Talking Heads are the last of CBGB’s original Big Four to record (following Patti Smith, the Ramones and Television), and their debut is an absolute triumph. Dressing like a quartet of Young Republicans, playing courteously toned-down music and singing lyrics lauding civil servants, parents and college, Talking Heads are not even remotely punks. Rather, they are the great Ivy League hope of pop music. I can’t recall when I last heard such a vital, imaginatively tuneful album.
David Byrne’s music is refreshing, abundantly varied and fun to listen to. He takes the buoyant, post-Beatles singles format of the Sixties — brisk pacing, great hooks, crisp playing, bright production — and impulsively veers off on unexpected tangents that are challenging without becoming inaccessible.
This is the band that had its early critics talking about minimalism and, like Jonathan Richman, Talking Heads do indeed triumph by the economy of their sound. But where the ingenuous Richman is dangerously precious, there is no nonsense about Talking Heads. Byrne’s spare guitar patterns, Jerry Harrison’s modest keyboard fills, Martina Weymouth’s understated bass and Chris Frantz’ efficiently Spartan drumming convey a taut earnestness that’s bursting with energy.
“The Book I Read,” like so many of their songs, burbles with excitement, a feeling of expansion overcoming restraint. “Pulled Up” is the real champ, though, a fiercely exhilarating rush of aural amyl nitrate.
Vocally, Byrne’s live-wired personality vibrates his precise musical framework like a caged tiger rattling its bars. (That he sings in a stiff, reedy, “bad” voice, grasping for higher notes like a drowning man lunging for air, only heightens the drama.) Exploring the logic and disorientation of love, decision making, ambition and the need for selfishness, he gropes for articulation like a metaphysician having difficulty computing emotions.
Given his relatively unlyrical nature, Byrne’s burgeoning persona is not in the least tentative. “No Compassion” asserts all the impatience of Lou Reed in a bad mood, while “Psycho Killer” pulses with vehemence.
For me, the direct, crisp, jaunty Talking Heads and the abstracted, unrestrained, fiery Television stand as the Beatles and Rolling Stones of the restless, displaced Seventies. Not only is this a great album, it’s also one of the definitive records of the decade.