on April 12, 2001
This album was recorded by the Talking Heads in Long Island City, NY in 1979 which led me to wonder how Brian Eno got to Queens -- did he take the 7 train to Queens Borough Plaza and then walk over? After all, the 7 train does appear in at least one Talking Heads video. Regardless, this album has a real live feel to it, like it was recorded in someone's living room and mixed to reproduce the live experience of a bass, guitar, drum and keyboard ensemble. It is the Heads at their most trimmed down production and in tone, texture, production values and subject matter, it reminds me of Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division which was also recorded that year. I know the Heads must have had an awareness of Joy Division since their song "The Overload" on Remain In Light (1980) is frighteningly close to JD's "I Remember Nothing." Besides, everyone on earth knew who Joy Division was by 1980.
At first blush, this album is weird, quirky, mysterious and fragmented. But closer examination reveals a pretty huge sense of humor. The title alone, Fear of Music, is hilarious and is a key to the sensibilities that run throughout the songs. David Byrne paints one portrait after another of phobia, fear of electric guiars, fear of animals, fear of air, fear of Heaven, fear of cities, fear of wartime, fear of paper. Fear of paper?
Fear of music is a very city oriented album. It is not an album of art rock by art school students like their first two albums. It is a garage band that has spaced out on too much surrealism, late-night television, science fiction movies and Dadaist poetry. They even use a Dadaist poem by Hugo Ball as the lyrics for "I Zimbra" which is written in pseudo-African words and chanted to hypnotic effect by the Heads to a point where you almost feel emotion coming from the meaningless words. "Mind" and "Paper" are simple themed songs evoking what is probably a metaphor for Self: "Hold the paper/Up to the Light/Some rays they pass right through!"
The two great classics of the album come back to back: "Life During Wartime" and "Cities." They are epic pre-Remain In Light songs that speak of fear and trembling more potently than any other Heads song either before or after. "Find a city/Find myself a city to live in" is evocative of the Mad Max nomad who doesn't fit in anywhere and probably doesn't even have a name. "Life During Wartime" was covered many times with a slightly different sound and in the great concert movie "Stop Making Sense" it even provides a backdrop to a mid-concert aeorbics dance session, but here it is pure and uncut, no doubt recorded moments after Byrne taught the tune to the band, and it shines as a dark, disaffected piece of science fiction poetry. "Burned all my notebooks/What good are notebooks/They won't help me survive/My chest is aching/burns like a furnace/The burning keeps me alive!"
"Memories Can't Wait" is a psychedelic masterpiece. "Air" makes breathing itself seem fearful. "Animals" is disturbing and may be a top of the hat to Pink Floyd that had released their "Animals" album the year before. "Heaven" is a beautiful tune but it even makes Heaven seem sinister. "Drugs" which ends the album is scary to listen to. Byrne jogged around the city block several times before recording his vocals, and you can hear the edge in his voice and the lack of breath as he struggles to get the words out. You can only hope he's acting.
The album made Rolling Stones Top 100 Albums of the last 20 years issue and deserves it. It is a dark testament to a bunch of paranoid musicians huddled in a Queens loft right before they became really, really famous. It is an album that should be studied by historians.
on January 31, 2008
This is one of the best albums of the 1970's, an absolutely brilliant combination of new wave and psychedelia that still sounds startlingly original today. Most critically-acclaimed indie bands of the past 20 years sound drab and ordinary compared to what Talking Heads were doing in their prime.
Also, the remastering is excellent. I've heard few CD's that sound as good as this.
So why'd I give it only three stars?
The trouble is the dual-layered discs that Rhino decided to use. I've tried to play the CD side on three different CD players, including a brand new Onkyo and a brand new Sony. Both had trouble reading the disc and skipped on the last track. All the other Talking Head dual-discs had the same problem.
