Sunday, November 19, 2006

Vinyl Mine Companion to Talking Heads: Fear of Music

Fear of Music - An Overview:
Lester Bangs wrote that Fear of Music might as well be called Fear of Everything since many of the songs seem to be about phobias ("Air", "Animals"), paranoia ("Life During Wartime") and various neuroses and disorders ("Drugs", "Paper"). This seems to be a common view among people attempting to interpret it although their agendas seem suspect. More than one go so far as to say things like the record's "oft-cited paranoia... may have been simple prophecy: The Reagan era was dawning." While David Byrne is avidly anti-Republican in his outlook and Jimmy Carter was pretty far into totally fucking up his first term around the time this was written, I really doubt that he or even Brian Eno is a seer. However, there's still plenty of evidence to support the "Fear of Everything" point of view when approaching this album. David Bowman in his book This Must Be The Place suggests the paranoia in the album was a product of its time - Iranian Hostage Crisis, Skylab falling, Three Mile Island. Just look at the album cover which suggests some bleak institutional dread. The inside photo is a "heat picture" of Byrne that makes him appear alien and forboding.

Furthermore, Bangs cites the song "Heaven" because it provides the counterpoint in describing paradise as the place where "nothing ever happens." Quoting Lester: "Every state but zero cool emptiness, every place on the map but Nowheresville, spells anxiety under a wide assortment of brand names." Bangs then sort of rejects this approach and concludes that "sometimes I think Fear of Music is one of the best comedy albums I've ever heard." He concludes fear is real but Byrne's comedic approach to his subject suggest that it's something best to be laughed about. It should be noted that Lester was a guy who lived in New York City and famously never kept his door locked.

In his biography of the band, David Bowman cites several (not mutually exclusive) origins for the title which may also provide clues as to what the album is about. One story has it that Jerry Harrison provided Fear of Music as a title for More Songs About Building and Food, the previous album but it didn't fit that group of songs and was reconsidered for this third album. David Byrne claims he was inspired by a story of a woman who went into a seizure after hearing a piece of music and in another interview I read he references people who won't go near towns because they are afraid of hearing music. Additionally, there are cultures (such as the retrograde Muslim fundamentalism that took over Iran in the late 70s) where certain types of music are feared and banned. The song "Electric Guitar" is about putting a musical instrument "in to a court of law." Finally, Tina Weymouth told a magazine the title referred to the record industry which was in a freefall at the time. In this day and age of DRM, Rootkits and RIAA court cases, that interpretation is more prescient than ever.

A Theory of Fear of Music

David Byrne recently described the modern album thusly:
For certain artists, [it's] a set sequence of songs... whether you call it a concept record or just songs that were written and recorded within a given period, so they have a kind of thematic or emotional ... whatever ...
By the way Byrne discusses this, he seems to be eschewing the notion of a 'concept record' in favor of the alternative. It seems most of the Talking Heads albums seem to be more like records that have that "kind of thematic or emotional... whatever." It would be easy to accept that Fear of Music is just another collection of songs "written and recorded within a given period." I believe instead that this album is a detailed exploration of the pressures and strains of the creative process. Whether this was intentional or not, the overall feeling of this record is that it isn't so much about "fear of music" but "fear of no longer being able to make music."

David Byrne famously suffered writer's block throughout the life of the band and went through two bouts during the making of this album. David Bowman writes that the first time (1978) Byrne "pecked and pecked at that typewriter but all the words that he typed were tired and lame." Seymour Stein of Sire Records arranged to take Byrne on a trip to Trinidad which reportedly cleared it up. At any rate, it was something that vexed Byrne. You can imagine the pressure that this put him under in the creation of this third album, which for many bands is the "make or break" record for longevity. The leader of a band has to not only produce, promote and play but he has to be creative. I think Byrne was probably also coming to terms with the fact that his interests originally lay in conceptual art and here he was wedded with a band and dependent on having to use musical instruments -- objects (rather than concepts) to produce his art.

So, you say, ok, you may have something there - "Paper" clearly seems to be, at least in part, about writer's block - but the whole album? What does, for instance, "Life During Wartime" have to do with writer's block?

