David Byrne was born in Scotland in 1952. After moving to America he eventually found himself in New York City and in 1975 formed Talking Heads. This is usually where Byrne’s history ends. And, that is the crucial mistake.
Don’t get me wrong Talking Heads are certainly worth our discussion. I remember being introduced to the band as a ten year old at roller rink. Weird, I thought. Strange. What’s with the suit? However, as I have aged I have come to understand that some of the thoughts I had in my youth were stupid. First off, let’s consider their role in the early NYC punk movement and the rise of CBGB. If there is one artist that does not fit in the scene it is unarguably Talking Heads. Look at the names we associate with the legendary club and the rise of NYC punk: The Fleshtones, The Damned, The Ramones, Blondie (Not disco Blondie), Patti Smith, and Talking Heads. Really? The quirky, non-leather, art sound that the Heads were playing certainly didn’t fit in with the dirty punk of CBGB. Yet, Talking Heads didn’t just survive that scene, but they instead thrived. Where bands like The Ramones did little to grow, Talking Heads immediately implemented sounds that were completely their own.
That philosophy of growth stayed with Talking Heads through their entire career. Talking Heads grew too big for their punk and post-punk start. And, as the world waited for them to embrace synth-driven new wave, like many of their colleagues did, they instead went in the direction of Afro-beat with Remain in Light. It was a sound that would come to influence the likes of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. But, instead of sticking with that they crossed over with Speaking in Tongues an album that has been lauded as the "album that finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk". This growth would continue through the remaining Talking Heads’ records, but more importantly through Byrne’s own career.
His first solo album Rei Momo released in 1989, is based on South American soundscapes and rhythms. Who does that? An artist that’s who. Furthermore, 1991’s The Forest is an instrumental concept album based around the legend of Gilgamesh in Industrial times. Uh-Oh (1992) and David Byrne (1994) are both Art-pop with a sprinkle of world beat. 2004 sees him years ahead of the chamber pop sound with Grown Backwards.
And, that is without the collaborations, something which has become commonplace in modern music, but which Byrne has been doing throughout his career. 1997’s Feelings sees him collaborate with English Trip-Hop band Morcheeba. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today with Brian Eno. Here Lies Love, a concept album with Fatboy Slim about - of all people - Imelda Marcos. Love This Giant and Brass Tactics with St. Vincent. That is not to mention his guest vocalist appearances with De La Soul, Natalie Merchant, Philip Glass, Esmeralda, Anna Calvi, Maximum Balloon, The Arcade Fire, etc. So, musically the man collaborates like like few others. But, note the collaboration. This is not the type of artist who is signed up with Top 40 performers to boost sales. Byrne’s collaborations are about artistic freedom and growth.
So, the history of Talking Heads and their music, their genre-altering albums, their early adoption of world music and baroque pop and David Byrne’s own amazing collaborations should solidify his legendary status. The words used to describe Byrne are similar to those used to describe Bowie, and Prince. Yet, only real music snobs talk about Byrne in the same way. And, that is an issue.
Like Bowie and Prince, Byrne has certainly had issues with modern life, technology, the internet and licensing. However, David Byrne has taken his conversations on technology to a whole new level. In essence, Byrne has become a sage for our hyper modern times, and it is perhaps as a modern-day philosopher that we should best remember David Byrne. In a piece he wrote for the Guardian in 2013 Byrne noted that the “inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left”. In the same article, Byrne writes not subjectively from a musician seeing his livelihood taken away, but instead from a fan of music, and someone genuinely concerned for its future. He writes, “What's at stake is not so much the survival of artists like me, but that of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts”. Byrne’s ability to view the future from a philosophical stance is bother refreshing and inspiring. It has also allowed him to be a proud defender of the arts, as both a creator and consumer.
Byrne has embraced his role as technological canary in the modern connected mine. Beginning with True Stories, his cultural thesis on America. His philosophical ideas of on culture and technology has continuously grown throughout his career. In 1999 he collaborated with a dance company and sold the record on his website. 1999. Website. This is 2 years prior to Wilco being forced into doing this and 8 years before Radiohead did it. And, as if selling an album online wasn’t enough innovation, he debuted his 2001 single “Like Humans Do” on Windows XP. Furthermore, in 2005 as the internet was just establishing itself, Byrne started his own internet radio station. Byrne has even established his writing on the subject of pop culture in his 2012 book (note that he has written several other books as well), How Music Works. Byrne’s career has followed our own love affair with culture, communication and technology and mirrored our own retrospective fears on the subjects.
Some may argue that for me to group Byrne in with the likes of Bowie is unfair, but look at the words used to describe Bowie after his passing. Mick Ronson said,"He knew what he wanted to do and he got on and did it”. Iggy Pop described him as “Brilliant”. Kanye West referred to him as “so fearless...so creative”. Madonna called him “Unique” and added that he was a “game changer”. And, former British Prime Minister David Cameron called him a “A master of reinvention”. Each and every one of these comments can be equally placed on Byrne’s big shoulders. And, Adam Lambert’s description of Bowie, is as relevant to Byrne as it is to Bowie; he is “one of the bravest artists of the century”.
So, why don’t we recognize this? Why has Byrne’s latest “brilliantly brainy” record American Utopia come out to relatively little attention.
Recently, while chatting to a friend about my affection for Talking Heads, I mentioned a handful of hits, to which he replied, “You forget how many hits they had”. I think in general we tend to to forget David Byrne and Talking Heads. In September of 2017, PaperMag wrote a piece on Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth and in it they described her influential bass playing as an “afterthought”. I whole-heartedly agree. And, as much as Weymouth would be angered by my comparison, I can’t help but feel that Byrne is - like her bass-playing - a cultural “afterthought”. Over the last few years we have seen a slew of legendary artists die (I refuse to say taken away). With every death, we seem to gather around and discuss the elastic definition of the word genius. Well, let’s tighten up that definition. Let us look at what truly makes one a legend, and please, can we finally acknowledge that David Byrne deserves a rightful place in the pop hierarchy?
Rock’s Renaissance Man” has only solidified his reputation as such. Byrne is a “Musician, Composer, Author, Film Maker, Sculpture, Actor, Cycling Enthusiast, Oscar Winner, Budding Neuroscientist, Designer, Photographer, Global Music Curator” and so much more.
The world of music and media offers us a view of the world like few other arts.