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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Talking Heads: Fear Of Music


1) I Zimbra; 2) Mind; 3) Paper; 4) Cities; 5) Life During Wartime; 6) Memories Can't Wait; 7) Air; 8) Heaven; 9) Animals; 10) Electric Guitar; 11) Drugs.

General verdict: The Young Person's Guide To Modern Day Allergens And Phobias. Translated From The Talking Headish By Brian Eno.

It is always a toss-up for me about whether Fear Of Music or Remain In Light should be placed at number one in the Heads' catalog — not that it really matters; but what matters is the subjective feel that Remain In Light is not a proper Heads album, but rather a unique artefact transcending every genre, style, convention, mood, and purpose that could have been originally conceived. Fear Of Music, on the other hand, is very much the same kind of David Byrne-style experience that we had already seen on the first two albums. But if on the first two albums this experience was largely confined to a claustrophobic, highly localized CBGB-type environment, then Fear Of Music is where Talking Heads shoot into the stratosphere.

I have no idea if this blast had anything to do with the influence of Eno, who would stay on as producer for both this record and its equally glorious follow-up; all I see is that the band's level of confidence has increased dramatically, and Byrne, having guided his artistic character through his adolescence over the previous two years, is now expanding his vision in terms of words, music, atmospheres, and attitudes. The song titles alone position Fear Of Music as a sort of encyclo­paedia: select a bunch of realities, both traditional and modern, and provide each with a musical evaluation from the now-mature Talking Head. But diversity is not confined to the subject matters of the songs; in the same way, the usual playing style of the band has been expanded and diversified, now incorporating bits and pieces of various genres in the most creative ways.

In all honesty, the average Talking Heads song has always been about fear of something — even joyful and exuberant feelings were always accompanied by a little bit of reserved and restrained paranoia. On Fear Of Music, this approach has been driven to the extreme: just about each and every song is dedicated to the down sides of the corresponding reality, though the overall level of humor, sarcasm, and energy never allows the record to cross over into depressing territory — leave that sort of shit to Joy Division, Mr. Byrne says. We find our hero disappointed in other people's conscience (ʽMindʼ), in urban delights (ʽCitiesʼ), in being left alone (ʽAirʼ), in going to Paradise (ʽHeavenʼ), in organic life (ʽAnimalsʼ), in technology (ʽElectric Guitarʼ), in chemical substances (ʽDrugsʼ), and, most importantly, these aren't your average, everyday disappointments. "I'm a little freaked out [to] find myself a city to live in", "air can hurt you too — some people never had experience with air", "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens", "never listen to electric guitar — someone controls electric guitar", "animals are laughing at us"... the album is brimming with these wonderful maxims that might very well have stimulated people into re-evaluating some familiar concepts... that is, if they weren't too busy dancing.

Because other than being a diary of modern urban phobias, Fear Of Music is also a collection of terrific musical grooves — now stretching much further than the cold robo-funk of the first two records. Not that the robo-funk is going anywhere, but now you can find it well integrated with Beatlesque guitar flourishes (ʽPaperʼ), catchy choruses and keyboards (ʽCitiesʼ), or very weird vocal arrangements (ʽAnimalsʼ — well, you'd expect a song called ʽAnimalsʼ and recorded by Talking Heads to sound a bit Orwellian in nature). That monotonous effect of More Songs, the one that, while being awesome on its own, still threatened to brand the band as a one-trick pony, is gone completely: each song is its very own, very distinct entity, though all of them are still atmospherically tied together by Byrne's personality.

