The Talking Heads Play CBGB, the New York Club That Shaped Their Sound (1975)

High on the list of historical periods I regret having missed, I would place Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the seventies. Despite being something less than a shining time for major cities, especially American major cities, and especially New York City, that era’s seemingly hollowed-out downtowns offered cradles to many a cultural movement. David Byrne‘s band the Talking Heads count as a major one unto themselves. Generation X author Douglas Coupland memorably asked only one question to determine whether one belongs to that particular cohort: do you like the Talking Heads? In an entire book he wrote about the band’s 1979 album Fear of Music, novelist Jonatham Lethem remembers this of his own enthusiasm: “At the peak, in 1980 or 81, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.”

Talking about the origin of the Talking Heads, we must talk about CBGB, the Bowery nightclub that hosted formative shows for such punk, new wave, and culturally proximate but difficult to categorize acts like Television, the Cramps, Blondie, the Patti Smith Group, and the B-52s. Byrne and company began playing there in the mid-seventies, and would eventually drop the place’s name in the track “Life During Wartime.” (“This ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB…”) At the top of this post, you’ll see their 1975 performance of “Psycho Killer” at CBGB, along with “Tentative Decisions” and “With Our Love.” Though CBGB shut down in 2006, its essence lives on in the influential music it shaped. “It is the venue that makes the music scene happen just as much as the creativity of the musicians,” wrote Byrne himself in CBGB and OMFUG: Thirty Years from the Home of Underground Rock. “There is continually and forever a pool of talent, energy, and expression waiting to be tapped—it simply needs the right place in which to express itself.”

Related content:

Live in Rome, 1980: The Talking Heads Concert Film You Haven’t Seen

Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” Performed on Traditional Chinese Instruments

David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (6)
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  • Love the piece. But they are not *the* Talking Heads. They’re Talking Heads.

  • I was there at CBGB, to see the Ramones, and have the roll of film showing the Talking Heads, before Jerry joined the band, open for Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy. As David Byrne is quoted above, “There is continually and forever a pool of talent, energy, and expression waiting to be tapped – it simply needs the right place in which to express itself.”

    I felt it every night I spent at CBGB from 1975 thru 1979. Original music was the only rule at CBGB… Thanks to the vision of Hilly Kristal.

  • Ben Klein says:

    The NYC clubs have featured some of the greatest underground and indie bands who influenced other great artists. Incredible vibe going on in the city.

  • Pat Ivers says:

    Hi! I’m Pat Ivers. In 1975,we shot this Talking Heads show during the Unrecorded Band Festival at CBGBs- we,being Metropolis Video,( a video collective of seven friends, who shot shows at CBs off and on for about a year. After our collective disolved, I continued to document the scene for years with Emily Armstrong. You can follow the story of the restoration of our video archive with our blog in the NYT at the East Village Local or go to and click on the blog button for more incredible video. You are right, it was an amazing time.

  • Jimmy says:

    Saw the Talking Heads at the Longhorn Bar in Mpls. In late ’77… One of the most electrifying ,inspiring shows I ever saw, and I saw a lot!

  • Dan Cass says:

    First gig i went to. Saw them in Melbourne when I was about 12 in 1983 I think. Wonderful, exhilarating, challenging, unforgettable.

    I relate to the idea of identifying a sub-culture or generation by them.

    Also Tom Tom Club were underrated, IMHO.

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