How the Talking Heads Took Their Tentative First Steps With ’77’
Talking Heads' jagged, quirky brand of New York New Wave/punk had been a fixture of the emerging CBGB scene during the mid '70s. But their studio debut, Talking Heads: 77, brought their idiosyncratic tunes to a wider audience when it was released on Sept. 16, 1977.
"There is something essential about losing control over what you do," bassist Tina Weymouth told Pig Paper that year. And while Talking Heads would certainly take those words to heart over the course of their eclectic, visionary recording career, their debut album is, in retrospect, somewhat tame and straightforward compared to the far-reaching experiments that would come over their next four or five albums.
From a musical standpoint, 77 is the band's most concise, linear effort, establishing the trademark herky-jerky guitar interplay of Jerry Harrison and David Byrne, the blocky rhythms of Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, and Byrne's polarizing frontman presence – which came across like the voice of a hiccuping robot and the words of a paranoid, wide-eyed impressionist.
In retrospect, some of the band's more simplified moments (like "Tentative Decisions") seem a bit thin. At this early stage, they hadn't yet discovered funk, or tape loops, or adventurous collaborators like Brian Eno, yet there's still a primal, engrossing energy that propels even the most by-the-numbers moments.
"A friend had found the [band] name in the TV Guide," Weymouth reflects in the liner notes to the 1992 compilation Sand in the Vaseline, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as "all content, no action." It fit. It's an ironic quote considering that while in the band's formative stages, they had action to spare, while their "content" was still being nurtured.
Talking Heads would reach their true pinnacle on more fluid, layered albums like Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues. But 77, with its raw, blemished intensity, is a distinct record in their catalog, and it's also home to some overlooked gems, like the brief-but-breakneck "Who Is It?" or the rousing "New Feeling."
Byrne's warbly yelp was still a sticking point for pop purists, yet it's an essential ingredient to the magic of their surprise breakout single, the menacing-yet-downright-catchy "Psycho Killer." And elsewhere, the band were already making baby-steps toward spicing up their sound (be it the gospel piano on "Happy Day" or the dizzying guitar flourishes on standout closer "Pulled Up"). Even if Talking Heads would move on to bigger and better things after this album, 77 remains an essential, and utterly fascinating entry point for one of rock's most fearless bands.