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Music

How Alfred Hitchcock inspired one of Talking Heads' greatest songs

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Some songs cement themselves in your mind, body and soul from the very first notes. Vibrating through our eardrums and bouncing off the very cells in our bodies until we accept them as pop parasites forevermore. It may sound gruesome, but it’s really what every band or artist hopes to achieve — creating music that becomes a part of humanity itself. For Talking Heads, the arthouse band led by David Byrne, they have a few gems in their catalogue that can operate this way, continuously reverberating around our collective consciousness like a buzzing bluebottle trapped by the fallacy of a nearby window.

Of course, anthems like ‘This Must Be The Place’ and ‘Born Under Punches’ may well rank highly among their fans, but they don’t have the same infectious capabilities. ‘Once In A Lifetime’, the pop perfection created alongside Brian Eno, certainly has a case for such a performance but, in truth, there’s only one song that can truly take the accolade, and it just so happened to be the song that cemented their foundational forays into the bustling music scene. In true Talking Heads style, their anthem wasn’t inspired by summer love or the winter loneliness but by Alfred Hitchcock and his film Psycho.

It didn’t take much for a talk, dark, handsome, angular and awkward David Byrne to channel his inner Norman Bates. Beyond the visual similarities, Byrne’s early stage persona lent itself nicely to the portrayal as he said himself, “I couldn’t talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching.” It would already provide the band’s fans with an unusual prospect in comparison to the frontmen that surrounded punk rock clubs.

Naturally, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho became quite the muse and soundboard for Byrne as he meddled the art scene, tangled up in all the world-weary sincerity of blue-collared folk, the simple joy of dance music in all of its global guises and the great smorgasbord of pop-culture. It was enough to kickstart one of the band’s most beloved songs.

Released as part of the band’s debut album Talking Heads: 77, the group managed to convince producer Tony Bongiovi that their original cut of ‘Psycho Killer’ needed some more power to it. So they quickly began to heap more and more bass into the song as Byrne’s story of a serial killer unfurls, inspired by the darkness he witnessed in the movies, namely, Hitchcock’s Psycho.

It’s an area of life which has always been attractive to Byrne, “When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad,” he said. “Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.”

Byrne also asked fluent French-speaking bassist Tina Weymouth to pen a surging middle eight to be sung in French in order to convey the schizophrenic personality of the unstable narrator. The effect might not be as chilling as the shower slashing scene, but it’s just as enthralling and it has worked to encapsulate a band who, for most of their careers, remained indefinable.

When the first iconic notes of ‘Psycho Killer’ came pounding out of the speakers, everybody roots for David Byrne and Talking Heads, whether they are the mentioned ‘psychos’ or otherwise.

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