Talking Heads, ‘Life During Wartime’

David Byrne and Brian Eno

For all Talking Heads’ – and Brian Eno’s – clean lines, ‘Life During Wartime’ has a touch of the melodramatic. Equating living in Manhattan with enduring life in a city under siege is extending a metaphor until it’s stretched enough to believe in itself, but David Byrne is a panic-eyed master of the paranoid, and here he and the rest of the ‘Heads scratch and jerk until they’re a twitching bug of insecurity.

Maybe New York felt like that in 1979 if you were strung out enough. After all, they were CHANGING THE FACE OF POPULAR MUSIC. “You oughta know not to stand by the window,” not while the style mag snipers are perched on the rooftops.

But how does it feel, coming to Talking Heads cold in 2012? “My head is talking right now,” is Junior’s literal response. More abstractly she and her sisters dissolve into a mess of muso faces and electroshock shimmies – a reasonable reaction to ‘Life During Wartime”s troublefunk.

After it fades there’s a moment of reflection before Junior decides the track is “in the middle”. But they were at the vanguard! They were pushing rock forward! “It sounds like a song from the olden days.”

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David Bowie, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’

Brian Eno and David Bowie

There are more obvious BowiEno collabs but when we got onto ‘Warszawa’ there was a pretty poor reception all round. I’m not wild about it myself. I prefer my glacial synths with Jim Kerr making an arse of himself over the top.

I don’t actually, but I liked saying it.

Anyway, to add to the – ahem – car crash of this whole experiment, I had meant to play ‘Sound And Vision’. The plan was scuppered by Junior arguing about which cereal she was going to have for its entire three minutes. We then trumped the futility of this row by debating who was playing guitar on ‘Always Crashing…’ – Robert Fripp or Carlos Alomar? – for its entire three and a half minutes. Turns out it was Ricky Gardiner.

Nobody’s a winner. But this, like most of Low’s first side, is crisply depressing and that’s about all you can ask for.

Brian Eno, ‘Music For Airports 1/1’

Brian Eno

A bit of music we could really experiment with, but first some questions for Junior:

Do you like ambient music? “I’m more like *mimes thrashy guitar and disco dancing*”

Do you understand what Brian Eno’s trying to do here [I’m reading out the sleevenotes]? “No.”

And so she shouldn’t. A six-year-old is after constant stimulus, not a “tint” to the environment or space within which to think. If possible, thinking should be kept to a minimum. But I think Music For Airports is quite beautiful – whether or not it’s just sitting in my earbuds, not being too intrusive when I’m writing about something completely different – so it’s worth pursuing Eno’s enquiries. “Ambient Music…must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” he says, so is it?

Junior walks around the living room attempting to ignore it. Did it work? “I couldn’t hear it.”

But when you listen, is it interesting? “No.”

Roxy Music, ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’

Brian Eno

For Lent this year, we at Jukebox Junior are giving up all music that isn’t connected in some way to Brian Eno. To celebrate the Enoxification of our Lord, if you will. I wonder what that involves. A patina of magic dust maybe.

So let’s start at the very beginning (or near enough). After all, as Julie Andrews – another artist capable of doing amazing stuff with just a spoonful of sugar – says, it’s a very good place to start. On For Your Pleasure’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’, Eno stands at the back wearing a feather boa and “playing tapes”. What would ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’ be without tapes? It would be an airless piece of prog with a mannered Bryan Ferry vocal. With Eno’s tapes, it’s an an airless piece of prog with a mannered Bryan Ferry vocal and some whooshy phasing (technical term). Genius.

Junior’s not up on sound beds and production jiggery-pokery (she will be by the time we reach Easter), but from the audio alone she detects a man gritting his teeth as he plays guitar. Phil Manzanera’s fretwork is clearly so meaty it’s almost corporeal. She decides there’s “a little too much guitar” and the song is “too quiet” when Ferry dominates. Bring on the tapes then. Examining the inner sleeve, she declares Andy Mackay “the fashion one, the cool one” and points out that Eno “looks like a girl”. We’re on our way.

[12] Coldplay, ‘Viva La Vida’

When the Pet Shop Boys covered this in their Pandemonium show – Neil Tennant in crown and gown, natch – it fostered the biggest singalong of the night. I’d swear, somewhat insultingly (for whoever), half the audience assumed the song was Tennant and Lowe’s – and wised up too late. Otherwise, I’m not sure there’s a natural overlap between the bands, but the point for me is ‘Viva La Vida’ has fast become an anthem and, I’ll wager, the Noughties hit that will last. At least in the sort of Absolute Radio pantheon that will forever rate Bohemian Rhapsody and Stairway To Heaven the standout peaks of our popular culture.

Obviously I think this is a great record, and while much of that is down to its immediacy and bursting pride, there’s also the question of its surprising birth. After all, X&Y had pretty much clawhammered the joy out of the soul of anyone who listened. It was a flatulent album, stretching its reserves of hot air over a dozen lifeless rhyming-dictionary clods of half-songs. They barely deserved their Brian Eno moment. However, he turned up anyway and has to take a hefty slice of credit for the alert Coldplay that emerged. But credit to Martin and co for actually bothering their arses this time.

Like Doctor Who, this is a family favourite. Actually, Doctor Who’s too scary for Junior. Let’s call this a mainstay of our automobile glee club.

