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The story of Talking Heads' first love song 'Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town'

David Byrne didn’t really write love songs. The man who was obsessed with presenting topics as either lyrically obscure (‘Once in a Lifetime’, ‘Pull Up the Roots’) or deliberately straightforward (‘Paper’, ‘Found a Job’, ‘Making Flippy Floppy’) viewed love as a seismic topic that he couldn’t quite find the right tone for. In fact, Byrne had deliberately subverted the love song tropes on ‘I’m Not In Love’ from More Songs About Buildings and Food.

As he explained during his self-interview in the special features of the Stop Making Sense concert film, “I don’t think I’ve ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a sort of reservation, or a twist. I tried to write one that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do. I think I succeeded; I was pretty happy with that.” That song was ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’, perhaps the one true-blue heartfelt love song in the Talking Heads canon.

But love made appearances throughout the band’s discography. It’s just that, as Byrne mentioned, they usually had a twist on them. Love was hardly ever the central focus of songs that talked about the subject itself. Love’s effect on other people or the central figure of the tune? Sure. But actual genuine expressions of emotion from one person to another? Not one of Byrne’s specialities.

It’s fitting, then, that Talking Heads’ first song on their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, is an offbeat tune about the effects of love. ‘Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town’ is riddled with self-assuredness but presented with Byrne’s trademark anxiety-laden delivery. He’s lost all common sense for getting into the mysterious jam known as “love”, and although he chastises others by telling them, “If you were really smart, you’d know what to do”, he doesn’t seem as though he knows quite how to handle all these feelings himself.

Yet, despite his attempts to remain removed, Byrne himself can’t help but make some fairly romantic observations. “I’m a know-it-all, I’m smartest man around/ That’s right, you learn real fast through the smartest girl in town” is quite a compliment. At the same time, “I’ve called in sick, I won’t go to work today/ I’d rather be with the one I love” is practically Hallmark card worthy, especially given Byrne’s misgivings about being so emotionally open.

The feeling of uncertainty mixing with the confidence in knowing what you’re doing was appropriate given the setting that the band was in. While recording Talking Heads: 77, the band were paired up with producer Tony Bongiovi, with whom the band experienced conflict. Bongiovi was alternately dissatisfied and dismissive of the group’s music, and the conflict boiled over when Bongiovi attempted to get Byrne in the proper headspace to record ‘Psycho Killer’.

Bongiovi beloved Byrne should inhabit the song, instructing him to add more emotion and infliction in his vocal performance. To illustrate this, Bongiovi went to the studio’s kitchen a pulled out a knife, placing it in Byrne’s hands and instructing him to embody a killer. Byrne, who favoured the detached and colder reading of the song, felt that Bongiovi misunderstood his intentions. With that, engineer Ed Stasium stepped in to act as the band’s main conduit during recording. According to Stasium, most of the recording happened without Bongiovi’s knowledge or awareness.

As an opening song on a band’s debut, ‘Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town’ is a great example of what the world should expect from Talking Heads: rubbery guitars, oblique lyrics, bouncing bass, and a surprising focus on groove and funk. Byrne’s riddles would become more varied and in the coming years, but ‘Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town’ is the perfect starting point for a band that would build on its foundation to become new wave’s most exciting success stories. Byrne would probably tell you that it was all done without love songs, but that’s quite true. It was done without cliched love songs.

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