Hall of Records

Talking Heads: '77

by Michael Tatum

Released: September 16, 1977 (Sir)

The key song on the Talking Heads' 1977 landmark debut is a little-discussed ditty called "No Compassion." If for some reason you've never heard the song, don't listen to it without reading the lyric first. Consider it as mere words on the printed page, bereft of musical context. How would most singers approach the sentiment "Compassion is a virtue/But I don't have the time?" Or: "In this world/Where decisions are a way of life/Other people's problems they overwhelm my mind?" Who would voice an interior monologue like: "My interest level's dropping, my interest level is dropping/I've heard all I want to/I don't want to hear any more," or tell a good friend, "Go...talk to your analyst, isn't that what they're paid for," or follow that up with the advice, "Be a little selfish/It might do you some good?" Consider for a moment the various ways you might approach these lyrics, how they might change given the persona of the singer. A folkie like Loudon Wainwright III would yoke it to rollicking folk rock and deliver it with gleeful sarcasm, while a punk like the Sex Pistols' John Lydon would have put it across with a vituperative sneer. Now, plug yourself into Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's performance on Talking Heads '77: awkward, nervous, and completely un-ironic, though not necessarily "sincere" either, although in "Tentative Feelings," an earlier song on the record, he links the inability of "girls" to make decisions to an incapacity for "hard logic." Yet -- and here's the completely original part -- his yelp doesn't convey cruelty or insensitivity, at least not how you or I might define it. Compassion just doesn't compute with the way this man is wired.

Let's flash forward to the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The Heads are no longer young, and no longer a band -- they haven't been since 1991, when Byrne sealed the deal with a matter-of-fact retort in an interview, though the members hadn't recorded any music together since 1988's limp Naked (to their further shock and bewilderment, Byrne sued them a few years later when they attempted to record an album of new material with revolving-door-guests under the brand name). After Anthony Kiedes earnestly thanks them for their contribution, for "making the world a better place," he welcomes all four band members to the stage, with Tina Weymouth approaching the podium first. The bassist is in many ways Byrne's opposite number in the Heads -- outgoing, passionate, demonstrative, straight-shooting. She's been bitterly vocal about the band's strained relationship with Byrne in the press -- soon after this evening, she will describe him to Glasgow's Sunday Herald as "a man incapable of returning friendship," and that "cutting off attachments when a thing/person is perceived to have served its purpose or there is a perceived threat to ego is the lifelong pattern of his relations." Tonight, attired entirely in black, she delivers the longest segment of their acceptance speech, and despite her diminutive stature she's intense, leaning forward, putting strong, pointed emphasis on every sentiment. Thanking CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, who believed in them from the beginning and gave them their first performance venue, she says: "He taught us a lot about ethics, how to treat people." She notes about the band and their handlers, "We were a great team, you know? We worked together on this stuff," but her gratitude has a sting in the tail, and her bitterness is unmistakable to everyone -- everyone except perhaps to David Byrne himself, standing right behind her, smiling boyishly. Is the distinct uncomfortability he exhibits during his own brief thanks (the camera pans down to his shifting feet) an indication of what he's really feeling? Or is that projection on my part, and it's merely his peculiar brain chemistry's version of normal? I'm reminded of a memorable 1977 Rolling Stone piece in which Byrne wonders whether the afternoon rain is carrying (in his words) "fallout from the recent Chinese A-test." Meanwhile, Tina blasély informs the table that the reason David turned away from the camera in the debut's inside-sleeve photograph is because he farted -- "Maybe men do it more than women."

Before he became the spasmodic man in the Big Suit that Rich Hall delighted in parodying on Saturday Night Live, Byrne attended the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he was expelled after presenting a piece for his conceptual art course which has since become legendary: he had his hair and beard shaved off onstage to a piano accordion accompaniment while a showgirl displayed cue cards written in Russian. In leaving the school he also left behind his band the Artistics, which also featured drummer Chris Frantz, the son of a general whose martial rhythms can be traced back to a stint in his high school marching band (for a taste, check out '77's "New Feeling"). Byrne spent the next few years busking in New York, writing songs that would eventually become part of the Talking Heads repertoire, like "Psycho Killer," which gets in the mind of a blank-generation sociopath who makes threats in French when those around him needlessly repeat things they've already said. Frantz joined him after graduation with fellow classmate and girlfriend Weymouth, who took up the bass at Frantz' urging, though Weymouth says the less empathetic Byrne was the better task master ("He had no patience whatsoever," she said to Greg Isola of Bass Player magazine). As it evolved however, Weymouth's tart, syncopated playing, indebted to jazz and funk sources and astutely compared by Isola to a trombone, served as the anchor to a herky-jerk musical style that needed grounding the preternaturally anxious Byrne could never provide. With Hilly Kristal's beaming approval, the band woodshedded for two years at CBGB, eventually drawing sell-out crowds and eliciting the interest of curious record companies, most notably Sire's Seymour Stein, who they turned down because they felt they "weren't ready." Finally, in February of 1977 they released their first single, "Love --> Building on Fire" (not included on '77), added a fourth member, former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison, and recorded this album with Tony Bongiovi, whose previous credits included the Ramones, Jimi Hendrix, and Gloria Gaynor -- an oddball résumé which one assumes suited this eclectic quartet just fine.

