Opposite to the way in which they sounded, Speaking Heads weren’t in a rush. David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz had no explicit plan to play music collectively once they moved to New York Metropolis after the dissolution of Frantz and Byrne’s band again in Windfall, the place all three had attended the Rhode Island College of Design. That lasted till Frantz and Weymouth noticed the Ramones at CBGB shortly after they arrived—the sort of downtown present a few broke art-school graduates would possibly wander into in late 1974. Nonetheless buzzing, Frantz, the drummer, satisfied Byrne, the singer-guitarist, to provide it one other go. However they didn’t have a bassist in New York, and so they couldn’t discover one they preferred.
Relatively than settle and begin taking part in reveals rapidly, they determined that Weymouth might do it—by no means thoughts that she’d by no means touched a bass earlier than. She purchased one on layaway and set about studying, listening to data by pioneering exhausting rocker Suzi Quatro and receiving occasional phrases of encouragement from free jazz legend Don Cherry, who occurred to dwell in the identical constructing, down the road from CBGB, the place the newly minted trio rented a loft for $250 a month. Speaking Heads practiced for six months earlier than they have been prepared for his or her first gig: at CB’s, in June 1975, opening for the Ramones. One other two years handed earlier than they recorded and launched their debut album. That they had a giant future forward of them. Why rush?
Throughout these two years, they developed their music and profession fastidiously. They added a fourth member in keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison, previously of the Fashionable Lovers, to fill out their spindly early sound. They turned down one document deal, at all times ready for the appropriate match. They immersed themselves within the profuse richness of music and artwork that New York made accessible on the time: dancing to disco and salsa, rubbing elbows with avant-garde improvisers like Cherry and composers like Philip Glass, jamming with Arthur Russell, who virtually obtained Harrison’s seat within the remaining lineup. And so they introduced all of it with them as they clawed their technique to the middle of the brand new factor known as punk rock that was taking place at CBGB.
Speaking Heads 77 feels each just like the end result of the band’s days as downtown New York darlings and the primordial origin of their late-’70s-early-’80s masterpieces. They have been already achieved sufficient that Rolling Stone opened its assessment by noting how lengthy they’d taken to document an album, and Speaking Heads 77 reveals it, expressing an arch, agitated, and abundantly tuneful sensibility belonging totally to them. If that they had gone the way in which of their much less sturdy CB’s scene friends—say, the Dictators, or the Shirts—and damaged up quickly after, it may need been considered as a one-and-done document collector basic right this moment. However they didn’t. Alongside its ingenuity, Speaking Heads 77 additionally exists as a mere glimmer of potential, a captivating prelude to some of probably the most visionary albums ever recorded.
The band’s curiously multivalent relationship with pop music was already being negotiated. Throughout 11 songs, Speaking Heads aspire to pop’s communal uplift whereas additionally creating distance from the real article. A number of seconds into “Uh Oh, Love Involves City”— cymbal crashes, 4 chords ascending towards frenzy, the rhythm locking in—and we’ve arrived indisputably on the Speaking Heads sound. Frantz performs like an R&B session drummer with a gun held to his head, just a bit too edgy and insistent. Weymouth is bouncy and melodic, with no hint of a newbie’s tentativeness. A gleeful metal pan solo seems from nowhere, an early signal of the band’s disinterest in rock orthodoxy. Byrne yelps, proclaims, and carries on conversations with himself.
As he would many times, he addresses human connection within the stilted language of an atomized and impersonal society. He frets that falling in love would possibly trigger him to “neglect my duties,” as a stockbroker would possibly make a nasty funding—so involved with performing his position that love turns into an incursion, an impediment towards getting work executed. Crucially, nonetheless, “Uh-Oh, Love Involves City” is just not black-witted satire. It could be a postmodern send-up of a love track, but it surely’s additionally a love track. The rhythm part does a stiff imitation of the Funk Brothers, however they nonetheless lay down a reasonably good groove for dancing. Parsing the mix of sincerity and irony in any Speaking Heads track is troublesome, however you by no means doubt their perception within the music.
For New York, 1977 was a troublesome yr—financial freefall, neighborhoods ravaged by arson fires, a blackout that threw the town briefly into anarchy, the shadow of a serial killer who stalked the outer boroughs the summer time earlier than—and Speaking Heads 77 often embodies that darkness. “Psycho Killer,” the catchiest track ever written a couple of sociopathic assassin, is extra disquieting in footage of an early CBGB efficiency than it’s on document, the place it advanced right into a campy efficiency of violence, turning the killer’s chilling laughter right into a goofy chorus.
“No Compassion” is extra mundane, and extra menacing due to it, with a narrator who calmly rationalizes his personal refusal to empathize with anybody. Opening with an uncharacteristically hard-rocking riff and lurching between two drastically completely different tempos, it seems like a final vestige of affinity with the punk scene’s heavier and extra nihilistic tendencies. Nonetheless, its message most likely shouldn’t be taken at face worth. “So many individuals have their issues/I’m not interested by their issues,” Byrne moans at one level, a wealthy sentiment coming from a man beset by issues on all sides and desperate to let you know about it, whose response to the thrill of latest love is a powerful “uh oh.”
These moments of depth come up as occasional spasms throughout an in any other case upbeat and approachable album. At occasions, Speaking Heads ‘77 appears to leapfrog the stormy minimalism the band would pursue throughout the trio of Brian Eno collaborations that adopted this album, and as an alternative supply a price range approximation of the pancultural dance celebration they threw on 1983’s Talking in Tongues. Speaking Heads ‘77 abounds with ecstatic rhythms and vivid sonic particulars: a honky-tonk piano disguised as a disco bassline on “The E book I Learn”; mallets and Latin percussion constructing towards a sultry sax chorus on “First Week / Final Week … Carefree”; a toylike synthesizer on “Don’t Fear In regards to the Authorities,” a track whose cheeriness within the face of alienation is each heartening and unsettling. The Speaking Heads of ‘77 come off like enthusiastic collagists relatively than grasp sculptors: these sounds are thrilling on their very own, however they don’t at all times cohere with the holism of later albums.
On “Tentative Choices,” Byrne engages in a one-man call-and-response, switching between his ordinary whine and a cartoonishly stentorian low register, simulating the interaction of lead and backing vocalists on any variety of outdated pop and soul data. This was a brand new sort of self-awareness for rock bands, who by the mid-’70s have been steeped in many years of pop historical past, and anxiously looking for their very own place inside it. Speaking Heads articulated that self-awareness with out ever sounding smug or lapsing into parody, twisting pop’s inventory gestures into new shapes whereas sustaining their core musical attraction. It was a feat nobody had achieved in fairly the identical approach earlier than them, and nobody would repeat in fairly the identical approach. Nobody besides the Speaking Heads, that’s: Byrne would intently replicate the “Tentative Choices” vocal association on the refrain of “Slippery Folks,” from Talking in Tongues. However by 1983, he had an precise refrain of slick-sounding backing singers—the space between Speaking Heads and the remainder of the world rising smaller, however by no means collapsing totally.
After its tense remaining refrain, “Tentative Choices” explodes into probably the most jubilant stretch of music on Speaking Heads ‘77, an instrumental coda with a four-on-the-floor drumbeat, congas tapping on the edges, and high-stepping piano from Harrison—all of it repeating with minimal variation because the track fades out. Greater than something, it appears like home music, a style that wouldn’t come alongside for a couple of years, however would ultimately go away a seismic imprint on pop. Speaking Heads stumble into the resemblance on “Tentative Choices,” and stumble rapidly out of it. Nonetheless, in 1977, they didn’t must rush towards the longer term. They have been already there.