There is good news: in the UK, Rhino released all the Talking Heads records as two disc CD and DVD sets. I'd strongly recommend going to amazon.co.uk and getting those versions instead.
on May 14, 2000
all talking heads albums are great [with the exception of 'true stories', but thats more of a soundtrack than an album proper] but this is the best. it combines the minimalism and edginess of the first two albums with the african instrumentation and polyrhythms of 'remain in light'. like my bloody valentine or sigur ros, talking heads distilled their guitar sound into its base elements on this album; a unique, scratchy, edgy noise. brian eno's contribution is evident in the strange sounds and effects which run through this album. far from sounding dated and gimmicky, however, the production still sounds fresh and exciting. tina weymouth's bass makes the faster songs pure dance music [the subsonic bass drops on 'i zimbra' sounds have to be heard to be believed; it sounds like whales' mating calls!]. the slower songs such as and 'air' 'mind', and the ballad 'heaven' are beautiful, and never sound trite or cliched.
lyrically, david byrne is on top paranoid form; his chracters see the banal aspects of everyday life; paper, guitars, pets, even air, as either crushingly important or terribly threatening. there is also a strong feeling of claustrophobia permeating the album, such as the endless descriptions of disorientation is 'life during wartime' and the cry of 'i'm stuck here in this seat' in 'memories can't wait'.
this album is talking heads at the height of their creativity; fulfilling the promise of their early material but avoiding the later works' occasional lack of focus.
"Fear of Music" is one of Talking Heads' best albums. This deluxe edition on the surface is a great way to hear the album. If you'll be listening to only the 5.1 side of the disc it will play just fine in computers and on DVD-Audio players. Conventional CD players may have a hard time recognizing the disc though. On the packaging it doesn't carry the compact disc logo. What that means is that the disc isn't blue book compatible and won't play in all players.
For example the CD portion wouldn't play on my computer. This made it impossible to listen to on my ipod (which is the primary way I listen to stuff on the road now). The 5.1 side plays just fine but you can't upload it to your iPod either. Why Warner didn't release this like this did overseas (1 remastered CD disc and the other a 5.1 remastered DVD-Audio disc) is beyond me. Certainly Dualdisc offers a lot of potential but many of these won't play on a lot of higher end CD players.
It's just something to be aware of when purchasing this. Rhino is not replacing the discs with remastered versions as they consider the problem to be minor. If you contact Dr. Rhino at Rhino's website they'll insist that you pay for shipping and handling when sending in the disc or you can try and return it to your local store or amazon.com. Until they work out all of the kinks with Dualdisc just be cautious.
on February 21, 2006
Conceivably the best album the Talking Heads ever recorded, "Fear of Music" is the band's second album in collaboration with producer Brian Eno, and it strikes a perfect balance between the strengths of the band and that of the producer. The album ended up being significantly darker than anything the band had done previously, the manic and somewhat paranoid content of the music on the previous albums takes on a claustrophobic feel, and yet amidst all of this, the structures are at times brighter and looser than anything the band had previously done.
In a way, it's opener "I Zimbra" that probably best illustrates this-- featuring a polyrhythmic stew, a circular (pre-80s Crimson) and incredibly complex interweaving guitar lick from guest Robert Fripp and a chanted in harmony vocal-- it's quite unlike anything the Talking Heads have ever done. It's also a work of complete musical genius.
What the piece does is add a sense of density to the music-- a sense that turns claustrophobic pretty much throughout, whether its the bizarre "Another Green World"-esque "Mind", the bubbling, chaotic and psychotic "Cities" or "Animals" (both of which feature rant-like vocals that end up providing extraordinary character to the pieces), or the murky and paranoid "Memories Can't Wait" (one of the real standouts on the album and maybe the darkest cut in the band's catalog) and fractured, black closer "Drugs", its the same band but its all different. Along the way, there's a couple interludes to this-- "Life During Wartime" has a dance rhythm but lyrically matches the rest of the record, "Heaven" offers a pool of serenity and calm admist the insanity-- the chorus tells us "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens", and somehow this proves true for the piece-- it comes and goes and feels like it barely happened but leaves an impression.
This reissue is presented as a dualdisc-- both the CD side and 5.1 DVD audio side are remastered providing a much needed sonic upgrade. Additionally, the piece is augmented by bonus tracks on either side of the disc-- the CD side adds an incomplete demo from the sessions ("Dancing for Money") and three alternate takes-- the most exciting of which is an alternate of "Life During Wartime" with Fripp performing a frantic guitar line in the mix. The DVD side adds a pair of live video clips from a television broadcast.
