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Revisiting the unhinged, understated Talking Heads classic 'Fear Of Music'

Today marks the 42nd birthday of Talking Heads‘ understated classic, Fear of Music. While it is no way near an undervalued or underrated body of work, the 1979 album is certainly overlooked – owing to the trailblazing success of its successor, 1980’s Remain in LightFear of Music is a brilliant, wicked offering that thematically ranks amongst the darkest moments of Talking Heads’ career. Moments such as ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ are some of the very best in the whole of the band’s back catalogue.

The New York post-punk’s third studio album perfectly bridges the gap between 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food and Remain in Light. Together, all three albums are marked out as the result of the band’s Brian Eno era, a highly successful and career-defining period that culminated in the magnum opus Remain in Light. On Fear of Music, Talking Heads refined their formula and discovered their true essence – one that they had been teasing since the debut LP Talking Heads: 77 but had never fully realised.

Recorded across various locations across New York City between April and May 1979, the album was produced by Eno and the band. It reached number 21 on the Billboard 200 and 33 on the UK Albums Chart and spawned three of the band’s most memorable singles, ‘Life During Wartime’, ‘I Zimbra’ and ‘Cities’. Fear of Music received a warm critical reception, and praise was largely centred on its unconventional use of polyrhythms and frontman David Byrne’s unhinged but fantastic vocal and lyrical performances. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to posit that on Fear of Music, Talking Heads resemble somewhat of an American version of Mark E. Smith’s totally deranged post-punk pioneers, The Fall. 

If one were to describe Fear of Music, I’d wager it as at points resembling the dark futurism of David Bowie’s avant-garde Aladdin Sane and The Fall’s earlier period. On Fear of Music, it is easy to heed why Talking Heads are so highly regarded amongst older musos and the contemporary post-punk “intelligentsia” who currently fill our art schools.

To understand Fear of Music, we have to understand how Talking Heads got there. As is well known, their second album More Songs About Buildings and Food, the band’s first interaction with cerebral pioneer Brian Eno, expanded the band’s sonic understanding through exposure to new and varied types of music. The most significant of these influences was esteemed Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, Fela Kuti. His use of traditional African polyrhythms was a considerable influence on the band, and it is these that help characterise the Eno trilogy of albums as groundbreaking in Western popular music.

An example of the band broadening their horizons was their hit single, a cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River’, a track that gained them increased commercial exposure. The effects of this release were that significant that the band played the song on the mainstream US music show, American Bandstand.

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Showing their true temperament, after the performance, Talking Heads made the decision not to become “a singles machine”. Before too long, it was time to record a follow up to More Songs. With this in mind, the band commenced the initial sessions for what would become Fear of Music in drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth’s loft. Again, they enlisted the help of Eno, and the writing sessions were truly underway. 

Deeply inspired by the urban environment of New York’s East Village, Fear of Music is characterised by urban textures, reflected in the black corrugated iron on the album’s artwork and the track ‘Cities’. As he would do with Remain in Light, Eno instilled confidence in the band in their recording ability and would electronically augment the tracks in post-production. A brilliant mix of complex musical ideas and built upon literal juxtaposition, Fear of Music also features King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp on guitar on the zesty album opener ‘I Zimbra’. Even more surprisingly, Ari Forster, vocalist of legendary punk band The Slits, played congas on ‘I Zimbra’ and ‘Life During Wartime’, a strange juxtaposition in itself.

The album would not be truly Talking Heads without a healthy dose of irony, either. On ‘Life During Wartime’, Byrne shrieks like a madman: “This ain’t no disco!” in what is possibly a nod to the band’s detractors, thinking them too experimental and colourful amongst the monochrome setting of the punk/post-punk era. The song itself is a danceable classic, and throughout, one can imagine David Byrne enacting one of his signature, semi-goofy dance routines.

All in all, Fear of Music is a brilliant, unhinged work that perfectly laid the groundwork for Talking Heads’ magnum opus Remain in Light. Without it, the band would not have carried on in its pioneering trajectory, and their choice not to become a hit machine and to work with Brian Eno again would be a critical decision in cementing them in the annals of pop culture. This sentiment of musicians choosing their own path goes a long way, as Talk Talk would also perform a similar U-turn to similar effect when they released their third album, The Colour of Spring, in 1986.

In short, Fear of Music is a dark, twisted, but brilliantly calculated exercise in style that acts as an essential album of the era and of the band’s career. Whilst hailed amongst the band’s fans, it is widely unheard of amongst the general populace. So on its birthday, why not revisit it? If you’re new to the album, you’re in for an experience. If you’re already a fan of the band, well, you know what’s in store.

Listen to Fear of Music, below.