Junior says: “WOAH-OH-OHH-OH-OHHH-OHHH. That’s the best bit.” And probably the only bit not pilfered from Joe Satriani, Cat Stevens, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’… – ah, we’re all the sum of our influences, aren’t we? Whatever cobbles this together, it gets Junior smiling every time. Maybe she’s got some publishing rights too.

Best bit: Well, what she said.

[13] MGMT, ‘Time To Pretend’

MGMT

Giggling schoolkids Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser make hay with the rock’n’roll lifecycle, snaring “models for wives” and choking on their “vomit – that will be the end”, and set it all to perennially pleasing power-pop. I’m not sure they’re far enough out of the game to take the piss – just look at their garb – but it’s handled with wit and a winning sense of cod-heroism. In the end, ‘Time To Pretend’ is uplifting, chords building to some sort of triumph, and living fast and dying young almost sounds like something to aspire to. And that makes us as silly as their targets.

Junior says: “I like this one,” pointing at VanWyngarden. The song gets the thumbs-up too, especially the chirrupy synth signature bookending the fun.

Best bit: “… digging up worms – BA-BOOM”. Such meatiness places it firmly in rock fan territory, however much they protest. Perhaps that’s the point – having the cake and eating it. That’s MGMT’s thing. On the new album, they play fast and loose again, simultaneously ribbing and paying homage to the sound cathedrals of Brian Eno. Speaking of whom…

[20] Tom Tom Club, ‘Genius Of Love’

Tom Tom Club

This is a hindsight Top 20, taking place a year before I started buying my own records and making my own tapes and obsessing over Duran Duran and the Top 40. 1981 was the year my sister began to record the chart rundown, introducing me to the wild sounds of Landscape and, erm, Alvin Stardust. Up to this point, all I knew were Beatles and Boney Ms, ABBAs and Brotherhoods Of Man. Now we had a dead Beatle and a declining, rended ABBA.

Partners in rhythm Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were no longer satisfied with merely pushing the very corners of rock’s envelopes in Talking Heads’ engine room – or perhaps David Byrne and Brian Eno left no elbow room – and Tom Tom Club was the joyous diversion. Mixing funk, bags of funk, with pop, rap and world music, they revealed a sunnier side nowhere brighter than on the glorious ‘Genius Of Love’. It’s a tribute to a spiffing boyfriend wrapped up in loyal dedication to their funky forebears, and in a nice piece of symmetry has become one of the most sampled records – seized upon by trailblazers from Grandmaster Flash to, yes, Mariah Carey.

‘Genius Of Love’ locks into a groove, but Junior ain’t for dancin’. Apparently her baby sister “doesn’t want me to,” which is an impressive bit of inter-sibling communication – and we thought all they did was laugh at each other. But what does she think of the song? “I don’t like it; it makes me sad.” I’ve got it all wrong.

[6] Coldplay, ‘Viva La Vida’

Coldplay

As the opening strings stab, Junior vouches, “It’s my song,” which just about crowns a vexing couple of weeks for Chris Martin. That’s Junior and Joe Satriani on his tail. Joe’s beef is that the melody of the verse borrows a widdly guitar part of his, and while you can’t deny the similarities it’s tough to call it a steal. At any rate, ‘Viva La Vida’’s strength is a pulsating string sound and a chorus you can shine your shoes with.

After the complacent, sloppy muck of X&Y, I wasn’t expecting great things of Coldplay, and Viva La Vida’s lead single ‘Violet Hill’ wasn’t exactly a curveball – but, once you got past the throwback mis-step of ‘Cemeteries Of London’, the album turned out to be a real gem. There’s a switch halfway through fourth track ‘42’ where the band relaxes, tries on some new threads for size and bangs out beauties to the end. It’s tempting to call it the work of Brian Eno and, even if his hand was only a guiding one, he can take some credit that the album is succinct, moving, interesting and brave – in relative terms, at least. The title track is its beating heart (albeit a heartbeat after some mild exercise), a stirring tale of a great leader fallen and shamed. Neil reckons it’s about Tony Blair.

Junior is “woah-oh-OH-OH-oh”ing within a bar or two, pre-empting the chant before the final chorus. Perhaps it was at the start in her first draft.

[7] Roxy Music, ‘Dance Away’

I saw a BBC 4 documentary about Roxy Music a few months ago, and it was fascinating to see the drift from glam intelligentsia to disco stylists through to smoother-than-silk lounge lizards, and to watch Brian Eno politely distancing himself from everything that came after his pivotal contributions. They were a very different beast by this point – clearly Bryan Ferry’s plaything – and although they’d always led from the front, notionally ahead of prevailing fashions, 1978’s Manifesto album was drenched in disco. Too late? Or an early example of what every other “rock” group was about to do anyway?

No matter whether Roxy were leading or following – ‘Dance Away’ and the more obviously discofied sister single ‘Angel Eyes’ were pure-spun class. I’m not as familiar with the earlier albums as I should be – they’re always on my list for a Fopp splurge – but there’s an effortless freshness to the RM sound that belies its age. ‘Dance Away’ is clearly the work of a craftsman, beautifully arranged, no note wasted etc., and in fabulous couplets like “She’s dressed to kill/And guess who’s dying?” it straddles the pithy/corny line that would become so familiar to Roxy Music in their twilight years.

Their reputation even seems to reach the pre-schoolers, with Junior asserting “I like Loxy Music” when I told her what was going in the tray. I don’t suppose she has much heartache to dance away, but she shook her hips and wrenched her sister’s arms from her sockets as per. “I like it; play it again.”