"Fear of Music", in the end, is one of those endlessly powerful albums that bears rewards upon repeated listens. While it may not be representative of the Talking Heads as a whole, it is probably their best effort. Essential.
on June 28, 2006
Talking Heads were, at the time of this album's original release, the hippest band in New York. The types of people who today champion bands like Animal Collective (groan...) and Gang Gang Dance (yay!) were wetting themselves over the Heads in '79-'80. I myself was too young to experience this first hand, but thanks to the magic of record stores I discovered that yes, David Byrne & co. were worth all the fuss after all. Now, thanks to the newfangled magic of dualdisc, a whole new generation can hear for themselves where today's hip bands were inspired by.
"Fear of Music" is arguably not the Heads' greatest album, but it's still my personal favorite (not coincidentally, it's also the first one I heard). While it's decidedly darker than their previous albums, it's still full of the quirky humor and quirkier rhythms that brought them earlier acclaim. FOM goes further and deeper, though. Thanks in part to producer Brian Eno* and a simple desire to experiment, the album introduces non-western music into the mix. The African rhythms inspired by Fela Kuti are all over opener "I Zimbra" like herpes on Paris Hilton's nether regions. The lyrics to that song, mistakenly thought by many to be in some sort of African dialect (pig Swahili, maybe?) are actually an old Dadaist nonsense poem. Though the African music would definitely become an integral part of the Heads' sound, it wasn't until "Remain In Light" when they really took over. As for FOM, the album marked a much greater use of synths and other weird noises. The lyrics, though for the most part no different in tone than previous efforts, definitely were a bit darker. Paranoia abounds: In Byrne's satirical world view, we should be wary of everything from "Animals" ("to trust in them/a big mistake") to "Air" ("what is happening to my skin?/Where is that protection that I needed?/Air can hurt you too"). The apex of all this is the classic, CBGB-referencing "Life During Wartime," in which the speaker seems to be trapped in the death throes of civilization itself ("The sound of gunfire, off in the distance/I'm getting used to it now"). This song was also the closest the band had come at that time to actual funk, though like everything they did, it was a funk of their own devising.
The dualdisc edition, in my opinion, is absolute aces. Some grouches may complain about the 5.1 surround mix, but I think it stays true to Eno and the band's vision for the album. Heck, it's even more claustrophobic now! Also, you have the option to listen to the album in it's original mix, albeit remastered, on the audio side as well as the DVD side. The DVD also offers a pair of cool video clips: "I Zimbra" and "Cities" performed live on a German Television show from the early eighties (the appearance was to promote "Remain In Light," and more songs from the show can be found on the dualdisc version of that album). Check out Jerry Harrison rocking a yellow shirt/red pants combination--truly, the 80's were a different time!
I will complain, although only a little bit, about the packaging. While I have no problem with Digipaks, in fact I sort of prefer them, in this case it's a step down from the vinyl edition I bought all those years ago. the cross-stitch pattern on that was raised and textured, and on the CD it's just flat, which in my opinion defeats the point. The digipak could have just as easily preserved this, so they kind of dropped the ball here. The vinyl version also included a lyric sheet; the CD booklet, though it has pictures of David Byrne's notebook from the time, omits them. Of course, that's what the internet is for, other than porn. Again, these are just little nit-picks. Taken as a whole, "Fear Of Music" is not only as good as ever, but now it may be even a little better.
*also be sure to check out the Byrne/Eno collaborative side project, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." It's more experimental and plays with all sorts of African and Arabic music, not to mention heavy use of tape loops that probably influenced what others would soon start doing with samplers. Not coincidentally, this has also been recently reissued, though not on dualdisc.
