Roadrunner SEPTEMBER 1979 - by Donald Robertson


If I call this record a masterpiece will that make me hipper than thou? It doesn't really matter because this music stands on its own and does not need any critical embellishment. However, for all of you who missed the Talking Heads superb live tour a few months back (those who didn't will most probably have bought this already) - read on.

There are a new breed of Talking Heads songs on this album. Strongly rhythmic, starkly simple and usually with a subtle synthesizer backdrop. Interestingly, they are the songs that the band had more or less worked out before their Australian tour and the ones that they played on stage. I'm talking about Air, Heaven, Mind, Paper and Cities. As a result of them having been aired live and worked on in the studio, they are fully formed, complete pieces of music. One of the (few) faults I could find with the Heads previous album More Songs About Buildings And Food was that the songs sounded as if they were pure studio creations. They lacked that feeling that a song gets when it has been subject to spontaneous onstage interaction. Tho aforementioned five songs have that feeling in abundance.

Air is the first track on the album. You put the needle on the vinyl and suddenly the sound is all around you, hypnotic and encompassing. The first line is Hit me in the face, and that's exactly what the song does. It's possibly the Head's most direct political song to date, with lines like,

What is happening to my skin?
Where is that protection that I needed?
Air can hurt you too

Ethereal harmonies from the Sweetbreathes (I don't know if that is a spelling mistake on the inside cover or not), who include Tina Weymouth's sister, plus solid underpinning rhythm courtesy of Chris Frantz and Tina, make for a quite stunning opener.

Heaven continues the process of entrapment. Deceptively simple and undeniably powerful, the closest musical reference point I can think of is Neil Young, although David Byrne's vocals, as always, are uniquely his own. But really the sound of Talking Heads, and they are one of the few pop units presently functioning who could be said to have a unique sound, is due to the interaction of all their musical elements, not just the up-front voice.

Animals it an anti-animal song.

Animals think
They understand
To trust in them is a big mistake

I think I detect a certain New York black humour shining through on this song. Talking heads are not renowned for their humour, but it is there if you care to look

Electric Guitar is really where producer Brian Eno begins to exert his presence. There is a swirling mist of background electronics which creates an eerie atmosphere - like a road at night in the mountains, with Byrne's voice stabbing through like car headlights.

Drugs, once named Electricity, is the track on which Eno really comes to the fore. Parts of the background could almost be from his Another Green World album (I'm thinking specially ot a track called Sombre Reptiles). David Byrne is anything but sombre, however. He sounds very wired, on the edge of lashing out, while massed ranks of synthesizers attempt to soothe him. It's the most menacing, dark song on the album.

I Zimbra, which opens side two, is distinctly African in flavour with congas shuffling along and a rambling keyboard line above steady baas and drums. The lyrics to this are probably sacred and ancient African witchdoctor spells - they certainly ain't any language I ever heard.

Mind, Paper and Cities are much more live sounding. Mind and Paper are sorta love songs.

Time won't change you
Money won't change you
I haven't got the faintest
I need something to change your mind
- Mind

Had a love at affair but it was only paper
(Some rays they passed right through)
Had a lot of fun, could have been a lot t better
(Some rays they passed right through)
- Paper

Mind features some superb jagged guitar which seems to rip shreds out of the air, while Chris Frantz's powerful drumming is the stand out of Paper.

Cities is a bit of light relief (lyrically at least) with Byrne checking out cities. Just a flash in a crowded tour. Then it's into Life During Wartime, a rhythmic vision of futuristic collapse with Byrne exhorting, pleading and sneering,

This ain't no party
This ain't no disco
This ain't no fooling around.

Did I say futuristic? It could just as easily be now.

And as the finale, a look into David Byrne's levered mind, Memories Can't Wait. Complex and sectional at times, there are echoes of the late Jim Morrison. Listen to Byrne sing:

Take a walk through the land of shadows
Take a walk through the peaceful meadows
Try not to look so disappointed
It isn't what you hoped for, is it?

and see if you agree. The lines could almost be about Morrisson, but the song is more than likely about death itself. The feeling created becomes almost religious at the climax as Byrne's voice soars angelically high above the maelstrom synthesizer.

It is heartening to know that groups like Talking Heads, who play demanding and intricate and innovative music, can survive in the rock circus. Explore beneath the manhole design on the cover of this record and try to ignore labels like 'intellectual' and 'arty', they are irrelevant. This is good music and surely that's nothing to be afraid of.