The benign way to look at “Life During Wartime” by The Talking Heads is as a sci-fi premise, scenes from a dystopian future that we will never have to encounter. Yet the urgency and immediacy of the band’s performance suggests that we are never very far from having to navigate our way with caution through streets that were once familiar; to reconsider the motivations of even our most familiar acquaintances; to literally run for our lives.
Found on the band’s 1979 album Fear Of Music, the song is credited to all four group members (David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz.) That’s because the relentlessly grooving music came out of a jam session. To match the propulsive instrumental backing, Byrne came up with lyrics inspired by his then-home in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan. His view of urban life was that it did require savvy and survival instincts beyond the norm, even if it hadn’t yet degenerated into complete chaos.
Byrne’s vision of the future, as expressed to NME at the time of the record’s release, was striking in its accuracy: “There will be chronic food shortages and gas shortages and people will live in hovels. Paradoxically, they’ll be surrounded by computers the size of wrist watches. Calculators will be cheap. It’ll be as easy to hookup your computer with a central television bank as it is to get the week’s groceries.”
“Life During Wartime” plays like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a thriller where your next move might be your last; it’s thrilling and harrowing all at once. Byrne doesn’t waste any time setting up the stakes, as evidenced by the opening lines: “Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons/ Packed up and ready to go.” Within just the first verse, we find the narrator listening to gunfire and contemplating where to bury the bodies.
The lyrics do an excellent job of expressing how disorienting such a life might be, as the protagonist’s identity and even his physical looks are malleable. The comforts of life are replaced by the necessities: “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.” The immortal lines “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco/ This ain’t no fooling around” were taken by some as a slam at disposable music, when in actuality it was a reference to how such a future would remove any chance for frivolity in daily existence.
As the song progresses, the protagonist gets more and more frantic, his paranoia and his reality practically inseparable. Yet we learn that he has a cohort in his adventures, and a brief break in the battle materializes: “You make me shiver, I feel so tender/ We make a pretty good team.” It’s short-lived, however, as the chase resumes and the music fades out before Byrne can even finish his tale, suggesting that there will be no more respites from this point forth.
“Life During Wartime” didn’t make much of a dent on the pop charts, but it did further cement the band’s status as one that could fuse innovation with accessibility; here was Armageddon disguised as a dance party. You can call the song ahead of its time, but it might be more accurate to say that the future described always seems to be a moment away from transpiring.