to make serious waves in the future but that they were already lightyears ahead of all their contemporaries.