Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Burning Down the House" /
Talking Heads

In my musical memory, this track was on Fear of Music, that astonishing 1979 album whereon the Talking Heads -- my beloved New Wave New York compadres -- suddenly went from jerky fringe geeks to political provocateurs. (Note: Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were now on board; they even got Gene Wilder, the essential geek artist savant, to play congas on "Life During Wartime.") Most memorable line from that album: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no foolin' around."

Hunkered down in NYC (I lived on the rough Upper West Side but in my heart I was an East Village squatter), I was so tuned into with that album. As I was with its 1980 successor, Remain in Light (featuring the iconic track "Once in a Lifetime".

But in fact this burn-all-the-bridges song didn't come out until 1983, on the Heads' Speaking in Tongues album. Wikipedia describes this album as their "commercial breakthrough," thanks to the fact that this groovalicious song actually was a Top Ten hit. (Really? I was so divorced from Top 40 radio at the time . . . but really?)

Yeah, okay, I'll buy that. But let's remember where we were in 1983. By then, Ronald Reagan had become the U.S. President, with Margaret Thatcher in charge as the U.K. Prime Minister. So is it any surprise that the counterculture would respond with a track like this?  Or that 4 years after "Life During Wartime," the Talking Heads would feel the need to light up some torches?

From the very first line, we're in danger alert. "WATCH OUT / You might get what you're after." I love the ambivalence of this. Though our singer declares he's an ordinary guy, we already know that we are not in ordinary times. 
Everything's allusive, coded: "We're in for nasty weather," "The transportation is here," "You might need a raincoat," "Fightin' fire with fire." Look over your shoulder, my friend.
The rhythm section is tight (God bless Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth), the lead singer (David Byrne) tightly-wound.  (..."And you have not seen nothin' yet / Everything's stuck together / And I don't know what you expect / Staring into the TV set / Fighting fire with fire.") Which is actually the genius of this track -- the hard-driving inevitability of that beat, versus the neurotic protest of our protagonist. 
It's a brave new world, for sure, and all bets are off.
History repeating itself? 

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