In 1979, some Talking Heads fans who had thoroughly enjoyed their previous release, "More Songs about Buildings and Food," may have performed whiplash double takes upon hearing the first notes of "I Zimbra" on their follow up, "Fear of Music." Nothing quite like it had previously emerged from this band or indeed from western popular music in general. And the lyrics? Incomprehensible monosyllables or some form of speaking in tongues over what seems like African inspired frenetic rhythms. Was this the same band that sang "Take Me to the River" on American Bandstand? Well, yes, but this band, one of the most brilliantly inventive in rock/pop history, had managed to reinvent themselves yet again in almost incomprehensible ways. This time around a particularly disturbing and alienated aura permeated the entire album. Even the cover absorbed all light like a hungry black hole devouring the Teddy Bear's Picnic. The green on black text may even have evoked the monochromatic computer screens of the time that crept more and more into people's lives in the very late 1970s. But the music and lyrics really penetrate the psyche. Heavily treated electronic music, compliments of Brian Eno, layered over very singable melodies and addicting danceable rhythms. The Talking Heads managed to create one of the best albums ever and also to set high, almost impossible, standards for music that entertains not only the body but also the mind.
Speaking of mind, the song "Mind" presents a second person narration soaked with frustration over an unbending and possibly oblivious person unaffected by money, time, drugs, religion, science and even the narrator. A small aside of "what's the matter with you?" says it all. The song seems to directly challenge the listener to question themselves, their views and their beliefs. Why the narrator, or anything at all, seems impotent to sway obstinate convictions perplexes the narrator and continues the quest for "something to change your mind." Probably nothing will, and you know it. Are you even listening?
"Paper" exposes the limitations of intellectualizing human experience in writing, or at least those who try to do so. When a new concept or feeling comes along "see if you can fit it on the paper." But some alternative, though suspicious, thoughts peek through: "if you know it was never, it was never written down, still might be a chance that it might work out." In the end, something inexpressible approaches and "don't think I can fit it on the paper" so "go ahead and tear up, tear up the paper." Sometimes words won't do.
"Cities" explores and celebrates urban possibilities. One city has certain advantages over others, good points and bad points, "but it all works out." One notable line describes Memphis as the "home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks." One of their funkiest beats, complete with elevator noises.
"Life During Wartime" throws the listener directly into combat, juxtaposing the niceties of peacetime, such as parties, discos, notebooks, writing, kissing and speakers, with the limitations and pressures of the battlefield. It expresses, probably better than other more literal war songs, just what it means for a middle class subjectivity to find itself plopped down on a dangerous front, far away from creature comforts.
"Memories Can't Wait" finds the narrator trapped by the past. Sitting in a seat, waiting inexorably for memories to come, they soon take over with a nearly paralyzing effect. They demand analysis, sorting, nurturing and undying attention. They can entrap and debilitate. So goes the ugly underneath of memory. The final distorted transition leading into "and everything is very quiet" shoots ominous shudders up tense spines.
Next comes the shortest song title of all, "Air." Singing that "air can hurt you too" may sound somewhat less shocking in the current era of climate change alarm, but the lines "what is happening to my skin" and "where is that protection that I needed" remain horrifying even now.
"Heaven," almost a ballad, inverts tradition and presents paradise as a boring, uneventful dystopia "where nothing ever happens." It also questions the value of some of our deepest pleasures, such as parties and kisses, doubting that they actually comprise the pinnacle of human experience with the lines "it's hard to imagine that nothing at all, could be so exciting, could be so much fun." Still searching for something to change your mind?
"Animals," an extremely angry but tragi-comedic song, takes on speciesism, cursing animals for their apparent uselessness, their freedom to defecate anywhere they want, lack of dependence on money and their magical qualities, such as seeing in the dark. The paranoia runs high as accusations of human mockery fly: "I know the animals are laughing at us, they don't even know what a joke is." The lyrics question anthropocentrism and ignorance about the actual animal qualities of humans themselves. They also make fun of people who think that complaining about animal nature can change it. Humorous futility and hypocrisy writ large.
"Electric Guitar" seems like another take on music censorship, but the closing mantra "someone controls electric guitar" suggests a deeper, more sinister, idea. First the judge and jury tells the "criminal" to "tune this electric guitar," then they command "never listen to electric guitar" and finally, almost as a warning, "someone controls electric guitar." Perhaps a nightmare conspiracy theory that comes true? Is it true?
