Psycho Killer

Album: Talking Heads '77 (1977)
Charted: 92

Songfacts®:

  • This song takes us inside the head of a deranged murderer. It started when lead singer David Byrne decided to write something in the vein of Alice Cooper, whose shock rock was all the rage. Byrne started with the first verse, which establishes a dangerous paranoia:

    I can't seem to face up to the facts
    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


    The rest of the lyric is even more capricious, with this guy admitting he's a psycho killer and warning us to run. It ended up being far more introspective than most Alice Cooper songs, but just as believable: while Cooper is a completely different guy off stage (Vince Furnier), Byrne really is the socially awkward genius he portrays in performance. He's never killed anyone (that we know of) but can convincingly inhabit the character.
  • This was the first Talking Heads song. It was written in 1973 at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where David Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz had a band called The Artistics. When Byrne presented the song, he explained that he wanted a Japanese section in the bridge, but when he asked a girl who spoke the language to come up with some murderous words, she understandably freaked out. Frantz' girlfriend, Tina Weymouth, spoke French, so they had her write a French part for the bridge instead. She drew inspiration from the Norman Bates character in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho, which influenced the next verse:

    You start a conversation you can't even finish it
    You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything
    When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed
    Say something once, why say it again?


    Byrne incorporated a French line into the chorus: "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" (meaning "What is this?") and followed it with a stuttering warning:

    Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better
    Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away


    The end result is one of the most famous songs about a psychopathic murderer, influenced by two touchstones of the genre: Alice Cooper and the movie Psycho.
  • The French section in the Bridge roughly translates to:

    What I did that night
    What she said that night
    Realizing my hopes
    I launch myself towards a glorious destiny


    This reveals that the psycho killer is targeting a woman, just as Norman Bates did in Psycho.
  • David Byrne and Chris Frantz played this a few times in 1974 with their band The Artistics. Later that year, after Frantz and Tina Weymouth graduated from RISD (with degrees in painting), they moved in together with Byrne in a slummy apartment in New York City. Tina became their bass player, and they called their new group the Talking Heads. Starting in May 1975, they got some gigs at the club CBGB opening for the Ramones. "Psycho Killer" and a few other originals, including "Warning Sign" and "Love Goes to Building on Fire," were in their setlist, rounded out with covers like "96 Tears." They got the attention of various record labels and eventually signed to Sire Records. After adding guitarist Jerry Harrison to the group, they released their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, in 1977. Released as a single, "Psycho Killer" was their first chart hit, reaching #92 in March 1978.
  • Credited to David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, this is the only song on the Talking Heads' debut album that isn't listed as a solo Byrne composition. Songwriting credits quickly became a sticking point in the band as Byrne became the focal point and gave the impression that he did all the songwriting himself. Frantz claims that he wrote the second verse to "Psycho Killer," but Byrne has downplayed his contribution to the song, telling Mojo, "Chris and Tina helped me with some of the French stuff."
  • The "fa fa fa" part is redolent of the Otis Redding song "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)." Redding and other soul singers were a big influence on Talking Heads.
  • The Tom Tom Club, a group led by former Talking Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, often play this at their concerts with Tina singing the lead vocal. The first Tom Tom Club single, "Wordy Rappinghood," also has some French lyrics composed by Weymouth.
  • "Psycho Killer" was a turning point for David Byrne because it make him realize there was an audience for his eccentric songs. He considered it a "silly song" at the time, but there was no question it connected with audiences. The song also proved that Bryne, Frantz and Weymouth could create songs together; after writing it, Byrne and Frantz wrote "Warning Sign," which ended up on Talking Heads' second album.
  • Cellos make everything sound more nefarious, so the group recorded an acoustic version with Arthur Russell playing that instrument. It was used as the flip side of the single and appears on some compilations.
  • There really was a psycho killer on the loose in the summer of 1977, months before this song was released. David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam," terrified New Yorkers before he was caught on August 10 after killing six people. Many suspected the song was about him, but it was written much earlier.
  • The 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, opens with David Byrne entering the stage with a boombox, then performing "Psycho Killer" on acoustic guitar accompanied by the pre-recorded rhythm track from the tape. For the next song, "Heaven," he is joined by bass player Tina Weymouth. Drummer Chris Frantz enters for "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," the Jerry Harrison completes the band when they do their fourth song, "Found A Job"

    "Psycho Killer" also appears on their 1982 live album The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads.
  • At one point, producer Tony Bongiovi got a carving knife from the kitchen in the studio and asked Byrne to hold it while he sang so he could get in character. He refused.

    According to Chris Frantz, Bongiovi, who was assigned to them by their label, was so hard to work with that the band convened late-night sessions without him, using engineer Ed Stasium to record and facilitate.
  • Artists to cover this song include Barenaked Ladies, Phish, Brand New, Local H and Velvet Revolver.
  • The 2017 Selena Gomez hit "Bad Liar" samples the bassline from this track. David Byrne has no problem with it. "I would have an issue if somebody took, say, 'This Must Be The Place,' which is a very personal love song," he told Rolling Stone. "Other than that, yeah, repurpose the stuff."
  • Chris Frantz considers this the definitive Talking Heads song, "because it's all mixed up." He told Songfacts: "It's a little bit crazy and it's a little bit funky. It's kind of like Alice Cooper meets Sam & Dave. It hits the mark."

