Monday, September 28, 2009

Byrne Baby Byrne

George Clinton’s Funkadelic famously sung “Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow”, which was a prescription Talking Heads took to the max with their ability to make the intellectual infectious and danceable. Most music aficionados have long admired Talking Heads for their mixture of cerebral, slightly ambivalent lyrics, complex rhythms, clever arrangements and quirky tunes, but what may surprise listeners is how funky they are, even when the songs tackle the darkest of subjects.

These funk-laced rhythms came to full fruition on “Remain in Light”, which may well be the band’s definitive statement, but “Fear of Music” was the first album to embrace their experimental leanings and give expression to a step in a new direction. “Fear of Music” was their third album after the nervous, smart post-punk of “Talking Heads: 77” and the warm, adventurous “More Songs about Buildings and Food” and represented something of a transitional affair as they moved towards the explicitly ethnic beats of “Remain in Light” and “Speaking in Tongues”.

"The name of this band is ..."

Despite being the band’s most daunting and difficult record to approach, “Fear of Music” was named as the best album of 1979 by the influential NME. Whereas “More Songs” was crisp and outgoing, “Fear of Music” is often brilliantly disorienting. This is a more obscure, enigmatic Talking Heads, whose jittery pop is beginning to turn darker and more exploratory. Front man David Byrne explained, “It wouldn’t please us to make music that’s impossible to listen to, but we don’t want to compromise for the sake of popularity”. Nevertheless, the music was now more compelling and the spiky urgency of before possessed a new sure-footed assurance.

The album opens with “I Zimbra”, which was actually the last track recorded for the album, which makes sense, given that its tribal, conga driven jam is the clearest link to the sound on “Remain in Light”. This may well be one of the first examples of world music appearing on a rock-oriented record. Talking Heads had already toyed with French phrases on the seminal “Psycho Killer”, but here Byrne abandons English altogether, basing the incomprehensible lyrics on a nonsensical poem by Dadaist writer Hugo Ball. However, “I Zimbra” can be viewed as a glorious red herring, a slice of afro-funk that is more like a teaser (or blueprint) for the next album.

"This ain't no Mudd Club or CBGB's"

For this is primarily a collection of anxious, claustrophobic and twisted songs, fueled by the uncomfortable, quivering tension between its repetitive dance beats and Byrne’s overly anxious vocals. From its paranoia-filled lyrics to its tightly-wound arrangements, the aptly titled “Fear of Music” perfectly captures the sound of a complete psychological breakdown. Although Byrne sang about his own private, tortured universe, believing his inner world to be his last refuge, this celebration of paranoia was very much a product of its time, taking its temperature from the Cold War, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Three Mile Island accident.

The ominous feeling of foreboding is reinforced by the black LP sleeve, which is embossed with a corrugated pattern that resembled the appearance and texture of metal flooring. Obviously the album title also fits in with the record’s darker themes, though different interpretations have been considered, including references to the band being under a lot of pressure when making it and even the travails of the music industry as a whole.

"Psycho Killer"

Either way, a sense of manic unease permeates the album throughout as Byrne paints a portrait of all sorts of fears and phobias, his apprehensive ruminations expressing his belief inter alia that animals were laughing at him, his electric guitar could not be trusted and even the air was causing him harm. Some have argued that this could be considered a concept album (Fear of Everything), but Byrne himself said these were, “just songs that were written and recorded within a given period, so they have a kind of thematic or emotional … whatever”. Classic Byrne – smart as a whip, but slightly weird.

Animals” carries the paranoia to hysterical extremes with its sinister litany of frankly hilarious grievances against, yes, animals: “I know the animals/Are laughing at us/They don't even know/What a joke is”. Equally strange is “Electric Guitar”, whose surreal quality makes it unclear whether this is a condemnation of rock music or those who oppose such music. On a deeper level, it could be interpreted as a fear of institutional authority and totalitarianism: “Someone controls electric guitar”. The light, atmospheric (sorry) “Air” worries about the toxins carried by the air: “What is happening to my skin?/Where is that protection that I needed?/Air can hurt you too”.

"The wall of sound"

Looking at the subjects of Byrne’s anxiety, it is clear that a strong sense of humour shines through his trepidation. Although not as overtly funny as the Talking Heads’ earlier songs, there is a childish playfulness at work here among the wreckage. Even when they tackle hard subjects, the lyrics are witty, not laugh-out-loud hilarious, but always droll, so you can never be entirely sure that they are completely serious. The songs are all the better for it, as the world already has more than its fair share of po-faced preachers masquerading as rock stars.

This is not to say that the album does not address important issues, articulating the angst that many of their fans felt at the time. “Cities” speaks about global disaffection, “I'm checking them out/I got it figured out/There's good points and bad points/But it all works out/ I'm a little freaked out/Find a city/Find myself a city to live in”, Byrne spitting out the words with the bug-eyed zeal of a man who is never more disturbed than when confronted with the normal. He delivers the song at a frantic pace as if he’s being chased, arbitrarily dismissing each city, though there are still lines that raise a smile, “Do I smell?/I smell home cooking/It's only the river”.

