What a Sane Man Will Do in a Mad World: Talking Heads and ‘Fear of Music’

In his book Orthodoxy, author G.K. Chesterton explains the inevitable travails of “The Maniac”. He describes the problem of the madman that believes the whole world is involved in conspiracy against him, and that in order to live in that world, an individual has to shrink their perceptions down to an ever-tightening pattern of logical reasoning that eventually they cannot break out of. Thus we are left with a spiraling prison of logic, whereby we are left trapped, unable to escape.

On Talking Heads’ third album, Fear of Music, the band traces a similar journey as described by Chesterton. Released in 1979 on the heels of its first two records and its first charting single, Fear of Music careens with conviction into a suffocating and paranoid masterpiece. From the opening Hugo Ball-inspired chants of “I Zimbra” (featuring King Crimson’s resident guitar maestro Robert Fripp) to the closing anxiety-ridden sound-scapes of “Drugs”, the album plods into ominous and dark arenas similar to those once traveled by David Bowie on the album Low. The cover says it all: a bleak and black metallic floor laden only with quasi-industrial and pre-PC green lettering.

Fear of Music is a priceless document, capturing a band heading towards the pinnacle of its creative output. The album is a fascinating marriage of brooding and minimalist forays that emerge as dissonant-laden classics. David Byrne is at his finest here, sounding like a cross between a chicken, a neurotic computer programmer, and a schizophrenic moralist rolled up into a lead singer. Strangely enough, it’s a compelling combination and it adds authenticity to an unrelenting stream of cautionary lyrics that dabble in the dim glow of fear, uncertainty, and, at times, madness. As each track passes, Byrne seems to be grappling with where to find security, if any, and with that, whether control itself can be something applied to any of the arenas of a person’s life.

“Memories Can’t Wait” finds Byrne imploding about how “other people can go home, other people they can split / I’ll be here all the time, I can never quit”. It overflows with lysergic feedback and tape loops that seem to only accentuate the tension of keeping oneself from going completely over the brink. On “Mind”, he appeals for human change, but ends with a disenchanted resignation that nothing–not science, not religion, not drugs, and not even the passage of time itself–can change a person. With “Paper”, Byrne looks through the other end of the telescope, maniacally reeling with how to fit the scope and magnitude of the mind, the imagination, and the human persona onto a sheet of paper. “Cities” gets into funkier territory with Tina Weymouth’s Parliament/James Brown-inspired bassline and Jerry Harrison’s Abba-meets-Ray Charles piano, becoming the soundtrack to Byrne’s comical musings on modern city life, seeking to “find himself a city to live in”.

“Life During Wartime” is the standout track of the record, becoming somewhat of a milestone for the band. This song alone, a chronic crowd pleaser and a fantastic pop song, could merit an entire essay in itself. Documenting existence in a world gone mad, “Life During Wartime” is a leg-shaking, head-nodding number that makes you dance to a diatribe on surviving an unnamed aftermath that reaches towards Orwellian proportions. As the famous line goes, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around”.

It’s that kind of dichotomy that makes this album so compelling. At once, the lyrics are filled with such bleak notions and matter-of-fact apocalyptic visions, and yet musically the listener is enchanted and, in a sense, wooed into the valley of the shadow of death. For instance, on “Heaven” the listener arrives into a static wonderland by way of a charming melody and minimalist piano lines (which bear a very similar resemblance to the Modern Lovers’ “Girlfriend”, a group Harrison was a part of before Talking Heads), yet once there, you realize that it is a “place where nothing ever happens” and may not be Heaven after all.

As the album progresses, the panic and distress only increase, so much so that even the air we breathe becomes suspect. As “Air” begins with its eerie B-horror movie keyboard sound, Byrne is tormented, questioning how “some people say not to worry about the air”. The rising anxiety comes to him from even stranger places in “Animals” where the song evolves into a mental argument about the perception and intelligence of animals, until finally on “Electric Guitar”, he finds even music itself to be untrustworthy with his stern admonition to “never listen to electric guitar”.

As engrossing as this record was for Talking Heads, it would be the band’s live performances of these songs that would make believers out of everyone, most of which is wonderfully documented on The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, as well as the monumental concert film Stop Making Sense. The songs on Fear of Music are masterful, neurotic and truly weird pop wonders and it continues to beckon people to a world that few in that era, and for years to come, would be able to tread with such ease and commercial appeal.