Quirk Your Enthusiasm (16)

By: Tim Carmody
August 16, 2016

talking heads wartime

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite New Wave songs from c. 1977–1982. Josh Glenn’s series introduction is here, and you can listen to the QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM playlist here. Enjoy!

“LIFE DURING WARTIME” | TALKING HEADS | 1979

About half of Talking Heads’ songs are about the apocalypse, but “Life During Wartime” has the most concrete vision of the apocalypse in progress. Disguises, false papers, whispers of disasters in cities distant but familiar: it channels the same quotidian sense of ongoing catastrophe as Children of Men, without hope for a deus ex machina salvation.

Nobody seemed to know exactly what it all meant. “The line ‘This ain’t no disco’ sure stuck!” said Byrne. Fans who took the track as an anti-disco anthem missed how the band was saying goodbye to narrow definitions of punk, funk, or disco music in favor of something that was channeling them all into someting new, tense, desperate, yet somehow danceable. It was a song about everyday life in Alphabet City, the Baader-Meinhof Group, Patty Hearst, the chaos of the 1970s and the dread of the future still to come. It remains a mantra for our paranoid days, the license we need to burn it all, if the burning can keep us alive.

Which version captures the song’s mood best? The cool, Eno-produced album version from Fear of Music offers no sense of closure or resolution; Adrian Belew’s guitar on The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads adds heft and depth. But the relentless live version from Stop Making Sense shows a band literally on the run. Byrne’s increasingly inhuman contortions, flopping his arms and legs, flinging himself backwards, tossing himself on the floor and twitching, make him a disposable but resilient body tossed through indifferent space. Keyboardists Bernie Worrell and Jerry Harrison trade amazing keyboard lines back and forth like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman’s guitars on “Layla.”

It is very, very difficult to register defeat and defiance in the same breath, to simultaneously admit your vulnerability and affirm your invincibility. That is what “Life During Wartime” does, bridging two centuries where even in the safest, most powerful country on earth, wartime has never ended, and perhaps never will.

Does anybody have any questions?

***

QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Mark Kingwell on Soft Cell’s TAINTED LOVE | Joanne McNeil on Gary Numan’s METAL | Devin McKinney on Suicide’s FRANKIE TEARDROP | Douglas Wolk on Family Fodder’s SAVOIR FAIRE | Elina Shatkin on Marianne Faithfull’s BROKEN ENGLISH | Steph Burt on Altered Images’ HAPPY BIRTHDAY | Greg Rowland on Jilted John’s JILTED JOHN | Gordon Dahlquist on XTC’s RESPECTABLE STREET | Adrienne Crew on D-Day’s TOO YOUNG TO DATE | Jonathan Lethem on The Blue Nile’s I LOVE THIS LIFE | Josh Glenn on Tim Curry’s I DO THE ROCK | Molly Wright Steenson on Missing Persons’ WORDS | Anthony Miller on The Nails’ 88 LINES ABOUT 44 WOMEN | Luc Sante on The Normal’s WARM LEATHERETTE | Mimi Lipson on Dolly Mixture’s HOW COME YOU’RE SUCH A HIT WITH THE BOYS, JANE? | Tim Carmody on Talking Heads’ LIFE DURING WARTIME | Ingrid Schorr on Ian Dury’s CLEVOR TREVER | Adam McGovern on Lene Lovich’s LUCKY NUMBER | Deb Chachra on Rough Trade’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL | Tor Aarestad on Oingo Boingo’s LITTLE GIRLS | David Smay on The B-52’s’ DANCE THIS MESS AROUND | Jessamyn West on Blondie’s HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE | Drew Daniel on The Human League’s MARIANNE | Erik Davis on Tuxedomoon’s TIME TO LOSE | Dan Fox on Thomas Dolby’s EUROPA & THE PIRATE TWINS.

NEW WAVE HILO HEROES: Debbie Harry | Marianne Faithfull | Grace Jones | Ian Dury | Mark Mothersbaugh | Plastic Bertrand | Tim Curry | Kate Pierson | Green Gartside | David Byrne.

MORE ENTHUSIASM SERIES at HILOBROW

KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): TBD | #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

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What do you think?

  1. Why did I never notice that his heart is the furnace in which the speaker sets fire to his old, artistic self (burned all my notebooks…my chest is aching and it burns…) — creation from destruction, and you’re right about the song’s title being the non-contraction form of “lifetime” (with conflict the only span that may be endless). Within a decade of the clip above they’d Stop Being Interesting, but not before this kinetic testament — this live-ness — infinitely inventive and uncontainably cooperative, showed another way to run.

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