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The Story Behind The Song: Talking Heads' murderous bop 'Psycho Killer'

On August 10, 1977, David Berkowitz was arrested. The 24-year-old postal worker was an Army veteran with an honourable discharge, and despite being viewed as somewhat of a loner, he showed no public signs of mental disturbance beyond a childhood infatuation with pyromania. He was deemed fit to stand trial and subsequently pleaded guilty to the eight shootings he was indicted.

David Byrne has continuously denied that the Son of Sam killings were the inspiration behind his band Talking Heads first hit, ‘Psycho Killer’. However, the similarities in content and the eerie timing between the arrest of Berkowitz and the single’s release a few months later were enough for the public to forever associate the two together.

The truth was that David Byrne had begun writing the song years before Berkowitz ever committed a crime. The song’s origins lie with Byrne’s college band The Artistics, which also included future Talking Heads drummer Chris Franz. Formed while the two were attending the Rhode Island School of Design, The Artistics were art-rock in a similar vein to Roxy Music, with Byrne’s focus on the minutia of everyday life driving the band forward. The band broke up after less than a year, and upon graduation, Byrne and Franz moved to New York City with Franz’s girlfriend, Tina Weymouth.

The initial inspiration behind the song was the macabre stage antics of Alice Cooper. “When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad,” Byrne explained in the liner notes for the compilation album Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. “Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.” When it came to bad guys in rock and roll, nobody revelled in the antagonistic role more than Cooper.

In the book Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime: The Stories Behind Every Song, Byrne explains that lyrics began to fall into place bit by bit: “I can’t seem to face up to the facts/I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax” came from Byrne’s own neuroses, while “You start a conversation/You can’t even finish it” was a last-minute addition as the band were recording, so much so that the new lyrics didn’t make it to the lyric sheet provided in Talking Heads: ’77

When it came to the bridge, however, Byrne was stuck. He wanted something foreign and less direct than the verses, something to represent a Jekyll and Hyde type of split personality, but didn’t have the proper training or knowledge to bring this section to life. Despite having diverse adolescence that included stays in the United Kingdom and Canada, Byrne was only fluent in English. 

That’s where Tina Weymouth, who had learned bass and joined the band at the insistence of Franz and the hesitation of Byrne, stepped in. Weymouth’s mother was of French ancestry, and the bassist either translate or directly wrote the lines: “Ce que j’ai fait, ce soir-là/Ce qu’elle a dit, ce soir-là/Réalisant mon espoir/Je me lance, vers la gloire,” which translates to: “What I did that night/What she said that night/Realising my hopes/I’m headed toward glory.”

The French lyrics have been a notoriously challenging addition for any cover bands that attempt the song. Many have resorted to spewing gibberish and nonsense in place of any actual French or reciting any foreign phrases that might come to mind. Through the latter practice, a young punk band got their name by jokingly throwing out an old children’s game in place of the bridge’s actual lyrics: Husker Du.

Due to the contributions added by Franz and Weymouth, the two received co-writing credits for the song, their only writing credits on Talking Heads: ’77. Weymouth created the insistent and memorable bassline that kicks off the song, while Franz contributed to the arrangement of the song’s sections. It was one of the band’s first original compositions, and the band initially began playing it toward the end of 1975.

When the Son of Sam murders coincided with the recording of Talking Heads: ’77, the band’s record company, Sire, saw an opportunity to capitalise on the notoriety of the killings. The band were wary, especially since the song had nothing to do with the Son of Sam, but they realised that the label was preparing to put out the single with or without the band’s direct approval, so they went along with it. What followed was years of denials and insistence that the song was separate from the time and place it is most associated with.

Still, the gambit worked: ‘Psycho Killer’ saw Talking Heads scrape into the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time, and its infamy boosted sales of the band’s debut album. It might have been seen as a cheap piggyback on real-life events, but it allowed Talking Heads to get their foot in the door of the music industry. At nearly every show of the band’s career, including those for Stop Making Sense and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band have returned to their lurid second single, forever etching ‘Psycho Killer’ as the band’s signature song.

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