Combining the raw energy of the CBGB scene with a sound that is entirely extraterrestrial, Talking Heads: 77 provided an opulent mouthpiece for the sound that was brewing throughout the nation. There were other acts mining the same wavelength (recording sessions for Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! would begin the month after this album hit shelves), but Talking Heads took it to an extreme that made them synonymous with the art rock movement of the late 1970s. While they had yet to fully embrace the sheer confidence that would make their grandiose vision possible, the band’s debut studio album was momentous for ushering in a brand new era.
Although Talking Heads: 77 was far less avant garde in its orientation than where the band was headed, it still feels revolutionary. With off-kilter melodies and strikingly sincere conversational lyricism, the album seemed as though it was shaping the direction of contemporary music. Just as ahead of the curve as their most critically acclaimed efforts, 77 worked to create the concept of ‘alternative rock’ and proved that Talking Heads were a band that everyone should have an opinion about.
Before it even gets to the first verse, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” washes over the listener with its bouncy rhythm section. Tina Weymouth is a vivacious bass player, and her funky grooves work in perfect consonance with Chris Frantz’s jazz-adjacent drum pattern, demonstrating that their chemistry bleeds over into all aspects of their lives. All the while, Jerry Harrison’s island-inspired keyboards mesh lovingly with the ping of the steel drums. Then, David Byrne’s distinct shaky, almost spoken-word vocals transport the audience to another dimension altogether. It is merely a taste of how far down the rabbit hole the album is going to venture.
“New Feeling” is motivated by such an overwhelming feeling of panic, even when dealing with the mundanity of everyday life. The early Talking Heads period is so beautifully unique from the form their career would take in the 1980s, mainly because of a shift in attitude. David Byrne is far from a conventional rock frontman, and he approached the beginnings of his musical career with a shyness and self-awareness that was somewhat lost when he became a huge star. On “New Feeling,” Byrne makes himself completely vulnerable as he struggles to find his footing as a performer. The result is unflinchingly human, the rare open-veined look at anxiety that you can also dance to.
Much like the stand-up comedy of the era, “Tentative Decisions” points out the fundamental differences in the thought processes of men and women. However, as the song goes on, the gender roles are reversed, stripping away the societal barriers that separate the sexes. The lyrics are full of the gags David Byrne sneaks in to amuse himself, spanning from dirty jokes to literary references. Sonically, the song is difficult to keep up with. It cycles back and forth through various movements, each one drastically different from what was being played on the radio (with Andy Gibb and Rita Coolidge topping the charts at the time).
Talking Heads can often get a bad rap in certain circles, written off as being overly cynical and cold, but “Happy Day” takes their analytical point of view and shows that they still have heart. It’s an uncharacteristically optimistic song for the band, finding hope in life’s small pleasures. While the chorus can come off as piercingly abrupt, this is one of the most pleasant sounding and easily digestible tracks on the album. Once again, David Byrne assumes the role of the outsider, confined to his lonely, nerdy sensibilities as he watches the world around him: “I want to talk like I read / Before I decide what to do.” He is still straddled with a neurotic nature, but he is learning to be content with it.
Between its big, open spaces, its funky guitar riffs, and its minimal lyrics, “Who Is It?” proudly displays the influence of James Brown on the band. Behind the disco strut is a nervous narrator, one who is weary of what is lurking in the shadows. It’s a relatively straightforward groove that manages to expand into an all-out jam session in just over a minute and a half. Much of the widespread appeal of Talking Heads stems from their extravagant live performances, and this song was an indicator of what was just around the corner.
While it’s not quite to the level of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, “No Compassion” chastises people for their inability to pin themselves to reality. Although the speaker wants to feel sympathy for those dealing with hardships, there is only so much one person can take. Perhaps it is meant to be directed inwardly, with Byrne telling himself to pull it together. After a few minutes of fast-paced rock energy, the song has a false ending that plays like a deep breath after a long, spirited rant, only to smoothly return to the subject with a newfound sense of clarity.
There’s an observational fascination to much of the band’s music that feels like an alien trying to understand how human beings operate. “The Book I Read” applies this curiosity to a love song, as the speaker forms a connection with the creator of the art that had truly spoken to him. The track wonderfully captures the moment when you find out a piece of information about someone that causes you to fall for them further than you ever thought possible. Structurally, “The Book I Read” is a shapeshifter, with the lines between chorus and verse blurred into a single, all-encompassing experience.
As much as David Byrne loves to poke fun at himself, he is even more enamored with gingerly mocking everyone else. “Don’t Worry About the Government” sees a world that was tailored for convenience, and in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, it points out that the problems of bureaucracy stem from the individuals we have chosen to keep things running smoothly. While we are concerned with instant gratification, we often make life more difficult than it needs to be in the long run. It is a funny song that reminds us not to take anything too seriously: “I’ll be working, working but if you come visit / I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important.”
“First Week/Last Week… Carefree” is a prime example of the overwhelming ambition that separated Talking Heads from their fellow CBGB frequenters. Could you imagine a Ramones song that featured a marimba and a horn break? In his falsetto screams, David Byrne runs through a phrase over and over again, until it loses its original meaning. Audiences were able to witness the quirky, art house core of the band being formed before their eyes.
The band’s first taste of mild success, “Psycho Killer” points the lens toward the villain of its own story. Anchored by an unfaltering bassline from Tina Weymouth, the song has a raw punk rock accessibility that isn’t found on any other Talking Heads tracks. There’s a surprising symmetry to the verses, and it is one of the few moments on the album that seems concerned with rhyming. The runaway hit (especially with European audiences) finds a happy medium between breezy and aggressive, further cementing the sound that the band was so meticulously cultivating.
“Pulled Up” boasts the innovative structural changes that would become associated with Talking Heads, with a sly guitar riff that follows a different time signature than the lyrics do. It ends the album on a positive note, leaving the audience with a bout of encouragement. Even though Byrne was unable to help others with their problems earlier on the record, here he realizes that he needs assistance of his own. Luckily, he is able to find it.
Altering how people view song arrangements, Talking Heads: 77 breaks down the conventions of rock and roll. Even the title of their next album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, was an acknowledgement that the band didn’t focus on traditional subject matter in their songs. The record provided a musical outlet for outsiders and “artfags,” as well as anyone else who didn’t feel an attachment to disco or arena rock. The phrase “ahead of its time” gets used to death, but with this album, it is actually warranted.