The final, most surreal and startling song, "Drugs," can still deliver a ground-shifting, mind bending blow decades later. The music has lost none of its disorientating freakiness. Perhaps "beautifully disturbing" encapsulates the song and the actual experience it attempts to capture. In 1979, these represented very new, almost unprecedented, sounds. It's almost scary. Maybe this music should be feared most of all? The melting, dissonant guitar solo alone may send the musically sensitive running in terror.
Though no one would probably call this album "life-affirming," it arguably contains music and themes that, given the right circumstances, possibly could change minds. Perhaps the song "Mind" provides a kind of thematic prelude to the entire set? Each song, after all, seems to present an alternate, not quite mainstream perspective on often familiar topics. The album as a whole looks askew at modern life and human nature. Did the Talking Heads, or at least David Byrne, want to use music as a vehicle to open up seemingly myopic points of view? Can we learn as we party and dance? Hopefully.
Whatever the motives, assuming any existed apart from creating great music, "Fear of Music" stands as one of The Talking Heads' greatest achievements during their brief and tumultuous existence. Nearly every second of the album holds up decades after its release. It only subtly, very subtly, sounds like the 1970s. "Drugs" even sounds like something yet to happen, a golden disc from some other civilization's Voyager probe. Most of the themes even remain fully relevant today: stubbornness in the face of evidence, alienation, corrosive and toxic air, living quarters, memory, over-intellectualization. The underside of the world, behind the hedonistic grins and the Pyrrhic victories, still largely feels and sounds like "Fear of Music." If people can't find something to change their minds here, then hope may be lost. Or maybe not. Or maybe?
on December 20, 1998
At the close of the 70's David Byrne and his band, with a little help from friend Brian Eno, guided us on an unforgettable musical odyssey. With openness, clarity and a sense of introverted post-adolescence, they provided education into the lack of soul in 70s rock. Fear of Music articulated the angst we experienced giving ourselves over to the nihilistic hedonism of the disco apocalypse. As its two predecessors had done, Fear Of Music made informed surgical incisions into the bloated cancer of corporate rock. 1n 1979, Fear of Music was a lifesaver, a touchstone, providing escape and a refuge from the meaninglessness while at the same time holding a tongue-in-cheek mirror up to it -- and to ourselves. Paranoiac obsessions about Paper, Air and Electric Guitars were strangely satisfying, while Life During Wartime became a contradictory anthem for those who were and weren't thinking. Mind remains a personal all time favorite. Phish's fabulous remake of Cities was stunning enough to force a rediscovery of the original. Although the album hasn't aged well, being rooted in the dying gasps of the 70s, every song is an absolute classic. Memories Can't Wait, so if you have it, give it another spin. If not, don't be afraid to discover an amazing artifact of the 70s.
on March 11, 2007
David Byrne always passes off the "Fear" angle/theme here as a joke -- but I don't buy it. These songs are anxious, clautrophobic, and twisted -- and legitimately so to my ears. They're also poppy as a laundry basket full of poppyseed muffins, and this aural culture clash has been known to lead to vertigo -- don't look down....
on September 15, 2015
Its sometimes hard to dip into the TH catalog given that everyone owns (or should own) Stop Making Sense and that has many of their best known songs. However, it's very interesting for the fan to watch as they their style changes and progresses over their studio albums. Fear of Music was when everything changed and showed off true poetry and grace and felt like a major artistIc statement, to me anyway, about 16 when I first purchased it after I loved Speaking in Tongues and then '77. I just re-purchased this on vinyl because i'm 45 and it's apparently my new hobby.
Anyway, I was a little hesitant at first because I remember the album as being a little stark; I Zimbra and Pulled Up have nothing in common. It took a while to get into initially ( in 1983) but once I got it in 2015 it has been on non-stop. Every song is a story. Every song is a calling card. Every song seems perfect and to paraphrase the band, wish they would each go on forever. The production is the only thing that unites this fantastic collection. I like it but am also glad they moved on from Eno and made more fantastic albums after this. I consider this their mid-career major pivot. Where whimsy became art.