Talking Heads

Life During Wartime

Composed by Chris Frantz / David Byrne / Jerry Harrison / Tina Weymouth

Song Review by

With the memorable chorus that forever memorialized the late-'70s New York punk rock club scene, "This ain't no party/This ain't no disco/This ain't no fooling around/This ain't no Mudd Club/No CBGB/I ain't got time for that now," "Life During Wartime," from the 1979 Talking Heads LP Fear of Music, is the sort of apocalyptic punk/funk merge that Prince would go on to imprint with his own indelible style on songs like "1999." Talking Heads made no claims of being anything but post-collegiate white fans of funk and R&B, but with their deep understanding of the music and employment of actual funk musicians like Bernie Worrel in later years, they out-funked countless Caucasian college groove-party bands who thought themselves pretty jamming. The Anthony Perkins-like character that David Byrne refined during Talking Heads' career proved a convincing mouthpiece for such foreboding lyrics as: "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." Byrne delivers the verses in a restrained speak-singing voice that echoes the forced self-control of his first-person narrator in "Psycho Killer," the singer not so much singing as acting. And his clean-cut appearance in the black-leather, punk rock context of his colleagues might have made others giggle nervously, for something was certainly askew -- as writer Lester Bangs called him, "a kind of Everyneurotic" -- an image that Byrne cultivated with great aplomb. Here, he is not the nervous neighbor-boy of "Psycho Killer," but a paranoid, perhaps prophetic survivalist taking pages from the Lee Harvey Oswald textbook. The song can be taken as a fun sort of protest song, with it's loose-cannon chorus ready-made for chanting. But underneath it is a serious commentary on the apocalyptic fears of a nuclear nation embarking on an eight-year Reagan administration and still in the midst of the Cold War. Byrne paints a dystopian, Orwell-ian picture of some political operatives who must shut off human emotion: "We dress like students, we dress like housewives/Or in a suit and a tie/I changed my hairstyle so many times now/I don't know what I look like/You make me shiver, I feel so tender/We make a pretty good team/Don't get exhausted, I'll do some driving/You ought to get you some sleep." Unlike much rock & roll social commentary that is dogmatic and didactic, Byrne follows the number one rule of creative writing -- show, don't tell -- with crisp cinematic images and a healthy injection of levity: "I got some groceries, some peanut butter/To last a couple of days/But I ain't got no speakers/Ain't got no headphones/Ain't got no records to play." Riding a slinky guitar and synth or Clavinet riff and Chris Frantz's insistent four-on-the-floor drumbeat, the forceful rhythm section is pumped high, with Tina Weymouth's bass prominent in the mix and conga drums adding to the track's infectious danceability. As they continued to demonstrate, Talking Heads add interesting textures and subtle production/arrangement flourishes from the band and frequent collaborator, producer Brian Eno, like an offbeat rhythm guitar that suspends on one chord from the solo section until the end of the song, creating an uncomfortable tension. The album included contributions from such illustrious sidemen as Ari on percussion and Robert Fripp on guitar. The song got a heavy-handed and hammy treatment on the very successful live album accompaniment to the concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), from the height of the band's popularity. This reading, with its liberal use of backing singers, errs toward the humor end of the spectrum, with the singers, Byrne included, using zany new wave affectations that plow over the ominous tone of the original.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Fear of Music 1979 Rhino / Warner Music 3:41
Times Square 1980
Original Soundtrack
RSO 3:40
The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads 1982 Rhino / Warner Bros.
Stop Making Sense 1984 Warner Bros. 5:51
No Image 1984 Warner Bros.
No Image 1991 Golden Stars 5:59
Popular Favorites 1976-1992: Sand in the Vaseline 1992 Sire 5:03
Best of Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime 1992 EMI Music Distribution
No Image 2000 Imtrat 4:08
Once in a Lifetime 2003 Rhino / Sire/Warner Reprise Video 3:41
Once In A Lifetime: The Talking Heads Box (US Release) 2003 ATG / Atlantic 3:42
The Best of Talking Heads 2004 ATG / Atlantic 3:42
Talking Heads [DualDisc] 2005 Rhino 4:07
CBGB Forever 2007
Various Artists
Wicked Cool 3:40
Live in Rome 2008 Atipica / SBP / Top Tape
Same as It Ever Was 2009 Hear Music
Burning Down Rome 2010 Lighthouse Records
Chronology 2011 Eagle Rock
CBGB [Original Soundtrack] 2013
Original Soundtrack
Rhino 3:41
The Boston Tea Party 2014 Sonic Boom 4:11
Remain in Light/Speaking in Tongues/Fear of Music Sire 3:41
Saratogo Psycho: US, 1973 Good Ship Funke 5:44
Stop Making Sense Tour 1983 BRR
Vol. 1-3 For 1 Box Set Sire
blue highlight denotes editor's pick