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:
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."