Well, I think the second big clue is the sequencing of the album cuts. Interestingly enough, the lyric sheet is arranged not in song order but alphabetically. It's a bit disconcerting but it seems to be drawing attention to the song order - suggesting there is something important about the song order in order to understand the overall album.

So, let's take this song by song - in order. The first cut is "I Zimbra" which was actually reported to be the last song cut for the album and was the source of Byrne's second bout of writer's block. Try as he might, he couldn't find the words for this song. He went so far as turning to Jerry Harrison but decided Harrison's contribution was too prosaic. Eventually, Eno suggested that Byrne look at a poem by Dada and Caberet Voltaire founder Hugo Ball. Well, here's one approach to dealing with writer's block. Use someone else's ideas (with credit of course). The song itself with its tribal sound and it's placement as the first cut suggest some sort of ritual invocation to Byrne's muse.

So, this brings us to the second track - "Mind" - which on the surface appears to be Byrne singing to either a girlfriend or maybe even the audience about his despair over their relationship. "I need something to change your mind." In the first part of the song the vocals are almost soothing and countered with an insistent yet quiet pizzicato guitar riff and a repetitive bass "boing". As the song progresses, the singer and music gets more and more insistent and frustrated - "I try to talk to you to make things clear / but you aren't even listening to me." The original guitar riff mutates into an angry sempiternal point-counterpoint. There's a third interperation -- Byrne is actually singing to his creative self and getting more and more frustrated that there is no breakthrough, no songs flowing as before. Drugs won't change him, religion and science doesn't work. The origins and cure for writer's block is unknown. Stephen King in a recent essay on the creative process likens his muse to a little dog that he allows into a clearing and suggests that:
There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it.
Hence, the song ends as it began. Byrne hasn't the "faintest idea" about what to do about his problem.

Finally we get to the most literal track about the frustrations of creativity. "Paper" evokes the typical scene of a writer who can't write. You sit and stare at the keyboard, the cursor, your pen or your paper. Byrne goes a bit further - talking more about having ideas but not being able to get what he wants on the paper. "Some rays they pass right through." He tries things to distract himself "take a rest... tie it up /in a long distance telephone call." Some interpretations of this song point to the third verse where Byrne sings: "had a love affair but it was only paper" and suggest the song is literally about this love affair. I think instead, he's using this as an example of the song writing process. He's trying to write about this love affair but is not finding the words - as a topic it's coming out too mundane ("had alot of fun, could have been alot better"). The song ends with the narrator saying that he's going to "tear up the paper" and look for another solution.

Well, the next song ("Cities") suggests a Seymour Stein solution. Go somewhere else (like Trinidad?) and find a "good place to get some thinking done." A commonly held notion is that a change of scenery sometimes gets the creative juices flowing again. There's also a theory that cities are associated with certain modes of thought and hence things that are created there retain that character. Writes Byrne in his online journal:
What is it about certain cities and places that fosters specific attitudes? Am I imagining this? Do people who move to L.A. from elsewhere lose a lot of that elsewhere and eventually end up making L.A.-type work? Does creative attitude seep in through peer pressure and causal conversations? Or is it in the water, the light, the weather? Is there a Detroit sensibility? Memphis? New Orleans? (no doubt) Austin? (certainly) Nashville? London? Berlin? Dusseldorf? Vienna? (yes) Paris? Osaka? Melbourne? Bahia? (absolutely)
So I'm wondering if that beyond the literal interpretation of this song ("find a city to live in") there's an idea that the singer is really singing about trying to find a different mode of thinking to edge into the creative process. By the somewhat comedic way he approaches the topic in this song (the verse about Memphis is hilarious) I suspect he really doesn't believe that a change of scenery or modes of thinking is really going to work. He further wrote in his journal on the subject that the notion of specific attitudes being associated with cities is a bit of a myth and "exists because we want it to exist in order to lend meaning and order to a sometimes senseless world."

