It's somehow unfair to include New York's Talking Heads on the voluminous and motley roster of New Wave bans -- unfair to a band whose music is more of a classy avant-garde style than the punk rock often associated with New Wave.
David Byrne, lead vocalist, guitarist and composer for the Talking Heads, has taken the theme of emotional estrangement and twisted it musically and lyrically in every way possible, to produce two critically acclaimed albums, and a third equally fine LP just recently released.
With "Fear of Music," Byrne and the rest of the Heads (drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Martina Weymouth and keyboardist Jerry Harrison) offer further evidence that, once their meteoric musical career has peaked, perhaps they should consider seeking psychiatric counseling: Paranoia, dementia and barely-controlled delirium is the Talking Heads' stock in trade. They market it with a fine, homicidal edge, as was evident in 1977, when Byrne sang "Psycho Killer" (the hit from the first album) with such authority and ease that listeners wondered if he was speaking from experience.
The Heads draw their power from their lyrical tone, alternately mocking and deadly serious. A punchy, unwavering musical backdrop focuses attention on the lyrics, and the band obligingly encloses a copy of them in every album. Unlike their former associates from CBGB'S, the New York punk rock club, the Heads obviously intend these lyrics to be mulled over. Still, what is one to make of the opening lines of "Animals"?
I'm mad . . . and that's a fact I found out . . . animals don't help Animals think . . . they're pretty smart S -- on the ground . . . see in the dark.
And when the lyrics aren't hopelessly cryptic, they may be unrelievedly pessimistic. On the second album, for example, the Heads probed into the area of sexual relations, and came to the depressing conclusion that "The girls don't want to play like that "The girls want to be with the girls." They also had encouraging things to say about domestic quarrels.("We've heard this little scene, we've heard it many times"), and, of course, about the state of the nation ("I wouldn't live there if you paid me").
"Fear of Music" represents a quantum leap in disaffection and general malaise, over and above even the second album. The emotions are more raw, the images more stark, and the music has taken a definite turn for the bizarre. The phrasing, once very rigid and uniform, has become more irregular, with lines that run over the edge and trail off. With former Roxy Musician Brian Eno once again at the controls, and avant-garde guitarist Robert Fripp in the background on the opening chant, the album as a whole unquestionably leans toward nouveau rock as defined by David Bowie, and angles even further away from punk rock as defined by the Sex Pistols.
This is not to say that the Talking Heads have advanced a great deal musically since their debut in 1977. If the three albums are any indication, the band is simply incapable of great musical sophistication or variation, being more or less shackled to the metronomic rhythmic abilities of Frantz and Weymouth. They depend upon lyrical strokes of genius by Byrne, and production brainstorms from Eno. Fortunately for the band, Byrne and Eno have thus far proven to be full of inspired weirdness.
This inspired weirdness is a far cry from the raucous polemics of the punk rockers, and therein lies the difference between the Talking Heads and the likes of Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Television, all of whom once shared the stage at CBGB'S.
Just as the Beat movement succumbed to its own uncompromising rejection of literary convention, so, too, will the punk rockers be undone by their own unyielding brand of musical nihilism. Similarly, just as inspired avant-garde art and literature has always flourished, so, too, will the gifted Talking Heads.
TALKING HEADS-Fear of Music, Sire Records SRK 6076.