Monday, December 29, 2008

Talking Heads' "Fear of Music" as a Predictor of Future Band Member Activity

OK, here's how it happened.

I was in the middle of writing about Twitority when I chanced upon this FriendFeed entry (via from Friendfeed user Andy Kaufman:

listening to "Girlfriend Is Better - Talking Heads"

Now if you're not familiar with this song, it's the one from "Remain in Light" that includes the line "stop making sense"...which eventually became the title of a Talking Heads concert movie.

But this got me musing about an audio (rather than video) version of a Talking Heads live performance.

Audio-wise, I enjoyed the live double album. The earlier shows have simpler arrangements and a small club crowd, but by the later shows you have an extended band playing to huge audiences.

Then I said:

Now I have "A Clean Break" going through my head...

I continued with my post on Twitority, and was just about to finish it when I had to make a sudden trip from Ontario to Fontana. Having only a minute before I dashed out the door, I thought I'd grab my CD copy of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (the live album that I mentioned) so that I could listen to "A Clean Break" and other songs about buildings, food, music, light, and the number 77.

But I couldn't find that CD, so I grabbed Fear of Music instead.

For the record, Fear of Music is a near-perfect CD for a commute from northwest Ontario to north Fontana. I listened to side one (except for "Paper") on the way out to Fontana, and side two (except for "Animals") on the way back. (For those who are only familiar with the CD version, the last song on side one is "Memories Can't Wait," and the first song on side two is "Air.")

As I drove on the 10 and 15 freeways, I found myself asking myself the following question:

Self, is Fear of Music a predictor of the later work of Talking Heads and the individual band members?

Fair question.

Fear of Music is in some respects a watershed album. Yes, they had already worked with Eno before and would do so again, but it was the last album in which Talking Heads were a self-contained, self-centered group. After this album was completed, the band members would go off into solo (and duo) projects, and even the definition of "the band" itself became somewhat blurry.

Now, bearing in mind that I haven't heard a lot of Byrne's solo work, here are some of the albums that came after Fear of Music, and my subjective judgement regarding whether inklings of these albums can be found in Fear of Music itself. (I am indebted to these discographies of Talking Heads and the individual band members.)

Talking Heads, Remain in Light, October 1980.

When people link Fear of Music and its follow-up, the obvious link between the two is "I Zimbra" - the marriage of a found lyric with extremely rhythmic music. Yet I think I hear echoes of the later album in the former. The earlier album only had a few guest artists (most notably Eno cohort Robert Fripp), but certain songs such as "Life During Wartime" sounded more effective when they were later played with a "Remain in Light"-size band. Think about it - when the new band played "Take Me To The River," the song was dramatically rearranged. When it played "Life During Wartime," they just filled it out a bit. So for those who assert that "Remain in Light" was a radical departure for Talking Heads, it really wasn't.

Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, February 1981.

When I initially thought about this on my Ontario-to-Fontana drive, I couldn't see any link whatsoever between this LP and the previous Heads effort. It wasn't until a few minutes ago, when I referred to a found lyric in "I Zimbra," that the connection became obvious. Now of course Eno and Byrne used a different technique to find their lyrics, but there is a commonality here.

Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club, October 1981.

In a sense, this LP (and its successor LP, of which I only recall "Bamboo Town") is really closer to Remain in Light than to Fear of Music. In a simplistic manner, Tina and Chris took the "Remain in Light" backing band, relaxed, and made a funky album. But there is one small commonality between Tom Tom Club and the earlier Heads work, and you can find it in the beginning of "Air" (and on an earlier song; I think it was "The Good Thing") - female voices. Probably the biggest difference between TH and TTC was that Tina was singing and David wasn't. The second biggest difference - the rapping of Chris - isn't really evident in any Talking Heads work.

Talking Heads, True Stories, September 1986.

Sorry, folks, but in the same way that I love Notorious by Duran Duran and Total Devo, I can honestly say that True Stories is my favorite Talking Heads album. But can you hear this Texas-tinged Weekly World News ripoff in the earlier manhole-cover themed album? I think you can in "Heaven." One could possibly argue that the lyrics predict the later attitudes of the True Stories Texas town, but you can really hear in the music that the band could play American when they wished to do so. (Incidentally, this is truly evident in the film "Stop Making Sense," in which this is performed acoustically by Byrne, Weymouth, and an offstage singer.)

Jerry Harrison, Casual Gods, February 1988.

I don't really remember The Red and the Black, so I'm skipping to Harrison's second album. And, frankly, I'm not really hearing it in Fear of Music. Harrison's work, like the work of Tom Tom Club, is really more closely related to Remain in Light than Fear of Music. Not that Harrison (or Weymouth of Frantz) weren't important in Fear, but the stuff they were doing didn't completely relate to what they later achieved on their own.
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