NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and just because I can speak a little French doesn’t make me a bad person, right?
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Ooh, I’ve got some tricky trivia for ye this week. When we think of “Punk Rock,” we usually think of the Sex Pistols or the Dead Kennedys. But while those bands emerged in the mid-1970s, the phrase actually goes back much further than those bands, to another group. What band was originally associated with Punk music? I’ll have that answer, and the story behind it, at the end of the show.
Today we’re looking at “Psycho Killer”, the Talking Heads song from their debut album Talking Heads: 77. That’s the one with the all-red cover on it.
Now, while the song made its recorded debut in 1977, in fact it goes back to 1971, when band leader David Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz were attending the Rhode Island School of Design. By 1973 they’ve formed a band called The Artistics. It was during that time that Byrne decided he wanted to write a song that was part Alice Cooper and part Randy Newman-type ballad. At that time, Alice Cooper was pretty much all there was when it came to shock rock, plus according to Byrne, the bad guys are usually more interesting anyway. Byrne decided that he really wanted to get into the head of a deranged murderer, so he started putting the first verse together, which sets the guy up as pretty paranoid and at the same time kind of introspective.
Now, when Byrne first presented the song to the band, he said that he wanted the bridge to be in Japanese. The problem was, when he asked a girl who spoke Japanese to come up with some murderous lyrics, she got a little freaked out. Fortunately, Tina Weymouth, who was already Frantz’ girlfriend at the time, spoke French, so she wrote a French bridge instead. That makes “Psycho Killer” the only song on the Talking Heads’ debut album that wasn’t composed only by David Byrne. And it was almost certainly because of that, that Byrne added in the “qu’est-ce que c’est?” to the chorus, which means “What is this?” Byrne also added in the warning to run away, using a stuttering pattern…
…that he almost certainly lifted from this Otis Redding track…
I don’t know that 100 percent for sure, but given what huge fans of Redding and soul singers in general both Byrne and Frantz are, it makes a lot of sense.
By 1974 The Artistics were playing the song in their shows now and then, and after Frantz and Weymouth graduated from Rhode Island they moved with Byrne, in a slummy apartment on Avenue A and Seventh Street in New York City. It had no hot water, no shower, a bathroom they had to share with other tenants, there was a heat wave AND a garbage strike that first summer…but it was also only three and a half blocks from CBGB’s. It was around then that Weymouth became the band’s bass player, and the group’s name was changed to The Talking Heads. In May of 1975 they managed to get some gigs at CBGB’s, opening for The Ramones, and “Psycho Killer” was part of their playlist, along with “Warning Sign” and a cover of Question mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears.” And if you think I didn’t try like a maniac to get some audio of THAT to share with you, you’d be sadly mistaken. There was a video floating around of the early Talking Heads at CBGB, but it’s vanished. I guess it took a copyright strike.
All right, I kind of glossed over something a minute ago so let me come back to that. I mentioned that Tina Weymouth came up with some French lyrics for the bridge. Now, I hope you don’t think I meant the “Qu’est-ce que c’est” part, although that’s certainly French. No, the part I’m talking about is this:
Now I’m wondering what kind of weird lyrics you came up with when you were singing this song, because you didn’t realize that it’s all French. So what he’s singing is this—and for a change I may not completely mangle a foreign language:
Ce que j’ai fais, ce soir la
Ce qu’elle a dit, ce soir la
Realisant mon espoir
Je me lance, vers la gloire, OK
Which roughly translates to:
What I did that night
What she said that night
Fulfilling my hopes
I launch myself glory, OK
And pretty much confirms that the target of our Psycho Killer is a woman.
When the band got into the studio they had producers Tony Bongiovi, who is a cousin to the rock star with the same last name, and Lance Quinn. And the word is that the band didn’t really get along with him very well. Chris Frantz has said that Bongiovi once got a carving knife from the studio kitchen for Byrne to hold while he sang so he could get in character. Byrne turned him down, and the band eventually started working on the album late nights so they could avoid working with him.
