[Review] Talking Heads: Fear of Music (1979)

The best album of 1979? Melody Maker thought so, and I’m inclined to agree.

Kronomyth 3.0: These memories can’t wait.

David Byrne sums it up at the end on Drugs: “I’m charged up/I’m kind of wooden/I’m barely moving/I study motion/I study myself/I fooled myself/I’m charged up/It’s pretty intense.” In fact, Fear of Music is very intense: a control freak out of control planning the next revolution, battling with his ego in a wasteland of drugs and disappointments, the gears of his internal machinations spinning toward entropy, all splashed against a canvas of deconstructed funk riffs while clinging to an almost childlike belief in the power of pop music and absolute good

This is far and away Talking Heads’ greatest artistic leap of faith, even if they were goaded to jump by Brian Eno. It begins with I Zimbra, a song that, once heard, can’t be unheard. It’s as though Fela Kuti were re-imagined in a digital jungle with Robert Fripp’s distinctive Frippertronics providing the ultimate futureshock. (Fripp liked the results so much that he used this sound as a launching point for the reconstituted King Crimson.) This song also points forward to the next installment of the Heads, Remain In Light. If Fear of Music contained nothing else, it would be a classic record for this track alone.

Of course, it contains a lot more great music. There are the hits, Cities and Life During Wartime, driven by the manic urgency of a man driven to distraction in the modern world. And then there are all those single-word songs that reveal Byrne’s new minimalist approach: Animals, Mind, Paper, Drugs, Air, Heaven. They spoke of the artist wrestling with himself (“Paper”) and struggling to relate to the world around him. Paranoia and isolation fuel much of Byrne’s internal dialogue, whether it’s his comical distrust of animals (“Animals”), his inability to communicate (“Mind”), his vulnerability to the very air (“Air”) or his unwillingness to swallow the blue pill of inner peace (“Heaven”).

There are many minor epiphanies on this album, but none are quite so shocking as the clarity that comes at the end of Memories Can’t Wait. For most of the song, Byrne is crowded out by his inner voices but, in the closing moments, he’s left with himself. It’s a terrifying moment, this realization that the madness is internal and inescapable, that the greatest enemy to reason might be our own mind. I would call this the climax of the album. Everything seems to be building up to this moment, and everything that comes after seems almost trivial by comparison.

At the time, Fear of Music was a high-water mark in music. Melody Maker named it the year’s best album. College students clustered around it. Few, however, could have imagined that this was just a warm-up of what was to come…

Original elpee version

A1. I Zimbra (David Byrne/Brian Eno/Hugo Ball) (3:06)
A2. Mind (4:12)
A3. Paper (2:36)
A4. Cities (4:05)
A5. Life During Wartime (3:41)
A6. Memories Can’t Wait (3:30)
B1. Air (3:33)
B2. Heaven (4:01)
B3. Animals (3:29)
B4. Electric Guitar (2:59)
B5. Drugs (5:13)

All songs written by David Byrne unless noted.

Original 8-track version
A1. I Zimbra
A2. Life During Wartime
A3. Memories Can’t Wait
B1. Paper
B2. Cities
B3. Air
C1. Heaven
C2. Animals
C3. Electric Guitar
D1. Mind
D2. Drugs

CD reissue bonus tracks
12. Dancing for Money (unfinished outtake)
13. Life During Wartime (alternate version)
14. Cities (alternate version)
15. Mind (alternate version)

The Players

David Byrne (vocals, guitars), Chris Frantz (drums), Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitars), Tina Weymouth (bass) with Ari (congas on A1/A5), Brian Eno (treatments, background vocals on A1), Robert Fripp (guitar on A1), Julie Last (background vocals on A1), The Sweetbreathes (Lani and Laura Weymouth) (background vocals on B1), Gene Wilder (congas on A1/A5). Produced by Brian Eno and Talking Heads; engineered by Rod O’Brian with additional engineering and mixing by Joe Barbaria, Rod O’Brian, Neil Teeman.

The Pictures

Cover concept by Jerry Harrison. Sleeve concept by David Byrne (with Jerry’s help). Thermograph by Jimmy Garcia.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and 8-track on August 3, 1979 in the US, the UK, Australia and Portugal (Sire, SRK/SRC 6076), Brazil (WEA, 6107079), Canada (Sire, QSR 6076), Germany and the Netherlands (Sire, SIR K 56 707) and Japan (Sire, RJ-7600) with embossed cover and lyrics innersleeve. Reached #21 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record) and #33 on the UK charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1982 in Japan (Sire, P-6487) with lyrics innersleeve.
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in the US and Canada (6076-2) and Europe (Sire, 256 707).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc on August 25, 1990 in Japan (Warner Bros., WPCP-3622).
  4. Re-issued on compact disc in 2001 in Australia (Sire, 7599274282).
  5. Re-released on expanded, remastered CD+DVD in 2006 in the US (Sire, 73299-2) with 4 bonus tracks + surround sound DVD with 2 bonus videos.
  6. Re-released on expanded super high material compact disc on January 14, 2009 in Japan (Sire, WPCR-13291) with 4 bonus tracks.
  7. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee on August 6, 2013 in the US (Rhino, R1-6076) with lyrics innersleeve.

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