Diego Basaldu | Posted on April 05, 2019
Design: Jerry HarrisonFront sleeve of Fear of Music
Fear of Music
*Artist: Talking Heads Released: August 3, 1979 *Genre: Post-punk/New wave
*Top 3 songs: Heaven (#3), Memories Can’t Wait (#2), Life During Wartime (#1)
Extra Fact: The inner sleeve is a heat-sensitive photograph of David Byrne
Personal ranking: 9/10
Unbiased ranking: 9/10
Fear of Music
Tracks (Name [length])
I Zimbra [3:09]
Life During Wartime [3:41]
Memories Can’t Wait [3:30]
Electric Guitar [3:01]
“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,” this is another review. Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. An interesting title considering their past two album titles: Talking Heads:77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. Fear of Music gives off a mysterious and dark vibe from the album’s black, almost empty cover, which allows the green lettering to catch your attention. This is the second album for Brio Eno to produce with Talking Heads, and you can hear Eno’s hand in the production through most of the songs. The continued influence of funk being incorporated into their songs for a more “danceable” sound, and an early hint of what Talking Heads (and Brio Eno) could create with the influence of African sounds and beats (full circle when Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts are released).
“I Zimbra” (pronounced E-zim-brah) starts the album with that preview of what was to become of the Talking Heads’ sound. The guitar, in the beginning, is the most attractive sound on this track. The input of the various percussion instruments (congas, djembe, and Chris Frantz on the drums) keep the African influenced beat going using Tina’s sliding bass and Jerry’s frantic keyboards. The lyrics have no real meaning. They were an adaptation of a poem, “Gadji beri bimba,” by Hugo Bell. “I Zimbra,” despite being a dance song, lays the foundation to explore the theme within Fear of Music (more on that theme later). Another dance track is “Cities,” which fades in and fades out. There’s an alarm in the beginning that serves as a warning another dance track is on its way. Tina Weymouth lays down a funky bass line, all while Jerry Harrison sporadically adds keyboard effects throughout the song. David Byrne’s vocals are at times wildly humorous or steadily calm. There’s a small preview to my favorite track with “dark, dark in the daytime/people sleep, sleep in the daytime.” The song is basically about finding “a city to live in” because David Byrne has no intention of living in a “The Big Country.” “Cities” is one of seven songs that features a single word as a title. “Paper” being a straightforward message to “hold onto the paper” with an interesting interaction between the guitars and bass during the refrain. “Drugs” as an eerie, slow finale to Fear of Music. A piercing “ping” repeated throughout the song alongside distorted sounds and Byrne’s panicked voice. “Drugs” fades with this sudden guitar appearing towards the end for a final jump scare. “Mind” sharing similar qualities. A plucking guitar riff takes the place of the “ping,” sounds of “bouncing” synths and bass in the back with a lighter “ping” (probably foreshadowing “Drugs”), and Byrne’s voice building intensity with each repeat of the song’s title. “Air” has a creepy choir breathing the word “air” or unsettling “oooo’s.” With a booming bass and uneasy keyboards, the most terrifying part of the song is the climax where chaos (or air) roams dominate to “hurt you.” The guitar’s volume is turned up to the max, the choir making their presence known as you are no longer safe from “air,” and a repeating keyboard riff growing in intensity as the song fades. “Heaven” is a beautiful, slow ballad about a question people ask (in one form or another): Is there a heaven? The bass rightfully guides you through answers of that question (best part is Tina’s bass). It’s a place “where nothing happens,” it’s a place where you hear “your favorite song”, it’s “where nothing ever happens”, it’s where you “party,” it’s “where nothing…nothing ever happens.” “Heaven” is both calming and bizarre at the same time, but the lyrics (which will be looked at later) are the real attraction to the song.