Comments: 26

  • Patrick from Atlanta, GaThis song always reminded me of Hannibal Lector. "I hate people when they're not polite." "Say something once, why say it again?" The French bits are meant to make the narrator sound pretentious, as if he wants to appear clever, but he doesn't actually speak French. The reference to a bed on fire indicate that he's schizophrenic, and thus if he kills at all, he is not a product of his environment or some traumatic childhood experience, but rather an untreated mental illness. Perhaps he's already in a mental hospital, though?
  • Karol from Pori, FinlandThis song is so "psycho"
  • Stefanos from Aglantjia, Cyprusvery nice song
  • Ryan from Anahola, HiThis song is on Rock Band 2.
  • Derek from Marquette, MiThe band Cage the Elephant also does a cover of this song.
  • Goombario from Jacksonville, FlThis song was in an episode of The Simpsons where Homer was hired by an agency to kill famous celebrities so they could use their now-Public Domain identities to advertise their products.
  • Will from Waterloo,I've heard another version of "Psycho Killer" but the beginning lyrics is like through a talk box (like if you've heard Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" and Joe Perry does the opening lyrics to it)
  • Tim from Albuquerque, NmKate Miller-Heidke does a hilarious cover.... as seen on YouTube-- to kill for!
  • Moi-même from Paris, FranceAs a native french speaker, I second Adam: the chorus and the bridge are in now way gibberish and they make perfect sense. Did you try translating them in babelfish to come to this conclusion?
  • Marc from Perth, AustraliaLove this song! And the best rendition of it is on the Stop Making Sense - Talking Heads Live album. It was the opening song. What a great concert! What a great live album. The mood it set for the concert was electrifying! The bare stage still being prepped while Byrne struts around singing Psycho Killer. David Byrne at his arty best.
  • Melon from Kahuluu, HiAdded song fact "Je me lance vers la gloire", I rush towards glory, are supposedly the modern dancer Isadora Duncan's last words before she got on a motorcycle with some guy and was strangled by her own scarf
  • Adam from Mechanicsburg, PaThe french isnt gibberish, its important to the songs meaning.
    its loosely translated as:

    "What I made, that evening
    What she said, that evening
    Accomplishing my hope
    I launch towards glory"

    And "Qu'est que C'est" means "What is that?"
  • Lalah from Wasilla, AkThis song was part of the sound track for the movie "Summer of Sam". Back in 1976 and 77 when I lived near NYC I remember the news reporting the shootings then this song became popular. I always associated this song with the killer Berkowitz. Then the Fools came out with their parody "Psycho Chicken". It kind of took the darkness of the times away.
  • Nelson from MelbourneKiller song!
    Dilanna performed this quite dreadfully on Rockstar Supernova in 2006.
  • Jon from Oakridge, OrI don't know why but when I hear this I think of the Son of Sam.
  • Ralph from Newton, MaSomebody did a spoof version entitled "Psycho Chicken."

    That was The Fools. Awesome band.
  • Ratboy from Ratville, NjThey don't make 'em like this anymore.
  • B from Sacramento, CaThe French section is actually "realizing my hope, I launch myself towards glory"
  • Wes from Springfield, VaSomebody did a spoof version entitled "Psycho Chicken."
  • Craig from Dunedin, New ZealandDavid Byrne was originally from Dumbarton in Scotland. His family moved to the US when he was 8. Imagine Byrne fronting the Bay City Rollers! S-A-T-U-R-PSYCHOKILLER-DAY!
  • Justin Winokur from Blue Bell, PaMoxy Fruvous did a wonderful cover of the song. It can be heard on the album Live Noise.
  • Jane from San Antonio, TxThis song reminds me so strongly of the '70's. I was a punk in the UK, and when we went to the punk gigs, they always played this over the speakers while we waited between acts. I don't know whether it was intended to spur us onto random acts of violence, but all it caused was widespread singing in terrible French accents!
  • Bobbuttons from Ff, LaThe part that goes like this:

    Ce que j'ai fait, ce soir la
    Ce qu'elle a dit, ce soir la
    Realisant, mon espoir
    Je me lance vers la gloire

    Isn't gibberish, but really badly pronounced. It means:

    What I did, that night
    What she said, that night
    Fulfil my hope
    I throw myself towards glory
  • Jordan from Ontario, CanadaI heard that this song inspired 'Cop Killer' by Ice T.
  • Steph from Ottawa, CanadaOne of the best live performances you'll hear (from Stop Making Sense). Such a spartan, lonely song, and sung with great paranoia by Byrne
  • Lauren from Maryville, MoI think (if my translation is accurate) the French translates out to something that's not quite total gibberish --

    That which I did that evening,
    that which she said that evening --
    realizing my hopes,
    I rush out after the glory.
see more comments

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