Talking Heads / Fear of Music / 1980: Music in the age of D.R.E.A.D.

There was no doubt about it; if you wanted to listen to rock-radio in Detroit during the late 1970s, W.R.I.F. were your call-letters. The RIF (as it was commonly known) was the go-to spot on the FM radio dial for the “home of rock n’ roll”. The station played a significant role in the community; hosting outdoor concerts, club shows and late night parties throughout the city. And their roster of celebrity DJ’s kept the rock n’ roll party moving during those long, cold mid-western winters. An important public service in the hard working, blue-collar city of Detroit. At least on the surface, the station was fully dedicated to the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

Of course, like so many things in this life; the truth about WRIF was different than the narrative that had been sold to the public. Despite the surface-level accommodations to the rock n’ roll life-style, The RIF had actually become a reactionist institution by 1979/80. Beneath the veneer of the endless party was a conservative business organization the was openly collaborating with those forces which sought to overturn the progressivism that had been a benchmark of the rock-era. And it was part of a neo-right backlash that was rising quickly across the country. Economically, politically and culturally the United States was a nation struggling with it’s own identity. Increasingly looking toward the past for answers about an uncertain future.

It’s important to remember that the post- Great Depression period had been a remarkable time of reform. The country embracing retirement benefits and public education for the working-class. And there was even some effort made to curtail or at least address the systematic racism and imperialism that has always been the original sin of American empire. But these changes sparked a cultural and political backlash at the end of the 70s. For a significant portion of the public those reforms were viewed with suspicion. Change can scare people even when they benefit from the progress being made. And the wealthy and privileged will use that fear to stir resentment, anger and instability. Using issues of class, race and gender to divide the forces of reform and revolution.

And because music and culture are important in any society, WRIF was uniquely positioned at the center of this cultural storm. The station’s competing values becoming a microcosm of the struggle brewing in the broader society. What had begun as a bold experiment of underground rock music infiltrating the mainstream radio business. Soon became corrupted by a re-activated ideological corporatism that nobody saw growing. (Philosopher Karl Marx would likely have said this struggle was inevitable). Even if the audience didn’t know it, The RIF was transitioning from the themes of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll to the more traditional call for profit, profit, profit. And that goal of profit above every other value would be achieved by cultivating the most base and ugly elements within the audience.

D.R.E.A.D ( or Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco) wasn’t a real organization, per se. In January 1979, The RIF started passing out the (free) gold-laminated DREAD membership cards at concerts and community event. And these plastic cards were happily gobbled-up by the hordes of denim-clad rock music fans. There was even a code of conduct written on the back. In reality, the faux membership cards were a promotional gimmick hatched by the station’s management to galvanize their mostly white, mostly male, mostly affluent audience into venting a growing hate of disco and the culture the music represented. But maybe a bit of history would help put this disco-hating attitude into context; by 1977 / 1978 disco music was well on the way to replacing rock music at the top half of the billboard charts. Music charts that had once been dominated by rock music; the bread-and-butter for a stations like The RIF. But there was something else happening just under the surface. This collective hate for disco and everything associated with it had become a nationwide phenomenon. With anti-disco rallies and demonstrations breaking out in many major cities. Rallies and demonstrations that often turned violent. And these hateful attitudes were inflamed by the very institutions that would most benefit from this madness. As foolish as this anti-disco sentiment may seem today, there was a ugly subtext that was never stated out loud; a pushback against the economic and cultural progress that minorities and working-class people had made in the U.S.

The DREAD promotion was a cynical manipulation of an unspoken racism that always seem to be lurking near the surface of social progress. The anti-disco movement was a convenient mask or proxy for the reactionary element of the country. A way to organize and fight against change without identifying the true nature of the hate. More importantly, the anti-disco movement was part of a much larger upheaval that would soon deliver Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980. He was the American Presidents who promised to restore the country to a mythological past. Or does that sound familiar?

In addition to the DREAD card, other changes were afoot inside the rock-radio industry. For example, the sudden adoption of extremely tight playlists. Any remnants of the adventurous music that gave birth to underground radio was ruthlessly eliminated. Even in the Detroit market, the MC5, the Stooges and SRC vanished from the airwaves. As did any music associated with punk and new wave. Bands like the Clash or Public Image Limited found that their music no longer fit into the new red, white and blue radio marketplace. These new voices in rock music were every bit as unwelcome as disco. The audience was put on a strict diet of bland, commercial hard-rock that poised no threat to the prevailing order. Music that satisfied the commercial needs of the industry but doomed rock music to a creative death.

