By way of a palette cleanser, let’s talk a little about “Drugs.”
At the same time I was making my way through the Josh White book, I’ve been reading Jonathan Lethem’s book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. The book, like the album, ends with the self-consciously bizarre track we know as “Drugs,” which makes for a fascinating case study in how a song develops.
It began life as an instrumental called “Electricity”:
By the time it acquired lyrics, it also had a subtitle:
As it became clearer what the song was about, the title and the subtitle changed places. (On the album, though not on the video, this version is listed as “Drugs (Electricity).”)
When it came time to record the canonical version that would appear on the album, David Byrne and Brian Eno decided to change things up. Says Byrne:
Brian and I listened to it over and over again and then I suggested starting to remove things from the mix. First, my vocal came out, and then all the other parts, and then all we were left with was the snare drum and some of my guitar. The problem was that, since all the old parts were ingrained in our heads, we couldn’t come up with anything new to replace them. So what we did was work on the parts simultaneously but without each other’s knowledge. Brian would place half a bass part and I would play half a bass part and then we’d put them together as if it was one part.
The result was somehow both more austere and more baroque, with all sorts of strange artifacts floating through the mix. Here’s a working version:
And here’s the “final” version that appeared on the album, and thus became the one that all the fans copied into their heads. (One of them created this excellent video.)
I like them all in their own way. If Talking Heads ever do a reunion tour (highly unlikely, but not impossible), I wonder if they’d revisit it, and what it would sound like now? Something to ponder.
Happy 4/20, by the way, to those who celebrate it. I don’t think marijuana was the primary drug Byrne had in mind when writing this song (LSD seems like the likeliest suspect), though today’s Superdope is entirely capable of inducing the derangement conveyed therein. In the end the drugs are not necessary if you can free your mind, but that’s the real trick, isn’t it?