I recently dug out an old Talking Heads album and found myself really enjoying it. It was very popular in its day, and if I'm not mistaken it was their best selling album at the time. Surprisingly, there isn't much that sounds like it these days. At my age, with as many albums as I've owned, I can trace a lot of what I hear coming out these days directly back to something I'm familiar with. But nothing seems to lead to Fear of Music.
One of my favorite songwriters happens to be a good friend of mine, Jim Tyrrell. Among his other activities, he participates in a thing called Songfight. This is a website for songwriters. They will assign their participants to write a song on a certain theme. It may be a phrase, a topic, it could be anything. You have, if I'm correct, a week to write, record, and post a song. He does it because it helps him hone his craft; a worthy reason if ever there was one.
One of the songs Jim wrote for this was called "God Hates Penguins." Songfight assigned their group / family / minions / devotees to each write a song to go along with that title. When they're posted, they get voted on. Obviously, the people with the busiest Facebook pages win. Jim didn't win, but he wrote a very clever song that I like very much.
I have a problem with things like Songfight, but I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's some outmoded, misguided psychological problem of mine relating to the 'purity' of songwriting. Whatever my issue, I'm probably wrong, because I really like Jim's songs. It's just that the whole idea seems so... I'm about to use a bad word here... commercial.
Most of what we regard as Classical Music was written in similar ways. Back in the day people like Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Handel worked for a nobleman or high church official. They were an employee of the court or diocese. There were events, parties, church services, ceremonies, whatever, that you would have to provide music for. And don't be trotting out something by Vivaldi, we hired you because you can write! J. S. Bach wrote over 300 cantatas for church services during his career, and they were never repeated.
So if Count Olaf and the little woman show up and the Duke gets out the good schnapps, you might find yourself getting the orchestra up and dressed at 3 am for karaoke time. And if you ran out of ideas... well, you quietly sign out one of the back-up carriages and take a ride through the countryside. Cruise by a couple of barn dances and if the local fiddle player's got a snappy tune, write it down, go home, and claim it as your own. It's not like they're going to come to Vienna and sue you for plagiarism.
Another of my favorite songwriters is also a good friend, Mr. Sky King. I think it's safe to say he fits in the mold of "pure folk musician." As Pete Seeger famously said, folk music is the music that folks play. For Sky, songwriting isn't unlike keeping a diary. If he meets somebody interesting or anything at all moves him emotionally, he's likely to write a song about it. Maybe nobody will ever hear it, maybe he'll pop it out at the next open mic. He would look at "God Hates Penguins" and probably think; no, he doesn't. Then, just maybe, he'd write a song about it.
In a way, modern rock stars are not unlike the Great Composers, in that they do it for a living. A cranky Count wanting to hear something he can dance to in 1679 isn't that different from a record company executive in 1979 screaming, "I don't hear a single!" They write their songs with... here comes that word again... commercial considerations, meaning that they try and write something that people are going to like.
Now, wait a minute... What's wrong with that? Why would you, for instance, deliberately write a song that people didn't like? I think this is where that 'purity' thing comes in. Should you write a song because people will like it... or because something deserves to have a song written about it?
If we use Pete Seeger's measuring stick, everything on the radio, on MTV and VH1, on YouTube and Rhapsody and iTunes and Sirius/XM... is folk music. It's part of the common consciousness. It's the music of our lives. Just like that fiddle tune at the barn dance in 1679. And much more so than whatever great, important music is that's being written in some dark corner of academia where only a rare few will ever hear it. Only now, it's the folk musicians stealing ideas from the Royals.
And most rockers, rappers, or whatever, generally begin as more 'pure' folk musicians. They write their songs out of a need to express themselves, not necessarily with a desire to get rich and famous. They picked up their guitar or ocarina or Korg Kaoss and expressed themselves. And the ones who did it well and/or had good connections and/or good luck got rich doing it. The commercial part comes when they're in the mindset of wanting the train to keep rolling.
Which brings us to the Talking Heads in 1979. In a handful of years they've gone from geeky artsy students, to a band, to a band that a lot of people in the New York vicinity liked, to a signed act, to major stars touring the world. Their income increased dramatically and quickly, and their calendars filled to overflowing.
And the same thing was happening to a lot of their friends. New York was a vanguard location for the original Punk movement, along with London and Los Angeles. Punk began as a grass roots reaction to disco and progressive rock and the (here it comes again) commercial state of rock in general. Rock and roll was now complex and expensive and very, very difficult to get into. A lot had changed since Buddy Holly was playing roller rinks. The stars, and their music, was also increasingly detached from its audience. A lot of young people found the Ramones and Television and Richard Hell easier to identify with than the Village People and Genesis.
The Talking Heads were from the side of punk that came to be known as New Wave. It was more artsy, more intellectual. Their original audience was a lot more likely to ask, "Why is there air?" than "Where's the beer?" They discovered very quickly that the knobs on their amps had numbers between 0 and 10, and used them.
One thing about punk, then and now, is that it's generally made by people who can barely play. To the more rough side of the genre, this becomes a problem; the more popular they become, the more they play. And the more they play, the better they get. This ruined a lot of punk bands. But the New Wave side used these newly acquired skills to enhance their sound and come up with newer, better songs.
So here's the Talking Heads at the end of the '70's. I can almost see it happening. They've done two albums and toured the world. Now, they're back in New York, hanging with their friends. Some are other newly-famous New Wavers, some are just the people they always hung out with before they were rich and famous. They're probably still in that happy space before "everybody else got weird about it." They're getting pretty good at playing and writing songs, and while smoking a few doobies and sharing some lines with their friends, they get talking about the follow-up to "More Songs About Buildings And Food."
People start saying, "You oughta do a song about..." Somebody gets out a pen and a piece of paper and starts taking suggestions. And the list quickly grows; Cities. Mind. Paper. Drugs. Life During Wartime. By the end of the party, the four members of the Talking Heads realize they've got a very good list of valid song topics. They make a commitment to write these songs.
I don't know if that's how it really happened, and the wikipedia article on the album suggests otherwise, but listening to Fear Of Music it could easily have happened just that way. It's a very good album, their best IMHO, and very well thought out. The whole thing is downright danceable, and yet it will really make you think. Too rare a combination, if you ask me.
I was going to write this piece several months ago. What reminded me of it was seeing a band at Make Music Plymouth called Jake McKelvie and the Countertops. Three young guys playing in front of the ski shop on Main street. They sounded very original, very creative, and yet oddly not unlike early Talking Heads. I really enjoyed them.
I don't know if they've got a CD out yet, but they seem to be an up and coming band, attracting a fair bit of attention. I get the impression they were one of the better-known bands playing at MMP. One day, I may be able to impress people by saying I saw them for free back in 2014 on Main street in Plymouth. I wonder how their third album will sound?