Now, there were two versions of the song recorded during these sessions, and they both appear on the 45 as back-to-back tracks. The B side appears to be the version they recorded first. It’s largely acoustic, but it’s got a neat addition to it in the form of a cello, played by Arthur Russell: Have a listen:
While they liked it, they had to persuade Bongiovi and Lance Russell to record it the way it was eventually released.
The single was released in December of 1977, and there may have been a real-life event that affected its popularity. You see, just a few months earlier, a guy named David Berkowitz was terrorizing New Yorkers and had killed six people and wounded seven others before he was finally apprehended on August 10. Because of the gun he was using, he was originally called “The .44 Caliber Killer” but a letter he sent to the police, essentially mocking them, was released to the press, and based on what was in that letter, he was almost immediately called the Son of Sam. So when “Psycho Killer” was released just a couple of months later, it was immediately connected to the Son of Sam, and a lot of people thought the song was about him. But of course, it had been written years earlier.
At any rate, the song only made it to Number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100, though it was Top 20 in Belgium and the Netherlands. But in Byrne’s view, the fact that it charted at all was a good thing, because it meant that there was an audience for his rather quirky stuff. He thought at the time that it was kind of a silly song, but it had clearly connected with somebody.
As far as covers of the song, there are lots of them out there, including versions by
Velvet Revolver, Phish, Cage the Elephant, and this one from 2009…
…This is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, performing at the 2009 BBC Proms. Now, it’s not “Proms” the way you think of fancy high school dances; the formal name is the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, and it’s an eight-week summer season of classical music concerts held at the Royal Albert Hall in London. And the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, at least in this particular case, is made up of nine musicians all playing ukuleles. It’s definitely worth your while to check out the whole thing, especially when they get to that bridge, and I’ll make sure there’s a link on the website.
In 1980 a band out of Massachusetts called The Fools put together a parody song, which they included as a bonus 45 with their debut album.
…and so on.
In 2017 Selena Gomez sampled the song’s bass line for her single, “Bad Liar”…
…For what it’s worth, David Byrne was OK with it, largely because the song doesn’t have any sentimental value to him, like, say, “This Must Be The Place.” He told Rolling Stone Magazine, “Other than that, yeah, repurpose the stuff.”
And just for the laughs, let me share this with you, from 2019. It’s the song rendered by an 8-bit music emulator. 8-Bit Arcade is an anonymous studio project that specializes in 8-bit instrumental covers of popular songs. So this is what it would have sounded like in a 1980s-grade video game.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what band was first associated with Punk rock? Well, believe it or not the phrase goes back to 1971, when Creem editor Dave Marsh was writing about a band that had already come and gone, and was attempting to make a comeback.
[I NEED SOMEBODY]
Rudy Martinez joined up with his brother’s band in the early 1960s, and he quickly became the creative force in that band. They had a gritty, garage band-like sound blended with pop, and it was often driven by a Vox Continental electric organ played by Frank Rodriguez. They weren’t especially successful until Rudy talked a DJ into playing one of their B-sides, which took six months to grow from a regional hit to a national one, climbing up the Billboard chart to the Number One position in October of 1966.
They had a few minor hits after that, including the one you hear now, called “I Need Somebody”, but they’re generally considered a one-hit wonder. The band broke up a few months after their label was shut down for stock manipulation in 1969, but re-formed in 1971 with two guitars and NO keyboards. And that’s when they came to the attention of Dave Marsh, who used the phrase “punk rock” when he wrote about…Question Mark and the Mysterians.
During the 70s through the early 2000s, the band has kind of come and gone, including releasing a recording of a reunion concert in 1984 and a collaboration with rapper Saltine, A/K/A The Mad Rapper in 1992 on a hip-hop remake of “96 Tears.”
And, that’s a full lid on another edition of How Good It Is. If you’re enjoying the show, please take the time to share it with someone, and maybe even leave a rating somewhere, and now you can support the show over at Patreon dot com, slash How Good It Is.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when Mr. Mister teaches us a traveler’s prayer. Confused? You won’t be when you get the whole story.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.