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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Psycho Killer

Have you ever grooved out to a song, loving it for its funky beat, its happy-go-lucky sound, and its ability to make you showcase everything you have on the dance floor only to find that if you listen closely to the lyrics, it’s really a song that has disturbing, horrifying, and even vulgar undertones to it?

This is the story of one of these songs. 

Of course, before I get to the main focus of the song, I thought that I would share with you some examples of what it is that I mean in my opening statement.

You know how a song might be fun to dance to, but once you listen to the lyrics, the song becomes less fun.  A popular dance song might lose its lustre when you discover that the lyrics involve somebody dying from a drug overdose.  A swinging country song might not seem so happy-go-lucky when you discover that the song is about a child getting abducted from his house.  A rap song that you think is off the hook might be off the playlists of radio stations everywhere when it is discovered that the lyrics promote bestiality.

(Not that any of these songs actually exist, mind you...they’re just extreme examples that I came up with as a supplement to this blog entry.)

Well, today’s blog is all about a song that was first performed in 1974, and officially released as a single three years later.  Although the song didn’t do very well on the Billboard Charts (it barely made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1977), it is widely considered to be the single that was deemed the breakout hit of the band that performed it.  Many people would argue that this particular single is the band’s signature hit (although I also believe songs such as “Once in a Lifetime”, “Burning Down The House” and “And She Was” rank high up there as well), and I imagine that hundreds of people rocked out to the beat of the song at proms, dance clubs, and parties.  Allmusic actually referred to the song as a “deceptively funky New Wave/No Wave song that had an insistent rhythm, and one of the most memorable, driving basslines in rock and roll”.

You know something, with a description like that, I think that we should take a listen to this song right now.

ARTIST:  Talking Heads
SONG:  Psycho Killer
ALBUM:  Talking Heads: 77
DATE RELEASED:  December 3, 1977

Now you might be surprised by the title of the song.  The song title of “Psycho Killer” doesn’t exactly sound like one that brings forth memories of happily dancing with your best friends on a club floor.  And if one were to actually sit down and read the lyrics (including the ones written in French), they may find that the song is all about what the title describes.

In fact, the song actually started off as a semi-narrative of a serial killer stalking people and killing them.  Talking Heads frontman David Byrne while he was writing the song stated that he imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad, and that he always found villains like Hannibal Lecter and the Joker more fascinating than the heroes. 

As I mentioned before, the song was originally composed in the early 1970s, and was performed by Byrne, and two friends of his that he met at the Rhode Island School of Design, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth.  Only back in those days, they didn’t go by the name “Talking Heads”.  Instead they went by a different band name, “The Artistics”.

At the time, Frantz and Weymouth were dating (they got married in 1977 and have stayed married ever since), and Weymouth wasn’t a part of “The Artistics” (though she did act as a groupie of sorts who provided transportation for the band).  However, the Artistics project never quite got up off the ground, and by 1975, the band had fizzled out.  But this was fine for Byrne and Frantz, who along with Weymouth moved out to New York City to find their fame and fortune.  The three ended up living together in a communal loft and Frantz and Byrne set out to begin another band.

The problem was that despite New York City’s size, the pair were unable to find a decent bass player for their new band.  So Frantz came up with a solution.  Since Tina Weymouth was living with them at the time, why not teach Tina how to play bass in their band? 

And the way that Tina learned how to play base was quite interesting.  Ever hear of a musician by the name of Suzi Quatro?  You might have seen her acting in an episode of two of “Happy Days”, but she is also considered to be one of the first female bass players to become a huge solo recording star and she still performs today.  I suppose if one was starting out new as a bass player, Suzi Quatro would be a great person to develop skills from.

With the addition of Weymouth to the band, the band needed a new name, and the group settled on the name “Talking Heads”.  As Weymouth later admitted in an interview, the group ended up selecting the new name after flipping through the pages of TV Guide Magazine.  A friend had stumbled upon the term “talking heads” which was used by television studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as “all-content, no-action”.  For Weymouth and the rest of the band, the name seemed to describe their group perfectly, and the rest is history.

And for the band’s first gig, you couldn’t do much better than the New York City music club CBGB.  Talking Heads performed their first concert there in 1975, and the rest is history.

Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth, and keyboard player Jerry Harrison continued on with the band throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, releasing eight studio albums between 1977 and 1988, two live albums, and releasing at least twenty singles between 1977 and 1992.

But in early 1992, David Byrne had made the decision to pursue a solo career, and that same year, the Talking Heads opted to call it quits, although Frantz, Weymouth, and Harrison would reunite for one more album which was released in 1996.  

Frantz and Weymouth would also form their own side project away from the Talking Heads, the Tom Tom Club, who had a hit single in 1980 with “Genius of Love”.

But their first single will always be the one that got the Talking Heads noticed...even it it was just a little bit on the morbid side.

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