First Impressions: Talking Heads and The Pretenders Debut Albums

Talking Heads and The Pretenders debut albums are still groundbreaking records today.

January 9, 2019

Chrissie Hynde L (PA Images/Sipa USA)/David Byrne R (Lane Thoelcke)

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This week’s Friday Feature pairs up two bands that are such major contributors to the sound and legacy of the last 40 years on XRT, that you almost forget how “out there” and  cutting edge both were when they first appeared: Talking Heads and The Pretenders.

I remember hearing Talking Heads for the first time on XRT when I was a loyal listener myself sitting on the couch, cranking my stereo receiver. The opening bass notes of the song hooked made me sit up. Then I heard this strange voice.  Nervous. Edgy. Twitchy. Out of Sorts. It perfectly matched the lyrics:

“I can’t seem to face up to the facts. I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax”.

Listening to the song made me jittery, tense and nervous. The singer wasn’t just quirky, he was a Psycho Killer who  spoke French and threw in “Fa Fa Fa’s”.  I was stunned having never heard anything like it. I guessed this was the punk and new wave I knew nothing about.  I liked it. A lot.

I went out the next day and bought “Talking Heads 77”. Turned out Psycho Killer was the least quirky of the songs on the album. In no way was I prepared for the sudden tempo changes, the herky  jerky rhythms that were nervously funky or the lyrics sung by David Byrne. He seemed like someone who had problems. This was Art Rock made by ambitious art students. Neurotic and confident both at the same time.  It was too weird for most rock fans and it would take four albums and a groundbreaking concert film for Talking Heads to hit the mainstream, but the debut is still my favorite.

The Pretenders debut was no less stunning, but in a different way. It came out the first week of 1980. I already had their import single, a cover of The Kinks, “Stop Your Sobbing” produced by Nick Lowe. I liked it ok, but it did not prepare me for Side 1 of The Pretenders self- titled album.  No band at the time was able to mix punky new wave aggression and attitude with rock and roll hooks, chops and pop melodies. Incredible unconventional guitar leads from James Honeyman-Scott combined with Martin Chambers pounding rhythms and Pete Farndon’s bass gave the songs power, but it was the voice of Chrissie Hynde that made it special. Tough, sexy, vulnerable and dripping with swagger.  Chrissie’s vibrato in track three, “Up The Neck”, made me listen to the song over and over again. From “Precious” through the end, I wore out the side.  The flip side featured the hits that still sound fresh today after a millions spins. “Kid”, “Brass In Pocket” and the killer closer “Mystery Achievement”. It was no mystery really. It was a woman who loved the Stones as much as The Sex Pistols and could bring those worlds together with a great band. Chrissie still records under The Pretenders name and the great songs of the 80’s are certainly staples, but that debut is a near perfect album from beginning to end.