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CD Review: Talking Heads – Fear of Music

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My awareness of the Talking Heads began in March 1976, when they played CBGB’s as the opening act for the kings and queen of the New York punk rock scene, Television and The Patti Smith Group. When they came out on the tiny stage, I wasn’t sure what to think– the trio looked pretty geeky. David Byrne wore a wrinkled, multi-colored button down shirt and “high-water” beige slacks. Tina Weymouth was almost entirely obscured by her bass, and drummer Chris Frantz seemed to be confused about where they were playing that night. However, the amalgam of Byrne’s scratchy punk-oriented guitar rock with Weymouth’s and Frantz’s clipped funk rhythm was something to behold. It sounded a little like Funkadelic without the horns and keyboards backing The Velvet Underground.

As they say, the rest is history. After Brian Eno took them under his production wing and cleaned them up a bit, the group became monstrously successful, dwarfing the popularity of the two more influential bands that played CB’s that evening. Fear of Music, the groups third album, is something of a testament to the rawer elements from which the band grew from. Recorded in a rehearsal loft on Long Island, producer Eno captures the vitality of a band on the eve of stardom, before the ego clashes, fights about money, and endless touring wears their patience thin. It’s impossible to add anything new to the critical exchange about this classic album. However, this particular re-issue from retro giant Rhino Records is a particularly charming addition to the ‘Heads discography because of the outtakes from the original sessions it uses as bonus tracks. Two of these pieces, “Life During Wartime” and “Cities,” feature a cranked, feedback laden guitar that acts as a buzz saw through the middle of each track, muting Byrne’s vocals in favor of the metaphor of desperate times and desperate measures the album was written to convey.

The other interesting aspect of this re-issue is the video DVD side. On it, you’ll find a couple of live performances which feature ‘80’s guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew and a fine line up of touring pick up musicians who fill some dangerously sparse parts of the compositions admirably. However, where this end falls apart is with the still photos offered with another play of the entire album. Maybe some ‘Heads fans would enjoy these, but for me, it was kind of weird to have static images going along with the meaty and bouncy music of the group, especially on the highly danceable songs “I Zimbra” and “Life During Wartime.” Maybe they just had space to fill on the disc, I don’t know. But it seems like an odd idea to me.

Rhino has released the entire ‘Heads catalogue, and if any of you are interested in discovering why the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phish and Radiohead site this band as an influence, I highly recommend you check out this album. It is a lasting tribute to a musical era filled with experimentation and risk, things we don’t find much of anymore in pop music.
Edited: [!-GH–]

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About Larry

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Good review. Pretty historic show for you: CBGB’s, TH, Patti Smith & Television. I saw them with Iggy Pop in LA, and I remember one review describing Talking Heads as “resembling Young Republicans.”

  • http://www.theopinionmill.com Steven Hart

    You saw Television, Patti Smith and Talking Heads on the same night at CBGB’s? Talk about being present at the creation!

    If I remember correctly, the Heads (or at least Byrne) set out to make Fear of Music sound as weird as possible after the relative (I repeat, relative) sweetness of More Songs About Buildings and Food. It was also the first album in which the other band members started to get steamed about the way music developed through group jams always seemed to end up credited to Byrne. Credit disputes seem to have killed off plenty of great bands in their prime.

  • http://jonsobel.com Jon Sobel

    But the Heads weren’t killed off by internal struggles, fortunately for us – although there was bad blood later, their classic body of work is substantial.

    I was a tad too young to catch them when they started, but made up for it by excessive listening in the 80s. One of my favorite bands ever.

  • http://www.mytown.ca/sakin Larry A. Sakin

    Gordon and Steven- Yes, seeing the ‘Heads, Television and Patti Smith on the same bill seems like a huge thing now, but at that time such sets in the New York punk scene were rather common. Both Max’s and CB’s had similar lineups, and they were cheap- three bands, ten bucks.

    Jon- I agree, we’re fortunate that the ‘Heads continued as long as they did with the problems that developed. From what I understand, Byrne developed more of an interest in world music and wanted to pursue it full time, while Weymouth and Frantz’s commitment to Tom Tom Club was taking up more of their time, and the inevitable split occured. Still, the body of work they left is outstanding, and still holds up well today. That can’t be said about a lot of bands.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    You got to see the Talking Heads at CBGB’s in 1976? With Television and Patti Smith? Oh, I hate you so much.

    Fear of Music is right up there, isn’t it? I’ll run that up with your Sgt Peppers and Born to Runs.

    Personal point of shared resentment with Mister Byrne: “Animals think they’re pretty smart. They shit on the ground and see in the dark.”

  • http://www.mytown.ca/sakin Larry A. Sakin

    Oh Al, you’d really hate me if you knew all the bands I was able to see while living in NYC during the ’70’s. If I ever review a Ramones album, I’ll write about seeing them live at Max’s with Lou Reed and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/cmpwrite Connie Phillips

    Editor’s note: This article now has another venue for success – and more eyes – at the Advance.net Web sites, a site affiliated with about 12 newspapers.

    One such site is here.