Fear of Music is the third studio album by American new wave band Talking Heads, released on 3 August 1979 on Sire Records. It was recorded at locations in New York City between April and May 1979 and was produced by the quartet and Brian Eno. The album reached number 21 on the Billboard 200 in the United States and peaked at number 33 on the UK Albums Chart. Three songs were released as singles between 1979 and 1980: "Life During Wartime", "I Zimbra", and "Cities". The record was certified Gold in the U.S. in 1985.
Fear of Music received favourable reviews from critics. Praise centred on its unconventional rhythms and frontman David Byrne's lyrical performances. The record is often considered one of the best Talking Heads releases. It has featured in several publications' lists of the best albums of all time. Britain's Channel 4 named the record at number 76 in its 2005 countdown of The 100 Greatest Albums. In 2006 it was remastered and reissued with four bonus tracks.
Origins and recording
Talking Heads' second album More Songs About Buildings and Food, released in 1978, expanded the band's sonic palette. The record included a hit single, a cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River", which gained the quartet commercial exposure. In March 1979, the band members played the song on nationwide U.S. music show American Bandstand. In the days after the performance, they decided they did not want to be regarded simply as "a singles machine". Talking Heads entered a New York City studio without a producer in the spring of 1979 and practiced demo tracks. Musically, the band wanted to expand on the "subtly disguised" disco rhythms present in More Songs About Buildings and Food by making them more prominent in the mixes of new songs. The recording plans were shelved after the quartet was not pleased with the results during the sessions. A decision was taken to rehearse in drummer Chris Frantz's and bassist Tina Weymouth's loft, where the band members played before they signed to a record label in the mid-1970s. Eno, who produced their previous full-length release, was called to help.
On 22 April and 6 May 1979, a Record Plant van manned by a sound engineering crew parked outside Frantz's and Weymouth's house and ran cables through their loft window. On these two days, Talking Heads recorded the basic tracks with Eno. Instead of incorporating characters in society like in More Songs About Buildings and Food, Byrne decided to place them alone in dystopian situations. Weymouth was initially skeptical of Byrne's decisions, but the frontman managed to persuade her. She has explained that Byrne's sense of rhythm is "insane but fantastic" and that he was key to the band's recording drive during the home sessions. As songs evolved, playing instrumental sections became easier for the band members. Eno was instrumental in shaping their sound and recording confidence and worked on electronic treatments of tracks once they were all crafted.
Promotion and release
After completing Fear of Music, Talking Heads embarked on their first Pacific region tour in June 1979 and played concerts in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii. The album was released worldwide on 3 August. The LP sleeve was designed by band member Jerry Harrison. It is completely black and embossed with a pattern that resembles the appearance and texture of diamond plate metal flooring. The rest of the artwork was crafted by Byrne and includes heat-sensitive photography created by Jimmy Garcia with the help of Doctor Philip Strax. Harrison suggested the "ludicrous" title to the band. According to Weymouth, it was accepted because it "fit" with the album's themes and the fact that the quartet was under a lot of stress and pressure when making it.
A U.S. tour to showcase the new material was completed during August 1979. At the time, Byrne told Rolling Stone, "We're in a funny position. It wouldn't please us to make music that's impossible to listen to, but we don't want to compromise for the sake of popularity." The band shared the headliner slots with Van Morrison and The Chieftains at the Edinburgh Festival in September and embarked on a promotional European tour until the end of the year. Fear of Music was certified Gold by Recording Industry Association of America on 17 September 1985 after more than 500,000 copies were sold in the U.S.
Music and lyrics
Fear of Music is largely built on an eclectic mix of disco rhythms, cinematic soundscapes, and conventional rock music elements. Album opener "I Zimbra" is an African-influenced disco track and includes background chanting from assistant recording engineer Julie Last.