ʽLife During Wartimeʼ was the album's calling card and still arguably remains the best-known track. Every time I listen to it, I am amazed by the utmost simplicity of that theme, yet it was really invented by Talking Heads — the guitar/synth riff that bores into your head upon first listen and is so subtly ambiguous: gets your body to move, yes, but also suggests the idea of a constant, restless, sleepless tension (beautifully exploited by the band with their «running on the spot» concept for Stop Making Sense). You do not even have to know the language to understand that "this ain't no party, this ain't no disco"; you just have to suck in that nervous riff and tune in to the tense, alert, survivalist wavelenghts of Byrne's vocal delivery. For the Heads themselves, the song is almost «retro» — it comes with a simple 4/4 beat and is perfectly palatable for veteran rockers, yet the keyboard tones are 100% cold New Wave, and it might also be the first time in pop music that the author used futuristic dystopian imagery as a metaphor for the chaos and confusion of modern times ("I changed my hairstyle so many times now, I don't know what I look like"). The greatest songs are those whose poignance and relevance only increases with the passing of time — and I'd say that ʽLife During Wartimeʼ has only gained in those respects over the past four decades. Has a greater combination of an irresistible danse pulse and a smart, visionary-apocalyptic message been invented ever since?

Speaking of apocalyptic, Fear Of Music also contains the first proof that Talking Heads may be genuinely scary. ʽMemories Can't Waitʼ temporarily abandons robo-funk and delves into more disturbing territory... which I probably will not be able to describe as vividly as Jonathan Lethem, who wrote an entire book on the album, so let's quote the writer: "this dreadnaught of a song wears an exoskeleton of reverb and sonic crud as it grinds grimly uphill, armored like a Doctor Doom or Robocop who has been smeared with tar and then rolled like a cheese log in gravel". I honestly don't know about the cheese log, but other than that, the description is pretty accurate. Somehow, with fairly limited means, the Heads make a sonic nightmare here that is scarier than Sabbath or the Doors... this is some ʽGimme Shelterʼ-level tension here, which is probably the highest praise I can come up with. And the subject matter is scary — this is about one man's fear of his own memories, terror and paralysis at the realization of just how much is going on in that incomprehensible brain of his, of how much we are not in control of anything. When the night­mare is finally resolved, with the peaceful key change at 2:21 into the song, it is not entirely clear that we are finally in control — more likely, it is that the «memories» have finally set in and taken control of us, pacifying and tranquilizing the body. Spooky as hell, really.

The tension never lets go on the second side, either. For ʽAirʼ, they come up with the brilliant idea of having «The Sweetbreaths» (apparently Tina's sisters, Lani and Laura Weymouth) har­monize on the song's title throughout in a gorgeous, ghostly, and deadly manner — so that you might better understand how beautiful and how terrifying this substance can be at the same time. ʽHeavenʼ is the first bona fide ballad in their catalog, and, of course, they had to invert the stereo­type here as well — one of the most static, minimalistic pieces on the album is appropriately about a static, minimalistic understanding of the afterlife, albeit without any chips on anybody's shoulders ("it's hard to imagine / that nothing at all / could be so exciting / could be so much fun"). It is not so much touching as it is intriguing and provoking — not to mention that this is, like, the first time ever these guys have invited us to take a break, a seat, and a trip to another dimension. ʽElectric Guitarʼ is a strange, tired, draggy soundscape, almost like a musical confession of a sinner cursed with the curse of being a rock star; and ʽDrugsʼ, in accordance with its title, ends the record with an even draggier, but far more psychedelic, crawl — this is where Eno shines the most with his special effects, as the guitars wail and howl in reverberating waves of dissonance. Like everything else here, this is neither «pro-drugs» nor «anti-drugs» — like everything else, the song just tries to paint an impressionistic picture of its title.

You might note that so far, I have not said one word of ʽI Zimbraʼ, the album-opener. This is, of course, not just because the song, with its clear-cut African flavor, fits in much better with Remain In Light, but also because it does not really fit in all that well with the main bulk of the songs. Unlike all of them, ʽI Zimbraʼ is just about the music — about intelligent and inspiring integration of traditional African motives with avantgarde pop and modern technologies — and although there are ways to connect the track's weird techno-tribalism with the rest of the album, its goals lie clearly aside of Byrne's principal concept. Throw in guest star Robert Fripp, who is already developing some well-disciplined guitar solos, in anticipiation of his own «Talking Heads rip-offs» of the Eighties, and the disconnect is even more pronounced. But is this a flaw? Be it as it may, ʽI Zimbraʼ still technically occupies the position of «overture», preparing you for all the strangeness that is to come by being the strangest of 'em all. In 1979, putting on your brand new Talking Heads LP and hearing congas, surdos, djembes, talking drums, and artificial languages simply meant one thing: this album is not Even More Songs About Buildings And Food — it is your conduit into the next dimension.