"Life During Wartime" is the most popular song from this album and has become cultural shorthand for paranoia, insurgency and covertness. If it's used in a documentary or movie, usually means that someone is going underground. But how does this really relate to the subject of the creative process? On one hand, it almost reads like the type of exercise someone might go through to purge writer's block. That is, write a song in a character of someone else. Songwriters like Colin Meloy do this all the time - perhaps because he's uncomfortable writing about his own life - and its a great way to squeeze out a song or novel or whatever. In that intepretation, the song seems to be about restless paranoia, sleeper terrorists and spies (remember we are still deep in the Cold War in 1979 and Baader-Meinhoff was only four years prior). It's a great song just on these merits.

That said, I think "Life During Wartime" is ALSO about the creative process. What Byrne seems to be describing is the INTENSE pressure he is feeling trying to get his work done: "transmit the message to the receiver / hope to get a message someday." The singer talks about separating himself from his loved ones and losing sleep. It's all very insistent. I've read David Byrne would disappear for days at a time during this period and I can imagine him in some hotel room with "peanut butter / to last a couple of days" trying to write a song. At any rate, he seems to have kept his sense of humor - "no time for dancing or love-dovey" indeed.

This brings us to the final song on Side 1 -"Memories Can't Wait." The first part of the song seems to suggest that things have gotten very dire for the narrator. It's in the minor key and Eno pulls out all stops in his "treatment" to suggest menace and dread. He's "sleeping on his back" and doesn't know if can stand up. He's sitting. You get the sense that this is someone who is sleep-walking through reality. There's a party in his mind and he hopes it never stops (another classic line from this album!). He's totally disjointed from reality and doesn't remember anything at all. But then all of a sudden everything changes - it gets quiet and "everyone has gone to sleep." The chords change to a major key and the song becomes uplifting, even a bit gospel-ish. It's almost kind of corny but this is like almost like a character breakthrough that usually occurs at the end of the first act of a Broadway musical. Exactly what drove the epiphany is mysterious although I suggest the root of the problem was intense pressure that Byrne put himself under (that "poison bait" Stephen King talks about). Somehow he has come to grips with it. He sings about how "other people can go home ... other people can split" and I can't help but wonder if he isn't talking about his band. He's come to accept, whether its true or not, that the responsibility for the band falls on his head. Interestingly enough, after this album, the band members became less and less influential -- some have written that they became mere sidemen to Byrne.

So then, this brings us to side 2.

Now, for a long time I harbored doubt that side 2 of this album wasn't anything more than a collection of other songs that didn't fit into the "concept" of side 1 or were tangentially related. But the more I listened, I came to the conclusion that many of these songs were the things that flowed after the breakthrough. The songs are lucid, tackle what might be considered hard subjects and are often quite funny. "Air" (Track 1) and "Animals" (Track 3) make fun of the absurdity of fear and dread. It's true that "air can hurt you too" but if that's the case, well then we might as well throw in the towel on everything else. Byrne has said that "Animals" was an attempt to poke fun at the notion that animals and even primitive man are somehow more evolved than us. "Animals are obstinate beings with problems of their own." (source Bowman, This Must Be The Place). At any rate, these songs are lots of fun (in fact almost all Talking Heads songs are fun) and it's good to see the muse back.

"Heaven" seems to be talking about where the singer goes to escape the pressure he was feeling in side 1 - or perhaps he's just positing that such a place might exist. It's where "nothing ever happens" and the band in Heaven plays his favorite song over and over again. No need to be creative or produce things. The idea of "nothingness" being nirvana is, of course, nothing new but I don't believe Byrne actually accepts this philosophy. Even though the song isn't sung ironically, it is the band's first ballad and almost has an Air Supply feel to it. The singer seems to be trying too hard to convince himself that a place where nothing happens "could be so exciting, could be so much fun." Byrne has written about this notion of nothingness as nirvana and actually rejects it:
Hmmm, paradise is boring, eh? Well, I guess it would be. Maybe we need difference, the unexpected, the not perfect and even the undesirable to keep our edges as beings and as a species? We sharpen and hone ourselves against the nasty old world, and we become who we are as a result. You buying any of this? We need something to push against, some resistance and some reminders that we can'’t just coast, — some tests, surprises, practice, uncertainty and even unpleasantness to make us ask ourselves constantly who we are, what do we want, where are we going and do we really want to go there?
So again, this DOES relate back to the creative process, no? "Nothing" may be Heaven but it's not creating - and what, then, you ask is so great about creating? Read on.

Track 4 on Side 2 is "Electric Guitar." This is a really weird song - the imagery is dreamlike and Eno gives the sound a surreal quality. It starts with a image of an electric guitar getting "run over by a car on the highway." Somehow, the guitar is then taken to a "court of law" and the judge and jury (jukebox jury?) decide that electric guitar is a crime against the state. "This is the verdict that they reach... Electric guitar is copied / the copy sounds better"and finally the singer concludes "someone controls an electric guitar." So what does this all mean? Well, I think the "judge and jury" are actually Byrne putting himself and his guitar on trial. Remember that Byrne started as a conceptual artist - he used to create questionaires, hand-copy them and give them to people to fill out. Now all of a sudden he's tied to rock music as personified in the electric guitar - an object. How does he reconcile object with concept? In addition, he's beholden not just to his audience and band but to the business which thrives on making mass copies of his "electric guitar." ("the copy sounds better"). I think here Byrne is writing about how he is coming to terms with being a rock star and dealing with the business end of things and the need to collaborate (or just deal) with lots of people, often not that desirable, to put out his art -- coming to grips with the fact that someone else controls electric guitar?

Finally, what about "Drugs"? It's the last song on the album -- how in the Hell can you say this is ALSO about the creative process and writer's block. Well, it is. This song ISN'T about drugs - it was originally titled "Electricity." No, this song is about the drug-like euphoria and the high you get when creating. Back to Stephen King:
Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it's a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level -- the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread -- fades even more. This is a real thing I'm talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it's good, it's better than the best pill.
Or as Byrne simply puts it, "I'm charged up....It's pretty intense."

So there you have it -- a CONCEPT ALBUM is something I define as being able to tell a story or cover a subject song by song. Fear of Music is an ambitious album about the pain of the loss of creativity, the willful search to get it back, the mysterious return, the euphoria of writing and the self-awareness and joy that flows as a result. So saith I! So saith we all?

The "Blow by Blow":

OK - so you've talked about the concept? What about the music?

Track 1: 'I Zimbra' - This opener probably surprised alot of people -- I was at least -- expecting more of 'Psycho Killer' jitter or 'Take Me To the River' new wave soul. Instead you hear this tribal, conga-ridden jam with what sound like nonsense lyrics.

Song Notes: Robert Fripp is the guest guitarist and his sound is easily discernible. Congas are credited to a Gene Wilder and Ari. Some have said this the actor Gene Wilder and Ari Up of The Slits. If this is true, it would be pretty funny but I've never heard of Gene Wilder playing congas. Ian Gittens on his book Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime offers the more probable theory that they were "buskers" recruited from a local park. This song was released as a single. Some have said that this was one of the first "world music" songs to appear on a rock oriented record. While Byrne spent time in Trinidad going to calypso which is derived from African music, Bowman's book suggest the polyrhythmic African rhythm was somewhat of an accident and driven more by the way the lyrics turned out.

Mix tape suggestions: Dance, Dada, Western rock meets Africa.

Track 2: 'Mind' - As the second song on the record, a slowish new wave style track. Great mix from Eno and Byrne's passionate singing garners some new respect here.

Track 3: 'Paper' - Has a poppy new-wave four-four feel and some nice funky rhythm guitar. The chorus has this cool sustained riff and a simple bass/drum beat. Although I don't have much more to say about this song, it's currently my favorite from the album.

Track 4: 'Cities' - The way this song starts is so cool the way it fades in. It's almost feels like an old friend walking up to you. It's also the first of two songs that adopt a disco beat. This was something that I'm sure turned off alot of people at a time when disco was so reviled in the rock world. I think one of the only other bands doing this was Rolling Stones and they were doing it badly. Some nice guitar work here that suggests someone has been listening to Adrian Belew. Belew, who was playing with David Bowie, began playing live with the band after Jerry Harrison recognized him in the lobby of a Peoria theater. This was after the album was completed, though. But the fact that Jerry Harrison recognized Belew indicates that he was familiar with Adrian's guitar work. Someone has uploaded some bootleg Super 8 film of Belew playing "Life During Wartime" with the Talking Heads here (yay Youtube)

Track 5: 'Life During Wartime' - This song is kind of overplayed but coming as it does right after "Cities" and the fact that they both share that "disco" beat oddly seems to work. Lots of classic lyrics that seem to be known by alot of people. If you're at a party and want to break the ice just quote a lyric from this song and see if someone completes it. Sample: "Why stay in college? Why go to nite school?" Response: "Gonna be different this time."

