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CD Review: Talking Heads – 77

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Everyone has opinions about musical influence, and such opinions can be dangerous things. They constrain perception and skew perspective. But they’re there anyway, and better aired than hidden, so I’ll open my review of 77 with a bit of jackleg musical taxonomy:

Resolved, that if one draws a straight line segment of tradition and influence, beginning with The Velvet Underground, running through Jonathan Richman and terminating at Violent Femmes, the career of Talking Heads will branch off from the precise middle of that segment.

Simplification? Yes. Over-simplification? Maybe. But that’s the way I see it, and not just because because of David Byrne’s quirky vocal style. So now you know where I’m coming from.

I was too young to appreciate 77 at the time of its release, and never really followed the band until closer to the end of their run. Discovering their debut album only a few years ago was a bit of a revelation: after grooving on the band’s later work, I’d also spent a good deal of time treasuring Richman and Lou Reed without grokking the similarities. Given drummer Jerry Harrison’s past with Richman’s original band, I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but I was. This album stands up, in a weird way, next to Loaded and The Modern Lovers as a sort of roadmap through the quirkdom of the East Coast seventies alternative scene.

The new edition of 77 (part of Rhino Records’ re-release of all eight of the band’s studio albums) is a remaster with four bonus tracks (including a previously unreleased track of “I Feel It In My Heart,” which I can only properly describe as Southern Rock Disco), and a second DVD side full of cool stuff — the entire album in 5.1 Surround Sound, a photo gallery and concert videos of “I Feel It In My Heart” and “Pulled Up.” The extras are nice, but they’re the gravy. The meat and potatoes were there all along.

I can’t speak to issues of sound quality improvement since I’ve never heard the album on vinyl, but on CD it combines the sparseness of the band’s recording style (16, sometimes only 8, tracks and not overbearingly mixed toward the rhythm section) with the subtlety of their actual performance in an extraordinarily satisfying way. Lattice, rather than wall, of sound prevails, with guitar and drums trading off as the entwining ivy. Interestingly, the album strikes me as more Eno-esque in some ways than their next three, which The Man Himself produced.

Of course, it all comes back to the material, which stands up exceedingly well. What with recurring “seventies revivals,” younger listeners may miss some of the album’s implicit commentary on the music that surrounded Talking Heads when they first picked up their instruments. I suspect I may be on the older end of that younger group — I kept waiting for the horn section and little Michael Jackson to take over “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” only beginning to really appreciate the song for itself after multiple listens.

Given the taxonomic line I’ve drawn, it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the twitchy, Lou Reedish “New Feeling” and “Psycho Killer” (especially the acoustic bonus rendition of the latter) more than the rest of the album, but 77 is uniformly listenable — and not just enjoyable, but moving.

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About Thomas L. Knapp

  • Funny, I love the Velvets and the Heads and never really think of them together, although I suppose a case could be made. I think Byrne would probably lean more toward Cale than Reed though.

    Don’t forget the Ramones as a potential influence — I kind of sense them when I hear “Pulled Up.” And Television, remember Television — Talking Heads came out of that same kind of urban artsy thing. But bands bring so much more than just their surrounding influences, and with Talking Heads you had both Dada and modernism and (eventually) Africa working into the mix.

  • Good article, glad to see about Rhino’s re-releasing. Saw them live–great show, Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” is still one of the best concert movies (along with Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz–the Band)

    David Byrne was on the same plane I was on once, and I had the thought of going up to him, looking out his window and (quoting from “The Big Country,” a song about plane travel, that’s on their second More Songs LP)–saying “I wouldn’t live there if they paid me,” or “look over there, a dry ice factory!). But he’s not the most approachable person, and I was still a couple drinks away from being a total jerk.

  • Great review- just a factual error to clear up. Jerry Harrison was the keyboardist for the Heads. Chris Franz was the drummer.

    When the group became popular, Harrison played rhythm guitar when they toured.

  • Peter Venkman

    I’d really like to know the particulars of what “Eno-esque” is.