Jonathan Lethem discusses his tribute to Talking Heads' Fear of Music

Jonathan Lethem's latest is a book in the 33 1/3 series, Talking Heads' Fear of Music, a tribute to Talking Heads brilliant, seminal album, one of the greatest records of all time. In Wired, Geeta Dayal interviews Lethem about his book and the approach he took, and leaves me drooling for the chance to read it myself:

Lethem chose not to take a journalistic approach with Fear of Music; there are no interviews with the band members, Eno or anyone else involved in the album’s creation. “I didn’t want this to be a kind of post-mortem reconstruction,” Lethem said. “I wanted the entire record to spring from my encounter with it — the tangle of ideas that continued to stick from that experience.”

The core characters in Lethem’s book are the band’s four members. “What I was arguing for was the sanctity of the foursome,” Lethem said. “The collaborative unit of more or less equal parts.”

Fear of Music, Lethem said, turned out to be “really slippery” as a subject. The album seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

“Is it the band? Is it Eno? Is it David Byrne? Is it 1979? Is it punk?” Lethem said. “I’m still really interested in unearthing, excavating in that book the feeling of that band, and what they signified. Even the dress and the haircuts and the weird clarity of the song titles, and the arty minimalism of their album designs — all of this seemed to be saying something.”

Lethem’s passion for the group comes through forcefully in his writing. “Talking Heads were the definitive New York rock band,” Lethem declares in the book. “Manhattan band, if you want to give the outer boroughs to the Ramones.” Later, he writes, “The violence of my identification with Fear of Music remains durably interesting to me even after I debunk it by shifting into this bland generational perspective, even after I admit it really isn’t violence, except in a there’s a war in my mind kind of way.”

Jonathan Lethem Riffs on Talking Heads in Fear of Music


  1. “the weird clarity” – absolutely! So much of the popular music nowadays has a thousand time as many layers as Fear Of Music, and is about a thousand times less good. The fact that I Zimbra is a musicalized version of a Dadaist poem (yes, I know the words are different, but they are nonsense anyway so who cares?) is just too bitchen, I can listen to it all day long.

  2. I can’t listen to Fear of Music for fear of having an acid flashback.  Funny how that worked out.

    1. Well, it’s trying to do a different thing, isn’t it.

      Fear of Music is all about Byrne’s unhingedness, crazy rants about animals, jabbering Dada nonsense, laconic acid trips about tuning instruments and paranoid fantasies about being an undercover operative.

      Remain In Light, on the other hand found a centredness, for all the existential turnoil, there’s mother earth shaking her booty; for every psychosis, there’s some kind of spiritual insight.

      Remain in Light is one of the greatest albums of that century – if anything it’s got better after 20 years of listening to it. Fear of Music is it’s nervy, awkward, twitching younger brother.

      1. I think you’ve stated this very well!  They’re both great in different ways.

        I too consider Remain In Light to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded.  And I’m among the evidently small group of people who wish that it had turned out to be more seminal that it was.  Every time I hear electronic music where the beats are simply being repeated and piled atop one another I find myself wishing more bands would use groups of actual drummers instead.

        One of the most intense musical experiences I ever had was at a performance by the Nigerian Juju musician Twins Seven Seven at the Caravan Of Dreams, with his multiple wives and seven talking drummers.

  3. The 331/3 mini-book series has been unpredictable, and not exactly in a good way. Originally I expected them to be CliffsNotes versions of classic albums and artists with facts and figures thrown in. Soon I discovered that most are commentary-filled mush. The 331/3 “Trout Mask Replica” edition is especially non-essential

    I’m not sure what Lethem means when he says:“I wanted the entire record to spring from my encounter with it” – sounds like music critic-speak to me

    1. It simply means he didn’t want the record’s creators’ narrative intruding on his.

      1. “It simply means he didn’t want the record’s creators’ narrative intruding on his.”

        This also sounds like music critic-speak to me.  : )

        1.  Wait, so you wanted the series to be “CliffsNotes versions of classic albums and artists with facts and figures thrown in” ?!?!?

          So sad that you’re disappointed.

          But Tiger Beat is still in publication!

  4. It’s an amazing record.  I was in college when it came out and bought it based on a strong review in High Fidelity magazine, of all stodgy and conventional places.  Fear of Music shifted the tastes and expectations of a lot of Doors/Stones/Zeppelin fans who had never heard anything like it.  Its influence alone makes it great.

  5. Yes, it was an astonishing album.

    I was an art student at the time and I moved into a punk household where they were playing this on high rotation.

    Tina Weymouth’s bass riffs had me hooked immediately, she is the greatest influence on modern bass playing since Paul McCartney.

    1. absolutely. her influence far outshone jaco pastorius, stanley clarke, john entwhistle, bootsy collins to name merely a few of those who changed the way electric bass was played and used.

      why do people say things like “X is the greatest …” when its so clear that we live in a fragmented culture? Weymouth may have been all this or all that, but nobody is the “greatest influence” anymore (let alone “greatest”), at least when it comes tojust about anything cultural.

  6. This was the Talking Heads record I didn’t get for a long time. 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, Remain in Light, Speaking in Tongues–all four of those made immediate and perfect sense to me. This one, though, this was a tough nut for me to crack. It took the live versions on Stop Making Sense and The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads to get through to me–well, that, and repeated listening to “Life During Wartime” from the Times Square soundtrack.

    Did any of you have that experience?

  7. The first thing I did when I got my first Walkman was to tape Fear Of Music and listen to it as my private soundtrack all summer. Just an astonishing album.

    It needs to be noted, though, that it wasn’t just the four Heads playing on the album. Eno, himself, contributed much music, and I Zimbra wouldn’t be the amazing cut that it is without Robert Fripp’s guitar work  and the conga, djembe, etc. work of a phalanx of percussionists.

  8. Yep, Remain In Light is their greatest work IMO, it’s the ultimate nexus of great tunes, the funk and the best eno knob twiddling ever

    I Zimbra sounds like it almost belongs on that record..

  9. I can remember editing video in the studio at Atlantic Race Course with the head of publicity when this came out. I put it on, and he said “We wanna hear music – not anxiety!”

  10. Gee, no love for The Buddy Holly Story?

    The Goodman “Sing, Sing, Sing”?

  11. Does anybody know whether there’s gonna be a Kindle edition or an electronic edition of some sort? I live in Argentina and importing books has become kinda cumbersome…

    1. Joaquin – yes, should be on Kindle in the next couple of weeks – promise!

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