Ultimately, if we think of Talking Heads as The Beatles of their generation (I know, I know, life does not begin and end with the Beatles, but who else to choose for your gold standard when you really need one?), then Fear Of Music is their Revolver — a record that still has some ties to the past while being already fully focused on the future. No other New Wave album could boast that much eclecticity, that much intelligence, and that much energy in one short, tight package. Yes, it is possible to criticize the band, and Byrne in particular, for sticking to their artistic masks, for being too afraid or too shy or too arrogant to show genuine feelings without a screen of modernist sarcasm — The Clash they are not — but if I understand things correctly, this is not really a mask: Fear Of Music is more or less how David Byrne truly is, warts and all. More importantly, this is how all of us could potentially be, if only we could see the world through David Byrne's eyes (every once a while, I get the vague feeling I actually can, and it scares the shit out of me). Any­way, what I mean to say is that Fear Of Music is, unquestionably and undoubtedly, one of the most significant and timeless recordings of the second half of the 20th century — if you have not heard it, you are all but obliged to, and if you have heard it and were not impressed by it, well... "time won't change you, money won't change you, I haven't got the faintest idea".


  1. When I was a teenager this (rather than something like Dark Side of the Moon) was my favorite album to listen to stoned. It really made me realize what a truly great producer Brian Eno was.

  2. I agree, this album is a masterpiece. Those cathartic, ear-splitting wails at the end of ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ will always haunt me. The emotional contours of Byrne’s artistic persona on FOM- variously neurotic, nervous, paranoid, alienated- and the way it both complements and clashes with the energetic funk foundation of the music is really singular. And spectacular. The Eno electro-gloom coating just adds to the resonance. Essential listening.

  3. Clearly more important than contemporary US new wavers were doing at the time (Blondie, The Cars, etc.). But the escencial achievements of this Record can be heard in 1977 David Bowie's records. Also with help from Brian Eno. And many peoole prefer the UK new wavers such as The Police. Anyway, Talking Heads is a good group and this is a very good album. Not in my list of top albums from the second half of the 20th century. Even not the best album from 1979 (The Wall, Unknown Pleasures, Highway to Hell are better).

    1. Sorry, but American New Wave >>>>>>> British New Wave. This is a fact, and it’s pig-ignorant to suggest otherwise. Devo, Pere Ubu, Television, Suicide etc were all doing post-punk pre-punk, way ahead of the Brits.

    2. You're both half wrong, (Brit) Brian Eno got there first, but with (1974) Taking Tiger Mountain, not the 1977 Bowie collaboration, but on the other hand it all goes back to the (American) Velvet Underground, but on the other hand their avant garde specialist John Cale was British, but on the other hand he learned in the Theater of Eternal Music, which was mostly American and led by (American) La Monte Young, so in conclusion the French won the Battle of Yorktown.

    3. Graham you are right. But in any case this album is not revolutionary. Just a very good album. That is my point.

    4. I think George makes a superb case for what was revolutionary about Talking Heads in his recent review of '77 (as well as in the introduction to the Talking Heads page on his old site and the review there of More Songs About Buildings and Food).

      This album may simply be "expanding his [or their] vision," as George says in the above review, but then, same goes for every Beatles album after Sgt. Pepper.

    5. [Edited for intemperate language]

      I’m annoyed as hell that you’d choose literally two of the least original (though still very talented) American New wave acts to represent the US side of the equation. If you’re going to go into transatlantic culture war mode (silly and pointless as that usually is), at least compare apples to apples. Christ.

      Devo. Suicide. Pere Ubu. Television. Talking Heads. Laurie Anderson. Much else besides. That’s where the ambitious side of the US scene was. Start drawing comparisons there, you silly billy.

  4. Fear of Music is by far the Heads' best album. First half of Remain in Light is good, but the second half just panders. Just about every song on this album is great both from the subject material, to the production to the hooks. Life During Wartime remains (in light?) my favorite Heads song.