As far as WRIF was concerned, these new restrictions were dealt with decisively. Not only did they limit the songs played on the station. They reshaped the criteria of what was considered real rock music. For a genre that had once prided itself on a distinct lack of definition, rock music was now the new orthodoxy. Instead of a platform for artistic expression, rock music was sold as a commodity for the affluent. Only musicians who brandished the rock n’ business attitude were promoted. Rock stars with crisp haircuts, big smiles and squeaky clean suits: Foreigner, Kansas, Journey, REO, Styx…These bands were the new template for what would be tolerated on commercial radio. And the DREAD card-holders where there on the ground to ensure this new orthodoxy was enforced and obeyed.

The Talking Heads formed in 1975 as part of the burgeoning punk scene of New York City. The band playing gigs with the Ramones, Blondie and the Heartbreakers at club’s gigs at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. It was a music scene that was producing some of the most vibrant and important music of the decade. And the Talking Heads would become one of the most popular and commercially successful bands to emerge; mixing art-school punk with funk and world music. An unusual sound but one that made a commercial impact outside the New York orbit.

By the time the band’s new album, Fear of Music, was released in the summer of 79, the Talking Heads were for national success. The album’s first single Life During Wartime slowly built momentum. The song slipping onto one playlist after another; Miami, Denver and San Francisco. And then managing the near impossible; become a hit on Detroit’s The RIF. It was a significant breakthrough for the band. The song gaining airplay in every time slot on the station. And for many listeners the track was a godsend.

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
Packed up and ready to go
Heard of some grave sites, 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 a ghetto,
I’ve lived all over this town

The songs driving guitars and hard-angular rhythms seemed like a surgical strike against every cool-kid, jock-rock band that now dominated radio. David Brynes’ smart lyric shouting the urgency of the situation. In every way, Life During Wartime shouldn’t have stood a chance of making it past the self-censorship on commercial radio. Hearing the track blasting through the car radio was too good to be true. A rare glimpse of hope; a sign that there where still those within the radio establishment that believed in music. Perhaps rock music could exist outside the wasn’t manipulated and manufactured?

I had initially discovering the Talking Heads through their great cover of Al Green’s Take Me to the River. And when I realizing that the band was produced by former Roxy Music member Brian Eno, that was enough. But Life During Wartime was so much more than anyone expected. Those hard tribal beats felt like a late night call from Fifty-third and Third; The song’s cinematic energy playing like an alternative soundtrack to the 1979 classic film, The Warriors. An end of the world celebration with wild, out-of-control punks ruling the street and subways. The music was full of images from my favorite fever dream. A raging war-prophecy with hostility and venom toward the world I distrusted. Said another way, Life During Wartime was the call for revolution that my friends and I had been looking for.

The celebration was short lived. Whatever internal forces had conspired to play Life During Wartime on The RIF ultimately failed to push the door open. In truth, there was never really a chance. The game had been rigged by forces far beyond the listener’s control. And music was only a small part of the defeat. And that’s no conspiracy theory.

The project of changing the cultural direction of the U.S. is a well documented fact that took decades to manifest. In affect, there was a corporate coup in 1979. But the planning for the takeover dated back to the fifties and sixties when conservative thinkers began writing about the need for America’s billionaires to finance a counter-revolution against the economic progress of the the New Deal. And the cultural revolution of the sixties. Ultimately right-wing intellectual and writers Russell Kirk encouraged the US Chamber of Commerce to commission Lewis F. Powell Jr (a future Supreme Court Justice) to write a legal memorandum outlining how a counter-revolution could be implemented. The Powell Memorandum: The Attack on the American Free Enterprise System is a blueprint showing corporate interests how to retake control of a country that was suffering from an “excessive of democracy”. The plan called for corporations and wealthy individuals to aggressively finance a cultural and political remodel (coup) of the United States. In direct response to the Powell memorandum, several billionaires (including Joseph Coors) organized the Heritage Foundation think-tank in 1973 to advise conservative politicians on possible laws that would deregulate business and industry. And ensure that the country moves towards a pro-business, pro-growth fundamentalism.

As of 2022, the Heritage Foundation is one the most prestigious and influential organization in U.S. politics. And that model of influence was replicated again and again; creating thousands of think-tanks, foundations, organizations and NGOs in every sector of the country. These institutions were then given the money needed to reshape and retool the mechanism of government and culture. But do your own research. Find the truth.