When quickly glancing at an album sleeve depicting diamond plate metal flooring and neon green typography, one might mistake Talking Heads Fear of Music for a metal or industrial record. While it is, of course, neither of these things, the record, likes its album sleeve, is very much about texture and repetition of the sonic variety.
The Talking Heads' 1980 album, Remain In Light, quite rightly gets an inordinate amount of praise as the band's masterpiece. Produced by frequent collaborator, Brian Eno, whose experimental electronic wizardry fit neatly with Talking Heads' own avant-garde impulses, Remain In Light is full of groundbreaking loops, polyrhythms, and Byrne's stream-of-consciousness lyricism. The record's immediate predecessor, Fear of Music, might be less sonically adventurous, but it is still incredibly influential.
Across its 11 tracks, one can hear the seeds of future electronic/post-punk groups like LCD Soundsystem, or the Afrobeat-influenced indie pop of Vampire Weekend. Fear of Music is, like Remain In Light, a mish-mash of genres. It blends disco, funk, punk, and electronic music into a sound that couldn't be mistaken for anyone other than Talking Heads.
Sonically speaking, Fear of Music opens with "I Zimbra," a track full of Talking Heads' iconic bright and stabbing guitars, buoyed by funk basslines, percussion, and electronic treatments that replicate that genre's horn section, but in an entirely experimental way. Like many of the best R&B and funk tracks from the mid-to-late 1970s, the song sounds like New York City. While the music is relatively straightforward, lyrically it is a heavy dose of absurdism. Byrne turned to Dada poet Hugo Ball for inspiration, using the poem "Gadji beri bimba" as the song's lyrics, which are as gibberish in nature as its title. In 1997, Talking Heads' keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison characterized "I Zimbra" as the sonic blueprint for the band's later sonic explorations, particularly on Remain In Light.
The subsequent three tracks, "Mind," "Paper," and "Cities" form something of a musical trilogy within the larger Fear of Music document. The traditional format of guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards is up front on each song; though, this gets upended on the fifth track, "Life During Wartime" (more on this track below). "Mind" sounds as if it could have come from one of Eno's '70s art pop records (see: Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World), while "Paper" and "Cities" are so sonically and texturally similar that one gets the impression they were recorded during the same studio session. This is not a bad thing, upbeat funk rockers that they are. As such, they propel the album toward some of Fear of Music's more avant-garde moments.
Not all is bright and upbeat on Fear of Music, though. Unlike the sparkling psychedelia heard on Remain In Light, Fear of Music has a certain darkness to it. A sense of urban paranoia pervades the sound and Byrne's lyrics.
"Life During Wartime," for instance, is told from the perspective of a clandestine revolutionary making his or her way in a post-apocalyptic world. While the track is musically upbeat and known for the lines "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around," Byrne claims lyrical inspiration in radical left-wing German group Baader-Meinhof, Patty Hearst (famously kidnapped by the Amerian terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army), and Tompkins Square Park in New York City's Alphabet City, a neighborhood known in the 1970s and 1980s as being a seedy underworld.
Sonically, the album's darker shades are most pronounced on "Memories Can't Wait." It's a strange, strange track. One moment it sounds like late-'70s David Bowie (as does the track "Air," perhaps on account of Eno's involvement), and the next the guitar work and vocalizations hint, in a rather surprising way, at the massively influential post-rock of cult indie band Slint. It's shocking to hear the Talking Heads beating Slint to the punch on a type of instrumentalism and recording that seems as if it's just barely glued together. And, in retrospect, the song's verse wouldn't be out of place on a mid-'90s Fugazi release.
The first track on the record's second side, "Air," shares some musical DNA with Eno's previous group Roxy Music. While the music is a sort of fusion of glam and punk rock, the song is a continuation of Byrne's paranoid daydreams, as he asks, "What is happening to my skin? Where is that protection that I needed?" before stating matter of factly, "Air can hurt you too." In these lines, one can hear the future echoes of Thom Yorke's preoccupation with paranoia.
The glam rock thread resurfaces on "Heaven", which is probably the most straightforward tune on Fear of Music—at least musically speaking. Production-wise, Eno does very little, apart from some modest walls of sound in the chorus. But, quite the opposite of the revolutionary scenes and toxic atmosphere of "Life During Wartime" and "Air," Byrne's narrative space here is a bar called "Heaven," which features a band that plays the song he loves. He also fashions a humorous lyrical juxtaposition where this bar is a spot "where nothing happens," yet it's hard to imagine another place being so much fun.
With the next track, "Animals," Talking Heads get back to the business of sounding more like themselves. In his 33 ⅓ book on Fear of Music, Jonathan Lethem describes the track as Talking Heads playing James Brown's "Super Bad" "super badly." Granted, there are obvious Brown stylings, but the band clearly reinterpreted his funk music with the post-punk playbook of more abrasive and angular approaches to groove-making. As good as the first half of the track is, things really get interesting at the 2:13 mark, when the song abruptly slips into an extended outro that is a sort of psychedelic loop, where the band sings in a theatrical baritone, "They say they don't need money, they're living on nuts and berries… They say animals don't worry, they're living on nuts and berries." It's pop music done in the most disorienting way possible, and it's fantastic.
On "Electric Guitar," Talking Heads crafted a track that is a far cry from what people expect from traditional electric guitar playing. Listeners can hear the bright, rhythmic guitar strumming typical of Talking Heads, but the bassline, subtle synths, and Eno's electronic treatments create both muddied sound and spooky vibe. And Byrne's paranoia resurfaces in glorious ways. In one chorus Byrne repeats the line "Never listen to electric guitar," which later becomes "Someone controls electric guitar."
Like much of the album, the music and vocals of "Electric Guitar"music are about repetition and texture. After each verse, the repetition gives way to a far more psychedelic atmosphere on the chorus of album closer, "Drugs." Eno's ambient influence is pronounced on the chorus; which is, like "Electric Guitar" spooky, but also incredibly gorgeous. Indeed, it sounds like the early-'90s ambient techno of Warp Records' artists—specifically, Boards of Canada.
Listening to Fear of Music 40 years on from its release, it's evident that Talking Heads had found a sound and formula in the album's songwriting and recording sessions that hadn't really existed before. While it's tempting (and correct) to ascribe to the record an evolutionary status that led directly to the genius of Remain In Light, Fear of Music is no less a musical document. More minimalist and less polished than its collage-like successor, Fear of Music is one of the fulcra upon which pop music pivoted into a decade remembered for maximalist excess.
Whereas Remain In Light is one of the great documents of the 1980s, Fear of Music, arriving as it did at the 1970s' last gasp, serves as a great final testament to the paranoia unleashed by Richard Nixon's response to the countercultural movement. Looking back, it really couldn't have been made at any other time in musical history, or by any other band.