“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. (Roy Ascott’s phrase.) That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art…because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.” –Brian Eno
When I first discovered the theme of this month was Class of 1977, my brain immediately jumped towards my favorite band’s album entitled none other than—77. Released in 1977, this neon orange record was the Talking Heads’ first LP and their most ambitious in a naïve, groovy, introspective sort of way. Imagine a four-piece band of 20-somethings dressed in polos and black pants; the keyboardist plays with a suave air about himself, the drummer is way into it, and the bassist maintains a composed, no-nonsense face as she stares at the vocalist, who is singing some weird introspective shit while flailing his limbs in awkward gestures. This was the Talking Heads in 1977, and this is why I love them.
Chances are, you may have heard the song “Once in a Lifetime,” in which a man in a white shirt and black rimmed glasses asks you, the audience, “HOW DID I GET HERE?!” Or there’s “Burning Down the House,” one of the popular tunes from the 1980s that still receives semi-frequent radio play. Or maybe, you have heard the simple, yet super funky bassline followed by the vocalist speaking in French and continuing the chorus with, “FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FA….” That was Psycho Killer, one of the Talking Heads’ well-known hits and was only released in their humble beginnings on 77.
In a documentary of the band, singer David Byrne notes that “Psycho Killer” was the first song the band wrote together in bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz’ painting studio. With the addition of Jerry Harrison’s keyboarding fingers, the band formed a four-piece in New York City, only a couple blocks away from the legendary music venue that they frequently played at, CBGB’s.
“A folky, introspective version of an Alice Cooper-type song,” is how Byrne described the track, the only song on the album written in the perspective of a crazy murderer. Here is the band playing at the Old Grey Whistle test in 1978. Check out Tina’s awesomely menacing stare on bass.
At the time, Talking Heads were not entirely on par with the rest of the 70’s disco and straight rock and roll that was occurring at the time. They were nervous thinkers with an admiration for holding a groove, which comes across heavily in 77. If you are familiar with Talking Heads’ later works, you know how layered, complex and well thought out the music sounds. ’77 is just as thought out, though their sound is much more minimal and slightly uneasy. The nervous energy of Byrne’s vocals presents itself throughout the record, through both his vocal shakiness and his lyrics that reflect indecision, the battle of emotions vs. logic, and self-evaluation. While the instruments tend to hold a repetitive, steady sound, there’s plenty of guitar scratching, melodic keyboard arrangements, and noticeably groovy basslines that keep the album progressively interesting to the body and brain. It almost sounds like a round of art school karaoke, except there’s way more thought and less accidental pitch changes within it.
“Nothing was filled out to the extent that it sounded luscious and beautiful. If you took one of these elements away, you’d really notice it,” said Byrne in their Chronology documentary.
As Brian Eno, the legendary staple of ambient music and producer of many Talking Heads records, said in the above quote, the value of art lies in the experience it triggers within the receiver—it’s about what happens inside you when you listen. For me, ’77 is a work of art that reminds me of my first two years of college: strange, introspective, fun, weird and a little anxiety-ridden. It makes me want to dance and simultaneously contemplate my feelings on life. Why can’t I do both? Here are some songs that I’ve come to identify with and appreciate through my three-year relationship with this album.
Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town
This is the first track to ’77, which sets the bar for the rest of the album. There’s the scratching guitar sounds, a hint of Caribbean music vibes within the chorus, and Byrne’s diary-like lyrics discussing the arrival of love that screws up the logical brain. This song reminds me of spending the school morning in the photography darkroom wearing a pink flowered dress with an oversized flannel shirt that didn’t match, while thinking thoughts about my boyfriend at the time.
“I called in sick, I won’t go to work today
I’d rather be with the one I love
I’ll neglect my duties, I’ll get in trouble”
The beginning of this song always gets me. There’s a lot of repetition throughout the song, though it makes the track feel slightly more tangible, somehow. Byrne sings about personal discomfort, meeting people, having friends and speaking out about it despite self-anxiety.
“I hear music and it sounds like bells
I feel like my head is high
I wish I could meet everyone
Meet them all over again
Bring them up to my room
Meet them all over again
Everyone’s up in my room”
The drumbeat in this song reminds me of a marching band, while the keyboard holds down those power chords. This song feels like a self monologue of confusion, with the addition of a dancey piano section.
“I want to talk as much as I want, I’m gonna give the problem to you
Decide, decide, make up your mind”
As the album continues, songs like “The Book I Read” carry fantastic, danceable keyboard sections, “Don’t Worry about the Government” holds a bouncy sound as Byrne sings about high rise buildings, “First Week/Last Week…Carefree” has a very jazzy segment, and “Pulled Up” ends the album on a fast track towards erratic happiness.
“I guess in some of these songs I was being a little bit of an anthropologist from Mars, trying to figure out what it meant to be a human being—somebody in your mid-twenties—and what does love mean, and what does it mean to have a job and what’s my relationship to the government, what’s my relationship to the suburbs where I grew up and where I don’t live anymore…all these things puzzled me. I couldn’t figure them out. I didn’t know whether the answer lay in an anthropological view—just looking at people as if they were some kind of tribe or animals and figure out what do they do, why do they do that? Am I supposed to do that too?” said Byrne on these years as a young band.
By no means is this album a technical masterpiece—it is more of a backbone for the band’s future endeavors—but it is more reminiscent of a personal diary of art students making a living in New York In 1977, capturing an audible moment in time.
This is a bonus track that did not make it to the final cut of 77, but is a personal favorite of mine. Enjoy!