Talking Heads: Psycho Killer
uring December 1983, director Jonathan “lotion in the basket” Demme of Columbo: Murder Under Glass fame captured footage of Talking Heads at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre for his upcoming concert film, Stop Making Sense. A grey-suited David Byrne entered the bare stage sans band, armed with only a small, square-faced boom box and an acoustic guitar: “Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play.” It had been near on ten years since the monstrous “Psycho Killer” was first born back in Baltimore to Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth during the days of the leather-clad Artistics and, in this performance, it seems strange to hear a recording of a drum machine pour over the applause as the usual, and instantly recognisable, three-note bass line introduction remained bound and gagged in a basement somewhere. Byrne was the psycho killer that night. He acted alone, spitting Français and staggering madly across the stage as his white tennis shoes scuffed the wooden floor and a single spool of tightly wound chromium-oxide slowly strangled another at his tapping feet.
Even when severed from its normal instrumental accomplices, this bizarre examination of a tormented lunatic’s inner workings remains one of the sharpest-edged cornerstones of Talking Heads’ oeuvre, not to mention the entire early new wave movement. Incidentally, the single was released barely months after the arrest of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, the New York serial murderer who claimed that his neighbour’s black Labrador had instructed him to carry out the shootings. The strength of the track lies in its straightforward lyrical depiction of a murderer’s mindset as much as it relies on the efforts of Harrison et al: “I thought the music should be as simple as you could make it and still have a song,” said Byrne when interviewed. Indeed, Monsieur David, and what a song: four minutes and twenty seconds of left-field originality and impossibly retainable mania.
Tina Weymouth’s most memorable Talking Heads’ bass line, save perhaps her rise-and-fall-rumble from “Born Under Punches,” holds the listener at gunpoint from the outset as terrorizing twin guitars fight amongst themselves in view of Frantz’s simple, driving percussion. Byrne’s inimitable vocals burst forwards soon afterwards; a commanding combination of simmering energy, wild eyes, rope, and duct tape:
“I can’t seem to face up to the factsByrne’s depiction of the socially inept speaker is thick with warnings and expressed by an alienated loner. The Shakespearean tendency for the fool to speak the most truth rings loudly and persistently throughout the song. It takes a psychotic man in the depths of mental anguish to announce the obvious: “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything / When I’ve got nothing to say, my lips are sealed,” and, “We are vain and we are blind.” Perhaps a strange and unique way to convey a societal observation, but it’s a societal observation nonetheless. The killer imagines himself more cultivated and worldly than the masses that he brushes shoulders with day after day; made evident by the use of the fractured French by which the speaker addresses himself and the repeated use of the hinged lyric in the chorus: “fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far…better… run run run run run run run away.” Byrne has created an cryptic antihero of sorts: a psychopath who claims, in a twitching, machine-gun stutter, to be both polished and educated, yet capable of the most heinous of acts (he expresses his hatred of people who are impolite); he is malevolent, yet courteous enough to fire a warning shot: a walking contradiction.
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”
Thirty odd years now since its composition, Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” endures as a perfect, monolithic chunk of New York and American popular culture. In some ways, the character that owns the monologue could be Taxi Driver Travis Bickle’s sleazy and paranoid musical brother, charging towards his “glory”: a menacing, yet irresistibly intriguing enigma with a poorly trimmed moustache, a thumbed copy of L'Étranger under one arm, and salt-bordered sweat patches under both. Damn, can that guy still dance, though, or what? Now back to Gene Krupa’s syncopated style.
By: Ben Wilson
Published on: 2005-06-01
|Recent Features By This Author|