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Simon Armitage on 'Fear of Music' by Talking Heads: 'You Wanted to Wear a Badge With the Logo of a Band That Nobody Else Had Heard of'

The Poet Laureate's world was opened up by Talking Heads' third release: 'It pointed the way to me for a different way of being.'

simon armitage talking heads
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Simon Armitage was born in Huddersfield in 1963 and grew up listening to The Smiths, Joy Division and The Fall, and, in lieu of making it as a pop star, turned to poetry in his teens, having his first full length volume of poems published in 1989 while working as a probation officer in Greater Manchester. In 2019 he was appointed Poet Laureate (proudly holding the distinction of being the first of that title to also DJ), but has balanced his official duties with musical side projects including a short-lived indie band called The Scaremongers, and more recently as singer with LYR, alongside multi-instrumentalists Richard Walters and Patrick J. Pearson.

LYR’s latest release, the five-track EP Blossomise, was created in collaboration with the National Trust as part of the charity’s annual Blossom campaign; it is a lush, beautiful, occasionally mournful, often uplifting celebration of spring, shot through with Armitage’s typically open, accessible lyricism. He is currently touring selected cities in the UK as part of Blossom Week (dates below), and took time out to chat to Q about Talking HeadsFear of Music, an album that, more than any other, he says informed his early musical and literary sensibilities.

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Hi Simon. I was worried because I only heard what album you were choosing 10 minutes ago, and I thought you might pick some insane, lesser-known Fall album and I'd have to spend our entire chat winging it...

Oh really? Well, we can definitely go down that road, if you want…

No, no, I’m definitely happier with Talking Heads. Everyone loves Talking Heads don’t they? So why Fear of Music especially?

Actually it's interesting that you say that everybody loves them, because I think although that’s true these days, there was quite a long period where I don't think people were that interested in their music at all. And Fear of Music was a real pivotal album for me. It came out in 1979. I would have been 16 then and before that I'd been listening to pop music and then a little bit of glam and some hard rock stuff… and then punk came along and I found that so energizing and refreshing. But after a while I think I wanted something more.

Punk was all about slogans and an instant fix and I was just getting to that period of my life where I wanted something a bit more thoughtful and introspective. And this album, probably along with the first Joy Division album, just sort of popped up at the right time. If pop music is for the heart and all that post-punk stuff was for the head, what I really found in Fear of Music was something for the soul.

david byrne
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Talking Heads: 'Music for the soul.'

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What was it about Fear of Music that did that for you?

I lived in a village and it was quite hard to actually get your hands on music. And although I was listening to the John Peel show every night and recording most of it, this album offered a new perspective on music and it felt subversive, it felt dangerous, but quite intoxicating as well. And it became a gateway album, I think, for pretty much everything that I've been listening to ever since. There's something a little bit black magic about it. It's got these world beats in it and it's cinematic and deeply alternative and not like anything else around at that time.

And I know how committed I am to it because I think the first time I listened to it I didn't like it just because it was so peculiar and outside my parameters. But now I don't think there's been a month in my life since when I haven't listened to that album.

And do you still listen to it on your original vinyl copy?

Yeah, I do. I only listen to vinyl at home. Even though I've got everything else there at my fingertips, like a lot of people I've gone back to my original record collection and I also buy a lot of vinyl again. So yeah, when I'm in my office I choose a couple of albums for the week and just play them, flipping them over and over, and Fear of Music gets a lot of what they used to call “heavy rotation”.

Actually, now I come to think of it, I think it's actually a knockoff version that I've got. There used to be a record shop in Huddersfield called Bostock’s Records and they were imports mainly from, I think, Portugal or somewhere like that. So even though it's got the Sire label on it, I'm sure it’s a bit dodgy. Anyway, it still sounds great.

It probably means it's worth more money, I should think.

That's quite possible. Same sleeve too, that original sleeve which has got the imitation metal flooring and embossed cover and it has something hard-edged and industrial about it as well.

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david byrne onstage
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David Byrne - a frontman in every sense of the word.

People always laud the genius of David Byrne, but I feel like Tina Weymouth is almost as vital to Talking Heads.

