Sounds AUGUST 18, 1979 - by David Hepworth



For the sake of argument let's call it the eighth time of playing and you've twigged and digested the fact that the third Talking Heads long playing record does not proffer any startling alterations of stylistic tack, that Byrne and his soldiers are not in the habit of throwing curves in order to have you scratching your pates and wondering and wondering if they have strayed from The True Way, that things on the whole are what they were before.

Let's say that you're traversing the first side while doing the ironing or watching silent TV and you've reached the third track in, a morsel called Paper, a barely sane, almost martial knee stabber with that urbane chicken scratch guitar motion that dominated so much of More Songs About Buildings And Food and David Byrne has been worrying round and round the subject of this specific piece of paper for a few minutes already, and if you're not completely in the dark about meanings you're either a charlatan or a rock critic or both, then he just advances his larynx one crick on the intensimeter and growls "hold on because it'll be taken care of!" and the track seems to get drawn tighter and more demented before your very ears and it's then that what has accrued in your brain though the previous seven listenings for some obscure reason just seem to click into place and you realise that this is the finest hour of an unarguably great pop group.

The Talking Heads have fashioned herein a record that positively refuses to quit, an artefact that takes their perspicacity as well as their waywardness and infuses them both with a grip and intuitive understanding of what can be done within the strictures of the form which is breathtaking. (It's a good album.)

They pursue Paper with Cities,a new angle on the terrain of The Big Country, a psychotour of London, Birmingham (Alabama, I guess), El Paso and Memphis ('home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks', a track that comes apart with a doleful humour worthy of its antecedents in the Chuck Berry songbook. Its base is a biting guitar motion. Halfway through, either Byrne or Harrison weighs in with a really arresting solo of bent steel, a brilliantly judged interjection that could have come from either Jeff Beck's Steeled Blues or any of the work of Glen Phillips. It returns the track to the vocal in a doubly vehement condition.

This prepares the ground for Life During Wartime, the tune that is set to eclipse Psycho Killer as the crucial nugget of their repertoire, a movie which could be describing paranoia just as easily as the literal subject of the title.

Byrne paints some post-energy crisis Amerika where your personal computer can't compensate for the fact that the roads are blocked, where you sleep by day and creep by night, avoid the ghouls and guerillas, where you live on peanut butter and bide time. The song is ultimately sold, however, by a chorus which again is delivered in his minutely heightened tone: 'this ain't no party / this ain't no disco / this ain't no fooling round / this ain't the Mudd Club or CBGB / I ain't got time for that now...' And, you must have guessed, it is a dance record.

The side closes out with Memories Can't Wait, a majestic but troubling vehicle for Brian Eno's "treatments" and overlapping echo, glorying ultimately in a churchy sort of coda which Byrne lifts with his voice out above the maelstrom.

Pause. Air opens the flip; hazy, airy, the most, um, serene point thus far. Byrne combs the environment for hostile elements. It comes, it goes, it is melodic and possibly not far removed from what Brian Wilson was getting at before he regresed. Anyone enamoured of the ghostly balladry of Fear-era John Cale will faint into the waiting arms of the subsequent Heaven, the place where nothing ever happens, where your favourite songs are played all night long, where every kiss is completed and repeated and sensual ennui rules supreme. Like most of its neighbours it curls imperceptibly at the corner of the mouth with a sense of humour as irrepressible as it is pleasantly unoppressive.

Similarly, Animals could have been drawn as easily from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon as from Edward Albe's Zoo Story; the fear that twitches at the back of simple laughter. (Animals: 'they're never there when you need them.') It closes out with a massed chant somewhat like a battalion of Blutos marching down the hill to lay waste to Popeye as he lies chained to the mainline. 'They're living on nuts and berries', sings Byrne, in his flat vexation. (Personally, I like to surmise that the source of that line is Yogi Bear; Yogi knew it was either that or picnic baskets).

Electric Guitar has a chorus closely related to a hymn tune and remains a completely closed book, the only discernible spot on the record where obscurity wins out over acuity. They close out with Drugs, a telling taken-to-pieces funk track sucked forward by echo and tape effect, an essay in consciousness artificially altered, sensibilities awakened to the point of pain, as extreme as anything on the record.

And so you return to the first side (and you will) and I Zimbra, a tribal piece of disco doggerel with African lyrics, and the languorous Mind,a resigned, uneasy lazy tune. Then round and round you go, following the line of compulsion that runs right through Fear Of Music, as unerringly logical and self-contained as it steadfastly resists interpretation.

The rest is irrelevant to The Talking Heads (who inhabit their own world) as it is vaguely contingent on all (mercy!) New Music. Seems to this embattled reactionary that the central fight is about creating rock and roll that is intelligent and adventurous and boundless and yet still rock and roll.

Course, this doesn't automatically mean, as some of our more excitable zealots would interpret it, the desperate shoring up of some cobwebbed concept of girls, cars, fun and surfboards. What it does mean, however, is the pursuance of popular art, a music of immediacy and zest and pull, a music that can grow and learn and occasionally forget altogether, a music that will produce records like Squeezing Out Sparks and Do It Yourself and Fear Of Music.

And for those who would point to a future in joyless academia and cold floors, I would tell you that the thing about rock and roll is you can always smell it. Wherever it maybe. Matter of fact it's right here.