As a deep dive, Talking Heads are a bit of a late-in-life discovery for me. I’d been long familiar with the singles; as a child of the 80s, I was especially familiar with the big hits of the MTV era (“Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” chief among them). It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I really decided to do a deep dive into the rest of their catalog.
I don’t know why it took me so long. Post-punk is one of my favorite periods in the history of rock music, whether that meant power pop like the Soft Boys, the birthing of the new Americana in early R.E.M., or the gothy poppiness of The Cure (distinct from the poppy gothiness of, say, Siouxsie and the Banshees or Echo and the Bunnymen). There’s a reason this is the first of four planned articles I’m working on for 1979 in music.
Of course, one of those reasons is Fear of Music itself. Talking Heads’ third album is the one that flipped the switch for me and made me want to keep digging; the one I re-listen to the most; the one which has the most tracks on my short list of favorite Talking Heads songs. It’s also, to me, where the band’s flirtation with world music, their confidence with political themes, and sense of avant-garde aesthetic bloomed into something new and unique and artist-defining. Their next album, Remain in Light, tends to be the one the critics cite as the best, but if Remain in Light is the band’s Sgt. Pepper’s, then Fear of Music is certainly their Revolver.
We jump right into what makes Talking Heads’ sound unique among their peers– the polyrhythm that drives “I Zimbra,” in conjunction with the relative lack of melody, replaced by the use of phrases and the singing that is more group chanting. It’s a groovy track and a great tone-setter for both mood and expectations.
“I Zimbra” is followed by the slower, more contemplative “Mind,” David Byrne’s attempt to address an unnamed audience (possibly himself), frustrated in his efforts to reach a locked mind. That goes into “Paper,” with its chugging beat and lyrics focused on a metaphorical paper that seems to be a relationship of unclear status, truth uncertain.
Both are great tracks, but I wanted to get to my favorite one-two punch on the album, and maybe in all of Talking Heads, the fourth and fifth tracks: “Cities” and “Life During Wartime.” The former is one of the funkiest tracks the Talking Heads have ever done, with Tina Weymouth’s bass providing the memorable riffs and fills in the chorus. It’s also perhaps the ideal song to showcase what David Byrne brings vocally, between his normal singing voice, the yelps, and how all over the place he is in general. Lyrically, the song is strangely specific but in a way that still manages to feel universal. We’ve all got to find our place, and though Byrne’s mentions of specific cities seem to explore qualities beyond their living suitability (and in the case of Memphis, clearly talking about two cities with the same name, “Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks”), the song still comes home to that point in the chorus: “I will find a city, find myself a city to live in.” Where can you live? Where can you live? Where can you live?
Or maybe Byrne is playing up the tension because of a dislike of cities. “Life During Wartime” certainly showcases the idea, seemingly taking place in a setting of some level of social collapse, where stockpiling rations and weapons, staying on the move, and avoiding the authorities are both difficult and paramount. Human pleasures take a back seat to survival, as the chorus makes clear (and lends this essay its title). Byrne even name-drops a couple of clubs the Talking Heads played, making clear with “This ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB” that those times are long past.
The narrator here implies some kind of activity among his fellow revolutionaries elsewhere– “Heard about Houston / Heard about Detroit / Heard about Pittsburgh, PA”– but never says if it’s good or bad news. (And his next line is about more immediate concerns: “You ought to know not to stand by the window / Somebody might see you up there.”) The life of a revolutionary in a crumbling society and a surveillance state is one of being invisible and leaving no trace: “Burned all my notebooks / What good are notebooks? / They won’t help me survive.”
That keyboard riff is indelible and part of what makes this one of the band’s signature songs (as one of three named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, along with “Psycho Killer” and “Once in a Lifetime”). Both the melody itself and the strange tonal and textural qualities of the instrument create an anxious mood, a feeling that, like our narrator, we can’t stay still, get too comfortable, ever settle in one place in this world.
The third song that ranks near the top of my list of very favorites is “Heaven.” A fascinating thing to throw on an album so often defined by its sense of forward motion, “Heaven” is the exact opposite, a song that practically forces the listener to find a place of stillness, with its quieter sound and gentle tempo. The lyrics are rather blunt and straightforward on the topic: “Heaven / Heaven is a place / A place where nothing / Nothing ever happens.” While one common interpretation is that the sameness and repetition described in the song is meant to sound boring and dull, I think otherwise, that what’s being conveyed here is, above all else, a sense of peace. Placed in the midst of so much energy, motion, and chaos, the overall thematic message becomes clear: There is another way besides all the madness. Heaven is here, now. War is over (if you want it). Don’t just do something; sit there.
I’d gone in order until I skipped ahead to “Heaven,” and I don’t want to give any of the other songs short shrift; there’s not a bad one on the album. “Air” is probably next on my list of favorites, the high harmonies at the end of the chorus gliding perfectly over the bass riff emerging from underneath, for whatever the narrator thinks about the dangers of air. (Is he paranoid? Is this a statement on how we’re poisoning our own air here on Earth?) “Memories Can’t Wait” is great, too, both for how it allows Byrne to really just let himself sing in the chorus and in the story of a man living in his dreams and memories of the people he once knew.
The last three tracks are probably my least favorite stretch of the album, which isn’t to say at all that they’re bad, or even lacking in signature moments. The long outro movement to “Animals,” with Byrne alternating a gruff chant of the lyrics with an occasional sung vocal flourish) calls back to “I Zimbra” and gives the song the primal, tribal sense it needs to fit the lyrics. “Electric Guitar” has that memorable riff and melody, underneath an odd little story that, in what would not be the first time Byrne’s lyrics were prescient, seems to presage the censorship battles of the 1980s as focused on rock music. “Drugs” is a sparse closer, driven by a simple melody, unusual percussion, and the occasional strange and unsettling effect. They may not be my favorites in the way the stretch from “Cities” to “Heaven” is, but they’re all potent songs necessary to the album.
The album, taken as a whole, has a lot of tracks that echo each other in their worry, uncertainty, and paranoia, whether it’s over the authorities or the paper or the air itself. “Memories Can’t Wait” and “Heaven” stand out most strongly as contrasts, what might be called moments first of false peace and then real peace among the chaos. “I Zimbra” isn’t really on theme, either, as the lyrics are an interpretation of a work by Dadaist post Hugo Ball. (“I Zimbra” also stands out for being the most prescient as to the direction the band would take next; put on Remain in Light and you’ll surely hear it echoed in opener “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On).”) I do like that some of the songs seem to presage future Talking Heads material, and not just “I Zimbra”: “Nothing But Flowers” might be described as the world of “Life During Wartime” post-collapse, but where the people have learned the lessons from “Animals.”
It would be hard to call this an album that was foundational to my development and tastes, simply coming along to it as late as I did. (If I hadn’t heard it before I turned twenty-five, it wasn’t going to shape me so much as reflect me.) But it’s the rare late-in-life album I love, that captures such a unique mood and outlook and even sound, as disco-funk-synthesizer-tribal as it is. Even that description doesn’t exactly fit, and it’s why broader labels like “post-punk” and “new wave” are often used to describe the band: Any definition that wasn’t a wide net defined as much by aesthetic and point in history as by sound wouldn’t capture them. They’re so unique, and Fear of Music is such a unique album. And I wouldn’t change a note on it.