Psychedelic Lunch

Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Spooktober Edition” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!

Psycho Killer By The Talking Heads, Album: Talking Heads:77

This song takes us inside the head of a deranged murderer. It started when lead singer David Byrne decided to write something in the vein of Alice Cooper, whose shock rock was all the rage. Byrne started with the first verse, which establishes a dangerous paranoia:

I can’t seem to face up to the facts
I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax
I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire
Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire

The rest of the lyric is even more capricious, with this guy admitting he’s a psycho killer and warning us to run. It ended up being far more introspective than most Alice Cooper songs, but just as believable: while Cooper is a completely different guy off stage (Vince Furnier), Byrne really is the socially awkward genius he portrays in performance. He’s never killed anyone (that we know of) but can convincingly inhabit the character.

This was the first Talking Heads song. It was written in 1973 at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where David Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz had a band called The Artistics. When Byrne presented the song, he explained that he wanted a Japanese section in the bridge, but when he asked a girl who spoke the language to come up with some murderous words, she understandably freaked out. Frantz’ girlfriend, Tina Weymouth, spoke French, so they had her write a French part for the bridge instead. She drew inspiration from the Norman Bates character in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho, which influenced the next verse:

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed
Say something once, why say it again?

Byrne incorporated a French line into the chorus: “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (meaning “What is this?”) and followed it with a stuttering warning:

Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away

The end result is one of the most famous songs about a psychopathic murderer, influenced by two touchstones of the genre: Alice Cooper and the movie Psycho.

The French section in the Bridge roughly translates to:

What I did that night
What she said that night
Realizing my hopes
I launch myself towards a glorious destiny

This reveals that the psycho killer is targeting a woman, just as Norman Bates did in Psycho.

David Byrne and Chris Frantz played this a few times in 1974 with their band The Artistics. Later that year, after Frantz and Tina Weymouth graduated from RISD (with degrees in painting), they moved in together with Byrne in a slummy apartment in New York City. Tina became their bass player, and they called their new group the Talking Heads. Starting in May 1975, they got some gigs at the club CBGB opening for the Ramones. “Psycho Killer” and a few other originals, including “Warning Sign” and “Love Goes to Building on Fire,” were in their setlist, rounded out with covers like “96 Tears.” They got the attention of various record labels and eventually signed to Sire Records. After adding guitarist Jerry Harrison to the group, they released their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, in 1977. Released as a single, “Psycho Killer” was their first chart hit, reaching #92 in March 1978.

Credited to David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, this is the only song on the Talking Heads’ debut album that isn’t listed as a solo Byrne composition. Songwriting credits quickly became a sticking point in the band as Byrne became the focal point and gave the impression that he did all the songwriting himself. Frantz claims that he wrote the second verse to “Psycho Killer,” but Byrne has downplayed his contribution to the song, telling Mojo, “Chris and Tina helped me with some of the French stuff.”The “fa fa fa” part is redolent of the Otis Redding song “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song).” Redding and other soul singers were a big influence on Talking Heads.

“Psycho Killer” was a turning point for David Byrne because it make him realize there was an audience for his eccentric songs. He considered it a “silly song” at the time, but there was no question it connected with audiences. The song also proved that Bryne, Frantz and Weymouth could create songs together; after writing it, Byrne and Frantz wrote “Warning Sign,” which ended up on Talking Heads’ second album.

There really was a psycho killer on the loose in the summer of 1977, months before this song was released. David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam,” terrified New Yorkers before he was caught on August 10 after killing six people. Many suspected the song was about him, but it was written much earlier.

The 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, opens with David Byrne entering the stage with a boombox, then performing “Psycho Killer” on acoustic guitar accompanied by the pre-recorded rhythm track from the tape. For the next song, “Heaven,” he is joined by bass player Tina Weymouth. Drummer Chris Frantz enters for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” the Jerry Harrison completes the band when they do their fourth song, “Found A Job”

“Psycho Killer” also appears on their 1982 live album The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads.

At one point, producer Tony Bongiovi got a carving knife from the kitchen in the studio and asked Byrne to hold it while he sang so he could get in character. He refused.

Psychedelic Lunch

Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “80’s New Wave Bands Edition,” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!

The Talking Heads, Once in A Lifetime. Album: Remain In Light (1980)

This song deals with the futility of not being happy with the things you have. Like trying to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean, there’s no way to stop life from moving on. The forces of nature (like the ocean) keep you moving almost without your conscious effort – like a ventriloquist moving a puppet.

Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne shed some light on his lyrical inspiration when he told Time Out: “Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.”

Some of these evangelist recordings also made their way to a 1981 album called My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by David Byrne and Brian Eno.

When MTV first launched, they played this video a lot, but very few American radio stations played the song. MTV didn’t have much clout back then, and the song never charted in the US.

David Byrne’s choreography in the video was done by Toni Basil, who had a hit as a singer with “Mickey.” It was a very odd video, and for many viewers it was the first look they got at the Talking Heads.

As you watch David Byrne spasm like a malfunctioning robot interspersed with gesturing in Martian sign language, ponder this excerpt from the book MTV Ruled the World – The Early Years of Music Video, in which Toni Basil fills in some details about the choreography for this video: “He [Byrne] wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances – different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he ‘physicalized’ the ideas from these documentary-style films.”

Basil adds: “When I was making videos – whether it was with Devo, David Byrne, or whoever – there wasn’t record companies breathing down anybody’s neck, telling them what to do, what the video should look like. There was no paranoid A&R guy, no crazy dresser that would come in and decide what people should be wearing, and put them in shoes that they can’t walk in, everybody with their own agenda. We were all on our own.”

Some critics have suggested that “Once In A Lifetime” is a kind of prescient jab at the excesses of the 1980s. David Byrne says they’re wrong; that the lyric is pretty much about what it says it’s about. In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?'”

The Remain In Light album was completely covered by Phish on Halloween, 1996. It took up the entire second set of their show and featured guest brass players. It is considered one of the best Phish “album-cover” attempts.

Brian Eno produced this song and wrote the chorus, which he also sang on. David Byrne wrote the verses, which he talk/sings in an intriguing narrative style.

Influences And Recollections of a Musical Mind

Talking Heads took a long time to really make a proper fan out of me, but they finally succeeded with the release of Stop Making Sense, both the film and the accompanying soundtrack album. I am concentrating on the album for the sake of this review, but the film is a must see, one of the best concert films of all time in every respect; cinematography, vision, staging, sound…the works. David Byrne, the creative mastermind of Talking Heads, came up with this brilliant idea of staging the show from a blank canvas (he begins the show with a boombox playing a recorded percussion track that he performs with on acoustic guitar, a brilliant version of Psycho Killer). With each successive song, another member of the band appears while roadies roll out risers with drum sets and other staging elements, eventually adding up to the 4 core members of the band plus 5 additional musicians/singers. As great as the visuals are, the whole thing is held together by the incredible songs and performances collected on Stop Making Sense. Pyscho Killer, Heaven, Girlfriend Is Better, Life During Wartime, Swamp, Take Me To The River, Crosseyed And Painless…just flawless post-punk brilliance…and you can dance to almost all of it!

Written By Braddon S. Williams

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