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A smattering of applause that builds then subsides for a lone voice to say, “Hi. I’ve got a tape I want to play.” This is the beginning of the Talking Heads’ legendary live album Stop Making Sense which was released in the US thirty years ago this week. The theatrical version, culled from three shows in support of their album Speaking in Tongues and filmed by Jonathan Demme, is one of the greatest concert films ever made, capturing a band at the height of their creative powers, playing with an inviting energy that few films like it have been able to match. Repertory screenings still end with people dancing in the aisles and you don’t hear about that happening with The Last Waltz (all apologies to Rick Danko enthusiasts). One of the most delightfully subversive bands of the new wave movement, Talking Heads’ greatest trick might have been opening with a version of one of their biggest hits that withholds many of the elements that made it a radio staple, and a classic scary song.
On the single of “Psycho Killer” the menace is overt — opening with an ominous bass line that sounds like hurried footsteps down a dark alley, joined by a matching drumbeat stalking after it, building to a brain-rattling guitar line threatening to overtake it. By the time David Byrne begins singing about being tense and nervous it’s almost superfluous. Talking Heads has always had an interest in the disconnect between mind and body, a divide embodied in their music which juxtaposes anxious lyrics with deceptively funky compositions. But this is the band’s most clear missive from a deranged psyche. The opening lyrics present a warning to “run away” but the French bridge, which translates roughly to “What I did that evening/What she said that evening,” suggest a man who’s already indulged his monstrous tendencies. And this isn’t even the band’s most disturbing song. (I’d give that distinction to “Memories Can’t Wait” which sounds like the agonizing approach of a leveling storm cloud, or “Born Under Punches” with its squawking instruments and eerie, desperate lyrics [Take a look at these hands!]).
The live version of “Psycho Killer” eschews recreating the bristling intensity of the single, opting instead for a stripped down intimacy that has its own electric charge. Byrne is the only performer onstage, his guitar backed by a pre-recorded Roland TR-808 drum machine played on a boom box. Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison will all join later, each one appearing with each successive song. But for the moment it’s just Byrne and the audience, and his solo rendition takes on a confessional tone, an admission of his dominance of the band that would later bring the other members to blows. Many years later, following the band’s acrimonious breakup, Weymouth characterized Byrne as “a man incapable of returning friendship,” and you can hear in his post-chorus yelps a straining to connect. He does, of course; the band would not be one of the most influential of their era if he didn’t. There is something magnetic in a performer willing to delve into the darkest parts of humanity and come out the other side to tell of the nightmare. When it’s a nightmare you can dance to, you have a masterpiece.