Rock History 101: Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime”

Do you believe in the end of the world? Neither did David Byrne, but he knew the rest of the country was holding on tight, waiting for what we were told was inevitable. Nothing seemed right in 1979. Nixon had just been pardoned after setting the gold standard for a Presidential scandal, and Jimmy Carter was left to pick up the mess that Gerald Ford sat on. Poor, poor Jimmy. We were slowly getting over our fear of Commies and giant mushroom clouds, while Vietnam was still a fresh enough wound, giving way to those obvious repercussions. In short, we were a mess and just couldn’t catch a break.

Byrne felt stuck in the middle, both as a rising artist, and as a witness to our country’s fragility. At that time, he was living in the New York neighborhood Alphabet City, watching his surroundings struggle with crime, drugs, and poverty. While New York seemed to be crumbling, his band was doing quite the opposite. During the writing of their second record with Brian Eno, Talking Heads were starting to ride high off the building success from their first few singles. Fear of Music would be their third record and only took a single month to record. With every piece of music released, though, the band gained more and more momentum, positioning them to break out from the New York underground and make their name as a leader in the still fresh New Wave scene that they had helped invent.

Fear houses some of the Talking Heads’ best work, an absolutely solid record from start to finish. Boasting songs like “Drugs” and “Cities”, it was far ahead of its time, but there would be one clever track in particular that would do the job of catapulting them out of their grimy neighborhood and onto the world stage.

For “Life During Wartime”, one of the song’s biggest influences came from a spot just down the block of Byrne’s apartment. Tompkins Square Park, now a welcoming place for Alphabet City residents, used to be an epicenter for many of the city’s problems and served more as a homeless camp and drug den than a sunny spot to lay out and picnic. As Byrne looked out his window, he imagined the world in a worst case scenario, wondering what he would do if the time came to get out of Dodge, so to speak.

Coupled with the music, though, “Wartime” becomes a social jab at the cold war generation, playing on their fear of the foreign or domestic attacks, while throwing them catchy hooks. Like a New Wave Red Dawn, it’s based on the ideas of what could happen if that proverbial red button was ever pushed and how people would react. The track is given from the perspective of a group of people (or maybe just two) stuck in the middle of the fake attack as they plot their retaliation against their aggressors:

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons
packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance
I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstone, lived in the ghetto
I’ve lived all over this town

The movement sounds guerilla in nature as they “sleep in the day time…work in the nighttime”, hack phone lines and dress in disguises to blend in.  Other city uprisings are also mentioned, but only as hearsay from the protagonist, as they cope with feelings of isolation: “Can’t write a letter, can’t send a postcard, I can’t write nothing at all”. In the end, it was all about the delivery of those lines, and once that chorus hit, those words became inescapable, and are still so to this day.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco
this ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd Club, or C. B. G. B.
I ain’t got time for that now

What started as a satire, ended up turning into the New Wave anthem of the early 80’s. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco” was the rallying cry being spray painted and chanted all over NYC. Name-dropping the scene’s most known spots in one of the catchiest choruses turned out to be a hit-making strategy. That, coupled with themes of alienation, created the perfect torch for which to burn the establishment. The track got a serious boost thanks to the re-envisioning it received in the Heads’ iconic Stop Making Sense, and in the following year, Fear scored them their first gold record.

After all that divulgence of “what it all means,” it’s still funny to talk about a song like this in such serious ways. Even with such a fantastically dark theme, musically it’s genius, and, in 2010, makes just as much sense lyrically as it did 30 years ago. Its clever mix of punk and afro beats still holds a grip on our airwaves, and, for those throwing 80’s parties, the dance floor as well. I can’t help but want to move when it comes on, and, when that chorus hits, I’ll sing along too.


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