"You ain't nothing but a wide boy"

Life During Wartime” is the album’s standout track and has become cultural shorthand for paranoia, insurgency and covert activity. It describes a nightmarish vision of civil insurrection and terrorism that was unfortunately as prophetic as it was apocalyptic, “Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons/Packed up and ready to go”; and “I got three passports, couple of visas/ Don't even know my real name”. Drawing on punk as its main inspiration, it shares a disco beat with “Cities”, though this is a very twisted sort of dance, giving us the catchphrase of the age: “This ain't no party, this ain't no disco/This ain't no fooling around/No time for dancing, or lovey dovey/I ain't got time for that now”. This song could also be played to many of today’s fashionistas as a lesson in how good post-modern, edgy dance music can truly be, “I changed my hairstyle so many times now/don't know what I look like”.

Mind” is equally plaintive, but this time the despair is for a doomed relationship. This is the Heads at their most minimalist, but the message is all the more powerful for the song’s ghostly insistence with the singer becoming more and more frustrated as it progresses, “I try to talk to you, to make things clear/But you're not even listening to me/And it comes directly from my heart to you/I need something to change your mind”. The reverberating bass line draws you in, as it becomes clear that Byrne hasn’t got the “faintest idea” how to resolve his problems.

"But you said it was a fancy dress party"

Having previously dismissed the good ole’ US of A in “The Big Country” (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me”), Byrne extended his scorn to paradise itself in the anthemic “Heaven”, possibly Talking Heads’ first authentic soulful ballad. Although the melodic music offers a pool of calm and serenity amid the insanity, the deceptively relaxed tune gradually reveals layers of frustrated, aching tension beneath the surface that is only hinted at during the wry, bemused chorus, “Heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens”. Maybe alluding to the need to move on musically, Byrne sang, “The band in Heaven they play my favorite song/They play it one more time, they play it all night long”.

The closing track “Drugs” is a scary listen, as the sound is stripped down to the bare essentials, thus bringing to the fore Byrne’s edgy vocals, exploring themes of urban dislocation. Byrne apparently jogged around the block several times before recording the vocals, and you can hear the lack of breath as he struggles to force the words out. It’s as if drugs wipe everything away, “Somebody said there's too much light/Pull down the shade and it's alright/It'll be over in a minute or two”, though there’s a deep uncertainty at the core of the robotic rhythms and mutant funk.

"Take me to the river"

Some consider that this album is nothing more than a detailed exploration of the strains of the creative process, not so much a fear of music, but a fear of no longer being able to make music. David Byrne suffered from writer’s block throughout his career and this is evoked in “Paper”, where he describes having ideas, but not being able to write them down, “Hold the paper up to the light/Some rays pass right through”. Maybe much of the pain and dread suffusing the album is merely a reflection of Byrne’s desperate quest for his artistic muse?

However they got there, the album’s music was rightly praised for its unconventional rhythms and its eclectic blend of disco beats, cinematic soundscapes and new wave guitar hooks. On no other album did Talking Heads so brilliantly walk the fine line between avant garde rock and pop music. The guitars and keyboards never sounded cleaner, while the bass and drums drive the songs forward.

Much of the praise should go to producer Brian Eno, who was instrumental (sic) in shaping the band’s sound. On board for the second time, Eno added another dimension, spinning synthesizers and strange sound effects around their spindly funk. He highlighted the quirkiness of the subject matter and the oddity of Byrne’s breathless vocals and subversive lyrics, so that the songs sparkle with energy and invention. His eerily ambient influence took the band in new directions, such as the spooky “Memories Can’t Wait”, where the mix is as murky as a film noir and Byrne’s vocal is echoed, reverbed, tape-reversed and sped up, while he sings, “There's a party in my mind/And I hope it never stops”.

Although many tracks bore Eno’s mark, it was still Talking Heads’ frantic energy that kept the material aloft. The amalgam of Byrne’s scratchy, punk-oriented guitar, Jerry Harrison's keyboards and one of the all time great rhythm sections, Tina Weymouth on bass and Chris Frantz on drums, was something to behold. Byrne’s vocals add the edginess, sometimes in sync with the other band members, sometimes careering above them in lunatic abandon. His musicians may be an efficient machine, but Byrne maintains the beauty (luxury) of human error.

"The Pink Pussycat - this must be the place"

This was the phase of the band’s career when their creativity was running wild and perhaps Eno’s great skill was to capture this vitality before their chemistry faded. Byrne seemed to believe that the responsibility for the band’s success rested squarely on his shoulders, singing about how “Other people can go home/Other people may just split/I'll be here all the time/I can never quit” in “Memories” and it is true that the other band members became less influential on future albums. In fact, they needed a number of side projects, such as the impressive Tom Tom Club, to fully satisfy their creative urges.

Talking Heads was one of the most innovative bands of the last thirty years and their influence can still be felt today, especially in the likes of Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. I believe that there are also similarities with Radiohead and if you can’t see that, consider that they named themselves after a Talking Heads song – “Radio Head” from “True Stories”.

In “More Songs about Buildings and Food”, Byrne’s character seemed overly obsessed with the trivia of everyday existence, and here it seems to have driven him over the edge, yet somehow, it never stops making sense.

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