Track 6: "Memories Can't Wait" - Some more nice jittery rhythm guitar work combined with a lazy Weymouth-Frantz beat that goes quite well with the somnambulist undertone of the song. The corny ending is very much a song for sensitive 20-somethings to sing to themselves while walking home alone. I know this from personal experience, I confess.

Track 7: "Air" - The central conceit of this song is funny -- that is unless you take it seriously. Classic line: "Air can hurt you too." I like the vocal affectations: "faster, faster, faster!" Fun fact: The backing vocals were done by Tina Weymouth's three sisters.

Track 8: "Heaven" - This is one of the few songs that Byrne reportedly still does in his acoustic settings. I'd love to hear a boot or see/hear it live. I love Tina's evocative bass line and how it blends into the verse but stands out during the chorus.

Track 9: "Animals" - So many funny lines from this new wave funk song - poking fun at both animals ("they wander around like a crazy dog / make mistake in a parking lot") and singer ("Animals want to change my life / I will ignore animal's advice"). The outro which turns into a faux-ooga-booga caveman thing appears somewhat improvised on the spot.

Track 10: "Electric Guitar" - nothing more to say about this track that I didn't say above.

Track 11: "Drugs" - One of the early modern rock tracks with field recordings - birds recorded in Australia. Gittens writes that Eno had the most influence over this track - removing Tina Weymouth's original bass line, adding in his own special effects and eschewing the band's additional field recordings. As for the band and drugs, Byrne is quoted in Bowman's book saying that he dabbled on the road if it was offered but felt it was too much trouble to go searching for drugs when he was at home. Tina and Chris reportedly had cocaine issues and fled Connecticut when things got out of hand. Weymouth is especially concerned that cocaine use causes tinnitus in musicians.

Album database entries:
  • Artist: Talking Heads
  • Album name: Fear of Music
  • Year: 1979
  • Produced by: Brian Eno and Talking Heads
  • Recorded in April-May 1979 at Chris and Tina's Loft in Long Island City with The Record Plant Remote Truck
  • Engineer: Rod O'Brian
  • Label: Sire Records, NY, NYC Marketed by Warner Bros
Band Members (instrument credits aren't given on the album):
  • David Byrne
  • Jerry Harrison
  • Tina Weymouth
  • Chris Frantz
Also listed in the album are:
  • Brian Eno: Treatments
  • Gene Wilder and Ari: Congas ('Life During Wartime' and 'I Zimbra')
  • Robert Fripp: Guitar on 'I Zimba'
  • The Sweetbreathes ('Air')
  • Julie Last: Background vocals on 'I Zimbra' (along with Eno and Byrne)
Kudos/Awards: This is "classic" album (much as I hate to use that word) and seems to be on several big-time lists -- predictably enough, though, it didn't make Rolling Stone's 2003 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time and yet Stop Making Sense, the live movie soundtrack did? Sheesh.

Resources: - a comprehensive and maintained fan site
David Byrne's personal website and journal.

Album image via Jukebox Browser

No EMPTY-3's today. Why? Because Talking Heads Fear of Music is on the RIAA Radar and if you don't already have this album you probably suck or shouldn't be reading this or you must really hate the Talking Heads.

Thanks to Hype Machine, here are some related posts from some very fine other blogs:
  • Fabulist has some early TH bootlegs including a well-recorded live version of "Life During Wartime"
  • The Passion of The Weiss has an too cute cover of "Heaven" by Vox Trot.
This posting and the writing herein:

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John said...


:::wild applause:::

Incredible piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm with John that was truly outstanding...easily one of my favorite albums of all time...those first four talking heads album are all perfect in my book and SPeaking in Tongues isn't too far off either. Thanks for the link by the way.

merz said...

Excellent write about excellent music!