The Talking Heads' endearingly quirky aesthetic is so singularly recognizable, by now so part of the cultural backdrop, that it's amazing to wonder how strange it must have sounded in 1977. It begins with David Byrne's uncommon sense of rhythm, which Weymouth once described as "insane but fantastic" -- clipped, stilted, gawky, and suitable for pogoing to, if not the Mashed Potato. He doesn't sing so much as spurt, and especially on the early records he eschews singing words over two syllables; on the rare instances when he draws out a note over a measure he usually chops it up into tiny phrases: "Not this close be-fore-ore-ore-ore" on "New Feeling," or the strangled yodel on "Psycho Killer." In a time when most white musicians imitated funk conventionally -- like KC and the Sunshine Band, who the Talking Heads adored -- Byrne approached the concept of syncopation in a way that better suited his bodily rhythms, in a manner so heteroclite the Heads' off-kilter art pop didn't strike their fans as particularly derived from black sources until the band made their debt clearer with their 1978 cover or Al Green's "Take Me to the River" (although the bass line of the song that opens here, "Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town," sure does sound like they stole it from the Jackson 5). And without a doubt they were strange, voicing sentiments that hadn't been heard before in rock and roll: describing the rush of feelings accompanying a first kiss, Byrne sings, "I try to make myself clear/In front of a face that's nearer/Than it's ever been before." He prefaces "The Book I Read" with an admonition that will be familiar to anyone who grew up with Disney Read-Along records: "Listen while you read!" And in the downright perverse "Don't Worry About the Government," Byrne praises "the people that are working for me," which one suspects from context includes everyone from the President Carter down to the nice clerk at the post office, while reminding himself to "put down what he's doing" because "friends are important." This from a person who has been called a man incapable of friendship. I say however his real life relationships have run their course -- and Byrne has been linked romantically almost exclusively with other highly artistic types, from photographer Cindy Sherman to choreographer Twyla Tharp -- the character Byrne plays on this record is "strange" not because of his disjointed stage presence or jittery tenor, but because of the painfully introverted way he relates to the mundane and everyday. The finer points of interpersonal communication escape him because they don't gibe with his orderly sense of logic: "Oh, the girls still want to talk/Like to talk about those problems." And the boys? "They are concerned with these decisions."

Byrne didn't remain this awkward forever, getting downright sexy and/or mystical for what many consider to be the Talking Heads' magnum opus, the still-revolutionary tape loop fantasia Remain in Light, but it was on the early albums Byrne established the curious persona for which he is best known. The concept of autism wasn't part of the national dialogue then as it is now -- like so much of our understanding of the human brain, what we know has evolved significantly over time -- but it's tempting to read so much of the Heads' story through that prism. The year after their induction to the Hall of Fame, Weymouth angrily (and, I think, cruelly) outed Byrne as having "Asperger's Syndrome," what we now call a high-functioning autistic. Byrne verified this in 2009, claiming that doctors diagnosed him as such as a child, but that he "grew out of it," something that Dr. Tony Attwood, the world's authority on the subject, claims isn't possible, though functionality can be "improved." It would be fascinating to read insights on this subject from a psychologist with an affection for punk and new wave. But what I think is ultimately more important is that in an era of I'm-Okay-You're-Okay that laid the groundwork for today's vacuous self-help movement, David Byrne, whether expressing himself or not, stood as a fascinating cultural outlier -- someone who not only doesn't know how you feel, but couldn't grasp your basic needs and innermost feelings even if he tried. Compassion is a virtue -- everyone knows that. That's hard logic. He just... doesn't have the time.

June 20, 2014, Odyshape