INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Creem NOVEMBER 1979 - by Robot A. Hull
WHEN PARANOIA STRIKES DEEP: FEAR OF MUSIC
Seems I was holding a wrench, momma / And then my mind just walked away." - Jack Kittel, Psycho
Jack Kittel's '74 country horror classic is a frightening account of a psychopathic killer told through the deranged mind of the looney himself as he murders his ex-wife and her lover, a boy's puppy, a neighbor's little girl, and finally his own mother - a bloodbath song that would even scare the madness out of Chainsaw's Leatherface.
On their debut album in 1977, Talking Heads attempted a similar song-narrative with Psycho Killer - but with a tongue-in-cheek twist. It's a bright, snappy, almost happy paean to the American mass murderer, a procession (Speck, Whitman, DeSalvo, Corll, Manson) that essentially began when Charles R. Starkweather, age nineteen, stalked the Nebraskan landscape, killing ten people in eight days in 1958. When the clapalong "Fa-fa-fa"s jump out of Psycho Killer, the humor becomes obvious, the stab of the knife only a cool jerk, as if the 1910 Fruitgum Company had decided to celebrate the bombing of Hiroshima!
Of all the rock bands of recent vintage, Talking Heads takes the most commendable approach. Examples of the band's astuteness are endless. Their first single, Love→Building On Fire, was plastered with horns. Early on, the band expressed a deep love for soul, even disco (April '77 issue of National Screw, The Jackson 5's Get It Together, Al Green's Living For You), which culminated last year with their hit, a semi-discoized version of Green's Take Me To The River. After performing that song on Bandstand, with proper modesty, the band briefly described their music to Dick Clark as "organic"; with equal modesty, the pic sleeve of River was a photo not of a group pose at one of NYC's finest dungholes, but of Reverend Green's church and community. To reverse an old critical cliché, I do not agree with Talking Heads in theory, but their music, even with all its quirks and squeaks, is just too exciting to ignore.
Still, Psycho Killer remains the group's best structured song, practically bestaining their initial LP (an album more traditionally linked with late-'60s art-rock experimentation than their fans would care to admit). And lead singer Byrne, whose vocal style can only be described as a cross between Sparks' choirboy crowing and Woody Woodpecker's chuckle, has gradually assumed the role of Psycho Killer's narrator - quietly berserk, just on the verge of cracking and, like Kittel's country killer, ready to squeeze a pup into a bloody pulp in an instant.
Fear Of Music, then, is the inevitable consequence of toying with psychosis. It's a work that is built, and also feeds, upon the paranoia of Fritz Lang's cinema, the violence of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle and the terrorization of Mission: Impossible. This album lacks, and constantly avoids, the patriotism, sense of community and bubblegum-disco-psychedelic playfulness that made Talking Heads' first two albums such warm, albeit odd, friends. Like Randy Newman, Byrne has mastered the ironic backhand (i.e., The Big Country, Don't Worry About the Government), but on Fear Of Music, songs like Animals and Electric Guitar are ironically banal. Only on these lines from Cities, almost tossed away into a fadeout, does Byrne show his heretofore usual whimsicality, that humorous twist - "Did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis / Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks / Do I smell? I smell home cooking / It's only the river, it's only the river."
The beauty of More Songs About Buildings And Food is that one can never figure out what the songs are exactly about (about aboutness, perhaps). The disappointment of Fear Of Music is that one can immediately decode its aboutness: inertia, the no-blink of the no wave, Eno Brain, artsy skool, obtoooose conceptualism. It isn't the forced, disjointed music on the album that bothers me (as on Drugs, where a panting Byrne sounds like he's jacking off), but the whole frightening motivation behind it; that, at any moment, the words "helter skelter" could be carved into one's flesh, the overwhelming fear of every lurking shadow.
On a rock album, to put it simply, this is no fun. Perhaps a key to part of the record's difficulties can be heard on Heaven, as magical a melody as Gimme Shelter (and maybe the band's greatest moment so far), in which heaven is celebrated as empty existence, white-on-white, an idle void while the music (paradoxically?) transports the listener beyond the stratosphere to "A place where nothing ever happens." But as any real rock'n'roller knows, heaven is a place where everything happens - Death Race 2000 - with White Light/White Heat blasting full volume, pure ACTION, the kind that crazy-eyed Byrne perhaps only dreams about.
"Dear mom and dad," Charlie Starkweather once wrote home, "The headaches are getting stronger."