This Aint No Disco: The David Byrne Legacy
From CBGB to Coachella, David Byrne endures without reinvention
“I was in the living room of Dondy Bastone’s house, I was 15 and it was 1977. The song that he put on was Psycho Killer and I absolutely freaked out, it was like nothing else I had ever heard and made me feel things I had never felt… Some very strange things happened to me when I heard the Talking Heads, I felt smart. The Talking Heads also made me want to dance like a maniac”
-Anthony Kiedis’ induction speech for the Talking Heads into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame
The Sun will set on the Coachella desert this Spring, and with it another Coachella will end. The hype machine will churn with: “Did you see Beyonce?” “alt-J is everything.” Or you might even hear, “Aminé is the next Kendrick!” … and maybe he is, but fuck all that noise because David Byrne is playing.
David Byrne is turning 66 in May, and the last month of Byrne’s 65th year will see the historically eccentric –sometimes reclusive — artist co-headlining both weekends of the aforementioned Coachella, the Shaky Knees Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. In a disappointing festival year for rock fans, Byrne is arguably the most exciting act to hit the road this summer. Most musicians in their 60s look forward to planning reunion tours and releasing anniversary box sets, however, Byrne refuses to look back. His brain seems to always be set in the future.
The early success of the Talking Heads relied heavily on the band’s supernatural ability to exist and create in a futuristic tone. As the world evolved and matured into the modern landscape of the 21st century, Byrne’s creations now hold greater strength and even more relevance. Perhaps rock n’ roll is equally desperate as it was in the late 1970s when they released their debut album, Talking Heads: 77. Regardless, when Byrne takes the stage at festivals across the world this summer, fans will witness the strangest and most innovative creator in modern music history.
The Talking Heads were born over 40 years ago in the punk-laced streets of Manhattan’s East Village. David Byrne and Chris Frantz [drummer] were recent art school dropouts, and had their eyes set on CBGB, the legendary haven of NYC’s punk scene in the 1970s. The duo recruited Frantz’s girlfriend for bass, and auditioned for an opening slot at the club. They played their first show the following week under the name, “Talking Heads,” and immediately established themselves in the lower Manhattan punk scene. They quickly signed with Sire Records after the founder, Seymour Stein, overheard their set from the front entrance of CBGB.
There’s a saying somewhere that the first album is always the easiest. Talking Heads would be the counterargument. The band released Talking Heads: 77 to critical praise, but it didn’t receive the popular attention Stein felt it deserved. Since the Talking Heads were Stein’s baby, he took them under his wing and worked diligently to redefine their identity. The first step was stripping the band of its punk identity. Since the group was created in the East Village at venues like CBGB, they were automatically branded as punk. Stein knew he had something very different from punk, especially when a character like David Byrne was writing the lyrics and melodies. He decided to call the Talking Heads a “new wave” to help illustrate their fresh approach to rock.
New wave contained the energy of punk with hints of pop and more futuristic exploration. He also paired David Byrne with producer Brian Eno. This would quickly become one of the greatest creative duos in music history. He brought an incredibly diverse palette of style and sound to the Talking Heads that included psychedelic funk, post-punk, and African influences.
“In the late nineteen-seventies, in primordial downtown Manhattan, the band sonified not just longing and regret (most great musicians do that), but also dread (some do that), and then—this is what made them really special—mingled the feelings in single songs, sounds, and even couplets, while never letting listeners forget they knew what they were doing.”
-James Verini, The New Yorker
More Songs About Food, Talking Heads’ sophomore album, helped propel the band further into the spotlight with their first hit song, “Take Me to the River.” Eno’s influence was in full swing on this remake of Al Green’s track. The song perfectly set the tone for the style of music the Talking Heads were looking to create, specifically in Byrne’s voice, a more theatrical and experimental sound. The bass was much more prominent and the guitar finally found its signature sharpness. With Brian Eno and David Byrne in the driver’s seat, the future was limitless.
The duo released two more albums together, Fear of Music and Remain in the Light. The albums contained timeless singles, such as “Life During Wartime” and “Once In A Lifetime.” Both albums also went gold and received critical acclaim. The most valuable aspect of these albums seemed to lie in the creative transformations of David Byrne as a vocalist. He encountered phases of writer’s block during both albums, forcing him to explore new styles that were prominent in both funk and early hip-hop. This included a spoken word approach that is evident on “Houses in Motion” from Remain in the Light.
With the help of Eno’s mostly strange perspective, the Talking Heads successfully ignored the barriers of pop music. Although Remain in the Light was Eno’s last Talking Heads’ album (he would reunite with Byrne on his solo work), his influence never left in the remaining four albums. Talking heads would be inextricably tied to the excess and mood of yuppy, metropolitan 80s Americana. Thanks in part to the lyrical depth of songs like “As The Days Go By,” to the presence of what would later be one of their most recognizable songs,”This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” playing over a montage in Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic, Wall Street.
