Notwithstanding a title that could easily apply to the mess the UK government is currently making of things, Life During Wartime is the greatest-ever Talking Heads track, and here’s why.
Their first two albums – ‘77‘ and ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food‘, good as they are, were mere amuse-bouches for what would follow. On those albums, Talking Heads developed an out of step sound far removed from the shouty three chord ramalama of the bands of the day. They flirted with wired, claustrophobic paranoia, the vocals delivered with one-eye-over-the-shoulder nervous energy, the music transmitted via guitar strings as tight and tense as a head-to-head on Hart To Hart. Hints of the funk bubbled underneath, suppressed perhaps, or maybe subdued due to a lack of confidence. By 1979’s Fear Of Music though – that’s three albums in three years, Radiohead! – they’d hit their stride.
Fear Of Music was a conscious decision by the band to make an album that ran deeper than the standard two or three singles plus filler model that was prevalent at the time. With an eye for Duchamp and an ear for disco, they set up in a New York loft, transmitted their sonic ideas via extra-long cables out of the windows and into a mobile studio parked outside, and went about creating a record that was equal parts cerebral and celebratory.
With Eno again at the controls and a supporting cast including The Slits’ Ari Up and some wild guitar Frippery from the former King Crimson soundscaper, the band stretched out to great effect. Polyrhythmic African beats and twin chattering desert guitars carry I Zimbra to the fringes marked ‘far out’. Police sirens, scratchy no-wave guitars and body-popping bass propel Cities to great, new uncharted territories. The breathy relief of ‘Air’, all bing-bonging keys and guitar riffs and tones that surely made the young Johnny Marr reach for his six string and crib some notes is as wired and weirdly funky as Funkadelic, and deliberately so, you’d have to think.
It’s the penultimate track on side 1 that hits the sweet spot between art and dance. Just two chords from beginning to end (Am and E, should you fancy riffing along with it) Life During Wartime begins on a funky gutteral groove, a combination of on-the-one grinding guitar, bass, keys and drums. No countdown, just Bam! and we’re into it. It’s magic.
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime
There’s hardly time for the band to develop the theme before Byrne announces himself on vocals. His flaky, jittery performance is less singing, more acting, the way Christopher Walken, say, might deliver the plot-defining lines of a particularly tense thriller, Mad Max as scripted by Stephen King.
Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some grave sites, out by the highway,
A place where nobody knows
I’m getting used to it now
I’ve lived all over this town
This ain’t no fooling around!
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now!
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (alternative version)
The alternate version that was considered then rejected for the album is worth hearing too. There’s more emphasis on the guitar, with little staccato morsecode signals that are quickly drowned out by a freeform, freeflowing freakout that may well be the work of Fripp himself. Whoever is playing it is certainly going hell for leather with a guitar line that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s Lodger album or Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets, even if the player does run out of steam roughly three quarters of the way through the track. As interesting as it is, the released version remains definitive; urgent, insistent, incessant and never anything less than vital when it comes on.
While Byrne’s lyrics suggest an uneasy tension, part Baader-Meinhof reportage and part first-hand experience of NYC’s Alphabet City, the band compenasate with the groove. The subject matter might be uncomfortable, they say, but you’ll feel better after shuffling that skinny white boy ass of yours across whichever sticky dancefloor is nearest. It ain’t the Mudd Club or CBGB’s, it’s not even the Attic anymore, but as far as advice goes, it sure works.
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime (live Central Park, NYC 1980)
On the second record, the extended ten-piece version of Talking Heads, including soul singers and multiple multi-instrumentalists and living and breathing actual funk merchants in the shape of Bernie Worrell delivered a sped-up version of Life During Wartime that positively grooves with a cross-pollination of punk’s edge and funk’s sheen. No concept, no arty angle, just a band playing their stuff on stage. Close your eyes though and you can see those ten musicians moving as one to the infectious stew they themselves are cooking up. It is a party, and it is a disco. They’re definitely not fooling around though.
11 thoughts on “This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around”
Yes Craig, what a great album. Good writing, as per usual plus some really good pictures in your post. Love the SMS gif. I’ve been playing 77 and MSABAF recently and gearing up for a post. There must be something in air.
Coincidences! The live version is mentioned on my own blog this morning. I agree with you that it’s the Heads finest few minutes, although there are will be days when I reserve the right to afford that accolade to Psycho Killer.
Thanks Adam. There’s plenty of material to choose from, especially on those first 4/5 albums.
Y’know when you go through phases where you return to the records of your youth and you’re back in your room, your pals sprawled over the floor – “Don’t bend that sleeve!” – and being young was the best thing ever? That’s where this takes me. I hate getting old. I’d love to be that age forever.
Talking Heads are undeniably one of the great bands yet they’ve never quite been elevated to such a position.
Snap! There are some great tracks across those first few albums that you never tire of.
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A brilliant read Craig
Some dusting down of Talking Heads records jumps up the to-do list
‘Dusting down’! Tch! Play ‘em often enough and you’ll never need to dust them down!
Mista Callsta! Spot on, as usual. I love the ‘straight into it’ intro when we play it at SongsYaBass, always gets a few whoops and lifts the place a coupla notches. Think we’ve discussed this before but just in case we haven’t check out the CH4 documentary from ’82/83? As good as SMS is as a live concert fillum, the CH4 doc (“Once In A Lifetime”?) is superb. It intersperses mad footage of RW evangelical preachers and African tribal dances etc with their Wembley concert of the time. The version of Swamp is red hot! It’s avaliable in 15 min chunks on Y/Tube.
Thanks Rik. I’ll have a gander on YouTube for that. There’s a really great show from Rome on YouTube too where the band are on terrific form. Check it out in return!
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Yep, they are defo my answer to the (music night) question of “Who do you wish you’d seen but can’t now?”. Mind you, never say never, I live in hope.
Terrific writing on breathtaking music as ever Mr C (not that one!)
I’d never heard the alt. take before. Intriguing as it is, they were right to leave it on the cutting room floor.
As for Talking Heads as a live band/extravaganza, I did a lil’ trawling recently to see how many gigs they did circa Naked in 1988 and was surprised to find the answer was zero. So I dug deeper to see how many gigs they did circa True Stories in 1986 and again the answer was zilch. That piqued my curiosity further so I checked to see how many shows they played circa Little Creatures in 1985, I felt sure they would’ve toured that given how all-pervasive the singles from that record were. Alas I was amazed to find they did no gigs for that either. Turned out their last-ever gig was in February 1984! According to Tina Weymouth, Byrne completely lost interest in playing live once they had Stop Making Sense in the can, it was as if it was the concert crescendo they had been building towards. And I thought how interesting that yet another legendary artist quit playing live early on (The Beatles, Steely Dan, XTC, Talk Talk, Big Star, Talking Heads, The La’s, Kate Bush, Syd Barrett…). It surely isn’t a coincidence that all of the aforementioned are consummate artists who would naturally tire of the repetitive grind of churning out replica sets and became wary of airing their wares.
How very true. I’d never considered that. Byrne happily aped the Talking Heads style when he toured at the end of the 80s though. Stylistically smart and clever, a set peppered with Talking Heads tracks, but you’re right – look at all those albums that were never played live.
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