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.