Meaning Behind “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads

The meaning behind the Talking Head’s signature hit “Psycho Killer” is a lot like how it sounds. The classic new wave bop isn’t necessarily about a crazed murderer, but it instead enters the mind of one for a musical journey through the psyche.

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Take a trip through the criminal mind with us below.

The Origins

When “Psycho Killer” was released on the Talking Heads’ 1977 debut, Talking Heads: 77, there was some speculation as to the inspiration behind the hit.

The psycho killer in question was thought to be the infamous serial killer David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam, who had pled guilty to eight shootings the year before the song was released. That, however, was not the case.

“There’s no question that Son of Sam was a psycho killer,” the band’s drummer Chris Frantz told Smashing Interviews Magazine (via Apple News). “But the reason the song was about a psycho killer is because David [Byrne] said that he got the inspiration for it from an Alice Cooper song. Alice Cooper was very big at that particular point in time with an album called Billion Dollar Babies. The band’s whole thing was about horror. So Alice Cooper was like the springboard for ‘Psycho Killer’.”

With the shock rocker as inspiration, “Psycho Killer” was written in the early 1970s while members of the band were attending the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. Soon-to-be Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and Frantz were sharing an art studio at the time and preparing for their senior exhibition.

Byrne, a then band member of Frantz’s campus cover band the Artistics, came in with a guitar and a song he had in mind. “He came in and said, ‘I’ve got the beginnings of a song, and I’d like you to help me with it,'” Frantz explained to the outlet. “We said, ‘Great.’ So David sat down and played the first verse and the chorus, and I immediately thought, ‘Oh, this is like the Velvet Underground meets Otis Redding.’ I loved it. I could just tell it was a great beginning for a song.”

Frantz said Byrne wanted the bridge to be sung in a foreign language. “He said that he asked a Japanese girl if she’d translate it into Japanese for him,” the drummer recalled, “but when she found out the song was called ‘Psycho Killer,’ she absolutely refused to do it.”

Frantz suggested Weymouth translate the bridge to French as she and her mother spoke the language when they were together. “Tina agreed to do it and just sat down and did it in a little over an hour,” Frantz continued. “I wrote a couple of more verses, and within a few hours, ‘Psycho Killer’ was more or less done. I mean, it evolved a little bit musically over the years, but this was an indication to me that this was a really good group of people to work with. When we played that song with our band the Artistics, people really liked it.”

The Lyrics

The lyrics to “Psycho Killer” are a stream of consciousness, thoughts overflowing from a killer’s mind. Building from a stiff bass line and a stomping beat, the song features a crisp, funk-fueled new wave arrangement to offset the song’s eery words.

The tune opens with the lines: 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. These disturbed thoughts continue throughout the verses in between the song’s snappy chorus. Psycho Killer / Qu’est-ce que c’est ? / fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better / Run run run run run run run away.

You start a conversation you can’t even finish it, another thought spills out in between choruses, You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything / When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed / Say something once, why say it again?

The bridge is sung in French: Ce que j’ai fait, ce soir-là / Ce qu’elle a dit, ce soir-là / Réalisant mon espoir / Je me lance, vers la gloire … OK, which roughly translates to, “What I did that night / What she said that night / Realizing my hopes / I launch myself towards a glorious destiny.” The bridge continues in English with the lines: We are vain and we are blind / I hate people when they’re not polite.

Psycho Killer / Qu’est-ce que c’est ? / fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better / Run run run run run run run away. Again the chorus plays over and over, bringing the song to a close in an erratic breakdown of stinging strings and rhythms.

Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

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