Earlier this summer, while discussing what songs to perform at the NFS Open Mic, Neil suggested “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads and he sent me a few interesting videos. Well, that looked like the beginning of a blog post, so I finished it up and I’m posting it.
“Psycho Killer” is one of the few Talking Heads songs credited to all the band members at the time: David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tiny Weymouth, who first performed it in the pre-Jerry Harrison band The Artistic. Byrne has stated that he wanted to make the song a slow ballad, which would have made the song “creepier.” But the faster, New Wave sound was catchier for a new rock band’s audience. The song was one of the demos that the Talking Heads submitted to CBS (they were later signed to Sire Records).
From “How Music Works” (2012) by Byrne:
Here’s early footage of the band playing the song at CBGB’s, the famed club in New York’s Bowery that hosted shows by Blondie, The Ramones, Television and Patti Smith, as well as the first Stateside shows by The Police. From the documentary “Chronology”:
You’ll notice that the song is played faster than the later recording (it’s even faster on CBS demo), Byrne hasn’t fully defined the “Fa fa” melody and there is a different second verse:
Later to become the more psychotic:
Makes you wonder about the influence (at least with tempo) of the track’s eventual producer Tony Bongiovi (yeah, you read that right — Jon Bon Jovi’s second cousin).
An alternate take of the studio version with Arthur Russell on cello was recently (summer of 2013) released on Soundcloud. The presence of Russell connects the Heads with the downtown New York avant garde music scene. I wish I could embed, but things are screwy so you’ll have to go here to listen. But come back!
Also, check out this version, for historical perspective, performed the year after T-Heads 77 was released:
By the way, that “Fa fa fa fa” part? Probably inspired by the great Otis Redding song “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song).”
The Heads’ love of old R&B comes through in a number of places, most obviously on their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me To the River.” That song was featured on the soundtrack and film “Stop Making Sense” (directed by Jonathan Demme, later to hit it big with “Silence of the Lambs,” speaking of Psycho Killers). And of course that film opens with David Byrne solo (well, with a cassette tape):
Since the band broke up, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (who are married) formed the group Tom Tom Club and they perform the song with Tina singing lead:
From their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the Talking Heads perform “Psycho Killer” 25 years after the initial release of the song. What occurs to me is that the Heads didn’t write songs of youth. There’s nothing ridiculous about older people singing this song — in fact, it might be more appropriate with a tinge of gray hair and experience.
In his introduction to the band at the induction, Anthony Kiedis of The Red Hot Chili Peppers said the effect of the band was to make him feel smart, make him want to dance (and make him want to have sex with librarians).
For full geek cred, the song sounds great on ukulele (lots of ukuleles) in this version by The Ukulele Orchestra (which also has the best vocal harmonies of any version on this page):
More geekery: Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies sings the song on stage with some other songwriters. Ed makes sure the crowd knows when to go to the “Whoa whoa ho” (after the chorus repeats) and he also translates the French, in case you were wondering:
If you wondered what the song would sound like with more piano and an oddball instrumental outro (no doubt connecting to the next song), here’s Phish (beware, the audio is good but the video was shot by… well, let’s just say, a Phish fan):
The weirdest version of this song that I’ve heard may also in some strange way be truest to the song (especially if you consider Byrne’s idea that the song was to be a ballad, and his own solo version from “Stop Making Sense”). It’s not embeddable for some reason, so you need to click through the text link. Please, if you watch nothing else on this page, check out Xenia Rubinos from The AV Club’s cover project.
Leave a Reply.
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.