The album begins with "I Zimbra", whose lyrics are based on a nonsensical poem by Dadaist writer Hugo Ball. The sound of lyrics, together with the tribal sound of the song, enhanced by guest star virtuoso guitarist Robert Fripp, gave it an "ethnic" style; Jerry Harrison has said that this song influenced what the band was to do on their next album, Remain in Light. "Cities" details a search for the perfect urban settlement to live in and was borne out of Talking Heads' preferences for urban homes, especially in Manhattan. "Paper" compares a love affair with a simple piece of paper. In "Life During Wartime", Byrne cast himself an "unheroic urban guerrilla", who renounced parties, survived on basic supplies like peanut butter, and heard rumours about weapons shipments and impromptu graveyards. The character is only connected to the imminent collapse of his civilization. Byrne considered the persona "believable and plausible". "Air" is a protest song against the atmosphere, an idea Byrne does not consider "a joke". Inspired by The Threepenny Opera, the lyricist wanted to create a melancholic and touching track about a guy who feels so down that even breathing feels painful.
|Chicago Tribune||3/4 stars11px11px11px|
|Encyclopedia of Popular Music||3/5 stars11px11px11px11px|
|The Rolling Stone Album Guide||4.5/5 stars11px11px11px11px|
|Spin Alternative Record Guide||9/10|
|The Village Voice||A−|
The album was well received by reviewers. Jon Pareles, writing in Rolling Stone, was impressed with its "unswerving rhythms" and Byrne's lyrical evocations; he concluded, "Fear of Music is often deliberately, brilliantly disorienting. Like its black, corrugated packaging (which resembles a manhole cover), the album is foreboding, inescapably urban and obsessed with texture." John Rockwell of The New York Times suggested that the record was not a conventional rock release, while Stephanie Pleet of The Daily Collegian commented that it showed a positive progression in Talking Heads' musical style. Robert Christgau, writing in The Village Voice, praised the album's "gritty weirdness", but noted that "a little sweetening might help". Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times was impressed with Byrne's "awesome vocal performance" and its nuances and called Fear of Music "a quantum leap" for the band. Tom Bentkowski of New York concluded, "But what makes the record so successful, perhaps, is a genuinely felt anti-elitism. Talking Heads was clever enough to make the intellectual infectious and even danceable."
AllMusic's William Ruhlmann claimed that Fear of Music is "an uneven, transitional album", but nonetheless stated that it includes songs that match the quality of the band's best works. In the 1995 Spin Alternative Record Guide, Eric Weisbard gave the record a rating of nine out of ten and called it Talking Heads' most musically varied offering. In a 2003 review, Chris Smith of Stylus Magazine praised Byrne's personas and Eno's stylised production techniques. In The Rough Guide to Rock published the same year, Andy Smith concluded that the album is a strong candidate for the best LP of the 1970s because it is "bristling with hooks, riffs and killer lines".
Fear of Music was named as the best album of 1979 by NME ahead of Public Image Ltd's Metal Box, by Melody Maker ahead of Ry Cooder's Bop till You Drop, and by the Los Angeles Times ahead of Pere Ubu's Dub Housing. The New York Times included it in its unnumbered shortlist of the 10 best records issued that year. Sounds placed the album at number two in its staff list behind The Specials' eponymous release. It featured at number four in the 1979 Pazz & Jop critics' poll run by The Village Voice, which aggregates the votes of hundreds of prominent reviewers.
In 1985, NME named Fear of Music at number 68 in its writers' list of the All Time 100 Albums. In 1987, Rolling Stone placed it at number 94 in its list of the best albums of the previous 20 years. In 1999, it was included at number 33 in The Guardian's list of the Top 100 Albums That Don't Appear In All The Other Top 100 Albums Of All Time. In 2004, Pitchfork Media featured the record at number 31 in its Top 100 Albums Of The 1970s list, while, in 2005, Channel 4 ranked it at number 76 during The 100 Greatest Albums countdown.
- The original LP issue credited all songs to David Byrne, except "I Zimbra". After complaints from other band members, the credits were changed to the above on later CD issues.
- A limited edition UK LP included a live version of "Psycho Killer" and "New Feeling" from Talking Heads' debut album, Talking Heads: 77, on a bonus 7" record.
- The remastered reissue was produced by Andy Zax, with the help of Talking Heads, and was mixed by Brian Kehew.
- The DVD portion of the European reissue contains videos of the band performing "I Zimbra" and "Cities" on German music show Rockpop in 1979.
|United States and Canada||1979||Sire Records||LP, cassette||6076|
|Rest of Europe||WEA||56707|
|United States and Canada||1984||Sire Records||CD||(2–)6076|
|United States and Canada||2006||Rhino Records||Expanded CD, digital download||76451|
"—" denotes releases that did not chart.
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