“Animals” is the last of the seven single word tracks. There’s a loud guitar riff that repeats when David Byrne lets his anger out with grunts. In the background, you can hear what I describe as a “scratchy shaker” (I don’t know what it is) that adds to the song’s beginning atmosphere. There are two parts to the song. The beginning (part one) of the song is Byrne lashing out on animals with intense hatred, as intense as the guitars. My favorite lyric from the song is “Animals think/They’re pretty smart/Sh*t on the ground.” Why? Because it makes me laugh. Also because it’s such a funny contrast between intelligence and stupidity (what smart creature just sh*ts on the ground?). Part two crashes in at 2:12, along with David’s mental breakdown. The bass and synth become the leaders of intensity, while the guitar has a low effect on the dark atmospheric ending of “Animals.” Byrne has now become deranged about his obsession with his hatred for animals. “Electric Guitar” is known as the weakest track on the album (I agree), but there are some interesting sounds. The bass sounds like a tuba (why’d they have to do Tina like that), Chris’ high hats are heard throughout the song, there are some interesting “sci-fi” synth sounds, and a guitar isn’t as dominant in its sound as the rest of the instruments. The song lyrics are something about a trail with an electric guitar (?). The song is worth an occasional (once in a year) listen, but it provides sounds relating to the theme of the album. Though “Memories Can’t Wait” is the defining song that helps revolve the theme of Fear of Music. The beginning is a loud, intense crashing of everything the band has to offer. Nothing says fear more than the intro to “Memories Can’t Wait”. Everything is loud, disoriented, and echoed. Random synth effects of howling and sirens, Byrne’s vocals sounding more unstable as the song increases in intensity, guitar, and bass fighting for control, and the drums trying to keep everything calm and stable. There is a small calm, but everything is let loose in the end. Byrne has been overtaken by “these memories” plaguing his mind. He screams and whines, “ThEsE MEmoRIes CaN’t WAAAAAAAAAAIT!” The final track missing isn’t as intense or fear-inducing as “Memories Can’t Wait,” but it’s a more improved dance sound from “Cities.”
“Life During Wartime” is the best track on the album (and best track to watch live from their Stop Making Sense film). The drums, congas, and bass drive this song’s groove, and the guitar and synth play in harmony. The only fear aspect of the song is in the lyrics, but all we hear is the groove that captures our ear’s interest. Our ears want us to dance. Dance about a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by hatred and fear. Unfortunately, the song fades leaving our ears wanting more. Luckily there is an alternative version where there are more lyrics and a definite end, but a loud guitar plays over everything (including the vocals) until the new lyrics appear (that version isn’t part of the original album).
What is Fear of Music? We know its “no disco” or “no party,” but what is the fear in the music? I like to think of it as adding “fear of” to the song titles. Fear of “I Zimbra,” fear of “Mind,” fear of “Paper,” fear of… etc. All of them make sense, with the exception being “I Zimbra.” Fear of “I Zimbra.” Makes no sense, but take into consideration that the lyrics are an inspiration from Dadaism, which is a rejection of reality. Fear of rejection of reality. Now that makes a little more sense. If we were to reject reality, then we would reject what keeps us from reaching a state of anarchy. We would reject our sanity and morality. I would be terrified of living in a world inhabited by the insane, ignorant, and anarchists. That’s where fear of “Mind” comes to light. No one wants to lose their grip on reality, so we fear losing our mind in any way. The mind helps us to think for ourselves, to communicate, to love…to lose all of that from a mental disorder (such as Alzheimer’s) or in an accident is truly devastating. What brings out our fear is that anyone can lose their mind, and we don’t know how or when that might happen. So, we should always use our minds to the fullest without being swayed or oppressed. There is a sense of irony in the lyrics. He lists common ideas or things that actually “change our minds”: time, money, drugs, religion, science, sincerity, and even close family or friends. All of these impacts our way of thinking, but what we need to realize is not all of them have complete control over our minds (except time, because as Danny Elfman says, “No One Lives Forever”). Knowing of our limited time, we should make the best of that time we have living in the full capacity of our mind. Fear of “Paper” is something that doesn’t seem all that bad. Paper cuts do hurt, but it’s more about what can be on paper that instills fear in us. The range can go from losing your receipt to return those six boxes of Shamwows you bought while you were drunk at Walmart (IDK that just popped in my head) or signing the form that will pull the plug on your dying parent (that popped in my head too). Losing money (the paper money), getting a divorce, completing the Selective Service form, prescription form, legal papers, a death threat, a ticket, your bill (for water, electricity, gas…), or anything found on a thin, sliced piece of a dead tree that will terrify you. Never thought paper could be so scary. Having a fear of “Cities” seems more reasonable. Large crowds of people, traffic, a lot of people, buildings, people walking, higher priced expenses, people standing, and much more. All of that can be hard for a person to process, leaving them a little “freaked out,” especially if they have agoraphobia or claustrophobia. The fear of “Life During Wartime.” No one truly wants to live in a post-apocalyptic society. There would be a huge loss of life and a shortage of resources and food (like peanut butter and record players). There’s a whole period devoted to the fear of being obliterated in a potential nuclear war. It’s fun to watch in movies, but not so much when you’re living through it. We are very blessed to not be living in such a state of destruction, but for how long until we reach that state? Or are we already living during wartime?
There’s an interesting part in the song. “Heard about Houston?/Heard about Detroit?/Heard about Pittsburgh, P.A.?” There is a connection; They’re places where race riots broke out. Why would Davie Byrne include mentioning those three events? Is it a reflection about how easily we can be blinded by hatred and ignorance, and then turn on each other? Leading to violence and death with no end in sight, while others watch the death ensue? How they watch while living during a time of war? A war that could have been stopped with an intervention of peace? OR it’s just a song. Fear of “Memories (Can’t Wait).” I’m sure everyone has experienced a time when a random memory from long ago pops up in your head. Some of them pleasant, some awkward, and some just terrifying. Those flashbacks to a traumatic experience you once had as a child, or recently in the past week. Whatever horrible experience, the memory can’t wait suppressed deep in your subconscious. The memory wants to stay alive in your head. It wants to be relative. It wants to relive that moment. A moment where you were consumed by fear and panic. A moment played on repeat, so it is never forgotten. Having a fear of “Air.” Air doesn’t seem too harmful. You can die from too much or too little air, but most of the air now is polluted. All the chemicals and toxins released into the air are now going in and out through your nose. That breeze of pollution hitting your glistening, greasy face. Take a deep breath next time you’re outside to get your true “experience with air.” A fear of “Heaven.” Everyone doesn’t want it to be there time to leave this Earth. We hate to know we will see loved ones go, and that we will leave loved ones during our time. For those who believe in an afterlife, we are trying to reach that paradise (that bar). We know those who went before us will be there waiting. We will celebrate when we reunite with them, and we will enjoy what we loved when on Earth (maybe that favorite song of ours). We will be in paradise for eternity. Party and dance over and over and over forever.
This is where the lyrics hit me with a philosophical opening in my mind and heart. It goes to say, “Heaven is a place where nothing happens,” but how can that be possible? This is where the thinking comes in to play. “When this kiss is over/ It will start over again/ It will not be any different/ It will be exactly the same/ Its hard to imagine/ That nothing at all/ Could be so exciting/ Could be this much fun.” If we reach that paradise, it will go on for eternity. Maybe a friend or another loved one will join us at “the bar,” but in the end, everything “will be exactly the same.” It’s true when you think about it. Everything, yet nothing, would be something so excited to look forward to in the end. “A place where nothing ever happens,” and where happiness and every reunion happens is truly a place to be “exciting” and “fun.”
Moving on back to Earth, where fear of “Animals” roams. A common and understandable fear. Many people have that one animal (or more) that either freaks them out or they hate it. There is a difference between being afraid of pit bulls and hating pit bulls. Allow me to use myself as an example. Mosquitoes freak me out (my neck hair stands when I hear their high-pitched buzzing sound), and I hate cats (something about their movements and faces angers me). I would never be freaked out by a cat, as I wouldn’t hate a mosquito because I’d be too busy scratching and slapping myself. But are we any better than the animals we fear/hate? I always say that humans are the worst animals on this planet. The harm we do to each other and our home because of how our minds are so easily manipulated by irrelevant objects and ideas. So, if there are wild creatures we should fear, it’s ourselves. OR this is just a song. Fear of … “Electric Guitar” (?). I’ll come back to that.
Fear of “Drugs.” The word drug is always associated with beer, weed, medicine, and so many other “creative” concoctions. We all run on drugs. Whether it’s that antidepressant needed to avoid those melancholy thoughts, the social desirability to have a few (always stretch what few means) drinks with friends, or that fix of coffee in the morning to wake up (you are freaking stimulant drug addicts). The fear comes from realizing your complete control to the drug through yourself or a loved one. I realized I became addicted to caffeine when I had a massive headache because I didn’t have coffee for two days in a row (now its emergencies only). Realizing and telling someone about getting help for their alcoholism as an attempt to save them from an irreversible fate. For our lives to be commanded by a substance’s control over our brain’s chemistry activity is something to truly fear. We know what effects it has on us, but we keep going back to using drugs. We just need those feelings. That “electricity.” That high. That alertness. That numbness. That smoke. That pleasure. We need it to function. We need it so much, we are willing to give our lives for drugs.
Rewind to fear of “Electric Guitar”, which is just this album’s main goal. The goal of making you fear music. Being afraid of sound. The use of ideas of paranoia through sounds and lyrics meant to instill fear. If you listen to Fear of Music and you don’t feel scared or unsettled, you are not listening correctly. You need to let all outside thoughts go and let new thoughts of terror flood your mind. Open your subconsciousness to let those repressed memories come out to roam. Let yourself be submerged in fear, the Fear of Music.