Stop Making Sense
In December of 1983, David Byrne took the stage at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater and proclaimed, “I have a tape I want to play.” He was alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and vintage boombox speaker. The tape was an electronic drum beat for their early hit, “Psycho Killer.” What followed was the creation of the most famous concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense. It actually happened over three nights in the Hollywood venue. Many critics argue it is the greatest fusion of music and film. It was directed by the late Jonathan Demme (Silence Of The Lambs and Rachel Getting Married), and he was the first to use digital audio techniques to record the sound. With the imminent explosion of television in the 80s, this technique would prove to be revolutionary.
After Byrne completes each song, a new member joins him on stage. Eventually, a total of nine musicians are on stage consisting of three backup singers, an extra percussionist, and a keys player as well. While the music is incredible, Stop Making Sense is best viewed as a theatrical experience. It showcases the band’s creative abilities beyond music. Despite its minimalist approach, the film has a timeless quality due, no doubt, to the creative eye of Demme and the unbridled energy of the band. Byrne is the main character and the stage is his canvas.
The most notable scene comes during the song, “Girlfriend is Better.” Byrne appears from the back of the stage in the glow of a single spotlight. At first glance, his shadow seems rather large, but you soon realize that he is wearing a suit that could fit almost four grown men. Byrne dances with his signature stiffness throughout the entire song, showcasing the absurdity of the suit. When asked about the meaning behind his oversized wardrobe, Byrne responded, “Well you know what theater is – everything has to be bigger.”
Stop Making Sense was an artistic achievement for both the band and director. Before 1984, the Talking Heads were just a successful rock band from New York. After the film’s release, they were artistic visionaries. The concert is genius because it stripped back entertainment to its core. The scale of concerts grew exponentially in the 70s and 80s; the light shows, the sets, the arenas, etc. The Talking Heads did the opposite of what was trending, and filmed a concert with only the humans and the music. The costumes were bland, the set was practically under construction in the background, and David Byrne was on a mission to send a very honest message about music and theater. In the end, he surpassed even his own expectations by setting the tone for one of the most prolific musical careers in history.
Post Talking Heads
When David Byrne takes the stage this summer, don’t expect a Talking Heads reunion show. Byrne would never be that predictable. Instead, he is touring his new solo album, American Utopia. This is Byrne’s 11th album outside of the Talking Heads. His first, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, came in 1981. The Brian Eno produced album was very experimental. Like many of Byrne’s solo albums, it explored areas of sound that may be too dangerous for a Talking Heads’ record. Some tracks rely heavily on electronic instrumentals, while others were much more orchestral and grand. His first solo venture set the tone for the rest of Byrne’s career.
Not only did it open the door for his personal music career, but his fearless ability to express himself led to theater and other forms of visual art. In 1991, a year after Talking Heads broke up, Byrne released a classical album titled The Forest. Some of the tracks had already appeared on Robert Wilson’s theater piece of the same name in 1988. Scoring theater and film became very important to Byrne in the 90s. He was always inspired by experimental theater, especially living in New York. Combining his abilities in music with theater was the perfect transition into the future.
David Byrne’s world record label, Luaka Bop, was founded in 1990. It all started in the late 80s when Byrne fell in love with Latin American rock. Specifically, he obsessed over Brazilian music and was disappointed not to find a catalog of those sounds in the United States. Latin American music was a gold mine, and he wanted to give these artists a platform to succeed. Over the years, the label expanded outside of Latin America, and promoted artists from places like Cuba and parts of Africa.
The Talking Heads were founded on communicating worldly music through a rock lens. Luaka Bop represented Byrne’s greatest quality: artistic integrity. After commercial success faded with the Talking Heads, he invested his wealth and resources back into communities around the world that originally inspired him. The record label, which is still running, is not a publicity stunt. It is an offering of respect and a message about the communal nature of creative expression. Like the Beatles famously stated, “In the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”
So, we end with the puzzling and rare case of the Talking Heads– Byrne more specifically in the staying power and presence of his music in culture. The band broke up in 1991, and they’ve only reunited once since; it was for a three-song set at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. However, David Byrne manages to stay on the tip of the zeitgeist without really trying. The career trajectory and shelf life of his music tracks are similar to Lou Reed/Velvet Underground. He is an act that always pushes its artistic designs before anything commercial, which happens upon said success almost by accident. An accident that would repeat itself over a forty year career. An act that may not have had the size and breadth of some of its contemporaries, but still managed to constantly stay ahead of whatever was next; a purity of authenticity.
Will we ever see a Talking Heads’ reunion? Doubtful, but we’ll be okay, we have David Byrne.
-Del Ray & Tyler Thompson