Yeah, yeah, absolutely, and I think a lot of people have come to recognize that, not only from Talking Heads but also through the stuff that she's done with Tom Tom Club. But that doesn't take away from what an extraordinary frontman he is – and I think that frontman is the right word in in every sense of the word. I think he was definitely driving the direction of the band at that time and he’s gone on to prove what a curious and energized and extremely thoughtful, creative person he is. And on Fear of Music you think of his manic delivery and oddball lyrics, but he has also got the most amazing sense of rhythm. The way he fits words against music is incredible.

It's interesting how you said you didn't like it the first time you heard it: the whole album is quite disorienting on first listen – not only David Byrne’s delivery, but musically too. You mentioned Joy Division – I think the first time I heard Unknown Pleasures I was about 14 and actually a bit frightened by it.

Yes I know what you mean and I think at that age you probably wouldn't want to be listening to it in the house on your own. I think with Joy Division it's the sparseness. You always feel like there's this incredible vacuum around the music, all this space… whereas I think with Talking Heads and Fear of Music it's almost the opposite. It's echo and intensity rather than emptiness. Everything seems filled in with another noise.

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The hit on that album is “Life During Wartime”, and then of course just a couple of years later they released “Once in a Lifetime” and really broke into the big time. Were you one of those fans who, once they had a hit, got a bit annoyed with other people getting into them?

Do you mean like: “Oh well I was into them when no one liked them”? Yeah, absolutely. That was the whole point of it. You wanted to be in a very exclusive club. You wanted to wear a badge with the logo of a band that nobody else had heard of and that they didn't understand. Something that made you a very exclusive member of a club that probably only had one person in it in your town.

I mean, I always loved “Once in a Lifetime” and I thought it was a great single and I was really happy it was in the charts because that meant they played it on the radio and it cut through a lot of the other trash that was getting played. But yeah, you think of bands like Felt, who were probably my all-time favorite band, and who plodded away for ten years under the radar, and I'm sure that Lawrence wanted, you know, cosmic fame – but what I wanted was for them to stay exactly at that level where I was cool for even having heard of them.

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Do you think that that idea of fierce ownership of an album still exists with 16-year-olds today? Nowadays you can listen to an album before deciding to actually buy it, for a start, whereas pre-digital you had to just take a punt.

You're asking the wrong person. I mean the whole Spotify thing is like a dog whistle to me. I can't hear it. But to some extent, I don't think kids have the same relationship to material goods that we had because there's so much more availability. We live in a very disposable era. If something breaks, you just chuck it in the bin and go and get another, whereas at that time an object was a possession, it was a new item in your house and in your life and it was there to be cherished. And if you bought an album and you'd spent a fiver on it and you didn't like it, you felt really choked.

But also the whole landscape has changed. I mean, it's a well-worn argument now, but my daughter, she's 24, and everything is available to her all the time, and so she can talk happily about Nick Drake or Drake. And she doesn't really make distinctions. It's just all there. So as a result I'm not sure that liking a band makes you part of a mob or a tribe anymore. I might be wrong. That's what it looks like from here.

simon armitage lyr
Source: Bijorn Franklin

Armitage's band LYR are performing selected dates as part of the National Trust's Blossom Week.

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As a poet, do you feel Fear of Music is a particularly literary album? Did it tap into your burgeoning love of literature as a teenager?

I think it is a literary album. It's poetic, it's quite fragmented, there are lots of dystopian narratives and imagined scenes within those songs. I think more than anything it pointed the way to me for a different way of being. I lived in a village on the edge of the Pennines and I pretty much stayed in that part of the world. I've always thought that if you do that then you've got to be an importer. You've got to import ideas from elsewhere to stretch you and to test you – otherwise you just become like a local water colorist. And Talking Heads for me were that kind of signpost, in the way that Bowie was as well. I suddenly thought I could do something different with language or art or whatever. There is a way of still living here but thinking differently.

When I was even younger, I think I thought Bowie was Jesus. I got them slightly mixed up because he was always singing about outer space and being up in the sky and I somehow got confused with an image of Christ crucified in our local church.

Of course I know now that he wasn't Jesus; that he was actually God.

Simon Armitage will be doing readings of his poetry in Belfast and Manchester on April 25 and 26, and LYR will be performing in Quarry Bank, Greater Manchester on April 27 and Newcastle’s Wylam Brewery on April 28. More details are available from the National Trust’s website here.


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