Friday, July 2, 2010

July 2: Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"

Artist: Talking Heads
Song: "Life During Wartime"
Album: Fear Of Music
Year: 1979

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though every band in history has an image of some sort, there are few groups that take this image and turn it into a complete persona that touches every aspect of the bands' existence.   Perhaps due to the fact that a majority of bands find this "image" after they have been around for awhile, in many cases, the character of the band does not always match up correctly with their sound or stage presence.  However, there are a few bands who have the "complete package," and it is impossible to separate the music from the bands' personality, and this is perhaps no more obvious than when one looks to the "art rock" movement and the early years of punk rock.  As most of these bands came out of the massively creative breeding ground of the late 1970's East Village in New York City, a number of similarities run from group to group, yet even with this sharing of sound, there was truly no other band at the time (or since) that sounded quite like Talking Heads.  Combining an almost nervous energy and unquestionable musical talent, the band is perhaps the most successful "experimental" band in history, as they constantly tried to incorporate new elements into their music, and there has truly never been another band that had anything resembling their unique sound.  Churning out one stunning musical masterpiece after another, the group possesses one of the most impressive catalogs in history, and one of their finest efforts was 1979's Fear of Music.  Far darker and bringing their love for poly-rhythm to the forefront, the tone of the album is perfectly summed up on its most well known and impressive song, the ominous and unsettling, "Life During Wartime."

The song begins innocently enough, as the synthesizer riff which the other instruments would copy to different extents does not seem that "out of place" within the era in which it was created.  This progression, played by Jerry Harrison, took on a life of its own, and more than thirty years after its initial release, it remains one of the most easily recognizable riffs ever recorded.  The song almost instantly gains its "punch" as well as slightly unsettling mood, as the rhythm section of bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz create one of the many brilliantly complex rhythmic patterns that in many ways defined the sound of Talking Heads.  The interplay of tempos between the various instruments make "Life During Wartime" one of the most exciting songs ever recorded, and the drumming implies everything from jazz to punk, and this ability to intermix sounds was one of the key elements that made the band so influential.  This sense of excitement and urgency takes many turns during the song, but never loses focus, and the synth solo found here can easily be seen as the beginning of the "new wave" movement.  Furthermore, when the song slows and quiets in the third verse, the fact that the overall mood is heightened serves as a testament to the absolute genius of the band members, as few songs retain such a mood during such a stark change in tempo.  It is this interplay of complex sounds and rhythms that gave Talking Heads their signature sound, and more than thirty years after their first songs, they've yet to be matched.

While the musical landscape on "Life During Wartime" is nothing short of stunning, one can easily make the case that the vocals and lyrics of Talking Heads were always equally, if not more important to the song.  Without question, there has never been another vocalist on par with David Byrne, and everything from his somewhat dry, unwavering voice to the unique rhythms with which he delivered the words nothing short of iconic to this day.  In many ways, his performance on "Life During Wartime" captures every aspect that makes his voice so unique, as the spoken parts, as well as the sung phrases, along with the shouted portions are all nothing short of mesmerizing.  Yet as is the case with nearly every song from Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime" contains so much within the words, that the lyrics become as essential as any other aspect of the music.  This time around, Byrne paints a stark, gloomy picture of a wide-spread war zone, and he takes on the persona of an emotionless operative buried deep in the conflict.  Peering into every aspect of the life of this character, few songs have ever been able to so perfectly capture the nervous, mysterious lifestyle, and Byrne does a brilliant job of painting it to be a less than glamorous way of life.  From the warning of, " oughta know not to stand by the window, somebody might see you up there..." to the troubling, introspective idea of, "...I changed my hairstyle so many times now, don't know what I look like!" Byrne leaves nothing out, and this is where the almost tragic nature of the song comes into play.  Taking the tense elements of the music and working them perfectly into vocal and lyrical patterns, "Life During Wartime" remains one of the most complete and captivating musical visions ever recorded.

Proving the strength and overall impact, as well as their undeniably amazing talent, "Life During Wartime" also contains one of the most iconic lyrical phrases ever penned, and it has been copied and referenced by artists across every genre in the decades since it was first recorded.  Though the lines, "...this ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around..." may seem "too simple," the fact of the matter is, not only did they fit perfectly with the overall theme of the song, but it can also be read as a manifesto of the punk movement, and these words personified the attitude and approach that was going on at New York clubs like C.B.G.B.'s and the Mudd Club.  Throwing all conventional musical wisdom to the side, "Life During Wartime" is an attack on the dominant paradigm of music in every aspect.  From the stunning blend of traditional and African-style drumming to the wild synthesizer progression to the prominently placed, nervous groove of the bass, the song pushed music forward whether it wanted to or not.  This was one of the key characteristics of Talking Heads, as everything from their amazing music to their stage presence gave them a persona like no other band, and in every element of their group, they were constantly seeking out new approaches and innovating on every level.  Combining extraordinary musical arrangements with the signature vocal style of David Byrne and finishing it off with some of the most bleak and anxious lyrics ever penned, there are few songs that exude as much musical perfection as one finds in Talking Heads' 1979 masterpiece, "Life During Wartime."

No comments: