Music by VICE

The Guide to Getting into David Byrne

Like all good artists, he examines how we look at the world and does so using a sound that regularly shifts from genre to genre.

by Jeremy Allen; illustrated by Laura Backeberg
Mar 9 2018, 3:17pm

Illustration by Laura Backeberg

The music of David Byrne is not as serious as you might think. There’s no denying the former Talking Heads singer is a cerebral type, but analyzing his work can obscure the sheer joy his music so often exudes. It’s material that should make you dance first and think later. Byrne might be an unstoppable conceptualist, but when the percussion kicks in, the last thing you should be wondering is whether or not he’s pop’s answer to Baudrillard.

That said, Byrne and his longtime producer Brian Eno probably didn’t help themselves ahead of the release of Talking Heads’ fourth studio album—the masterpiece Remain In Light—in 1980, when they sent a bibliography to journalists of tomes on architecture, art and John Miller Chernoff’s generic sounding African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms, in the hope that writers might read them and make the interviews more interesting. Aside from pop, his curiosity has taken him on a journey through avant garde theatre, film, photography, design, soundtracks, lauded books about music and psychogeographic cycling, art curation and other areas we just don’t have the space to cover—not when he’s straddled so many genres and crossed over more times than the ferryman of Hades. Time magazine didn’t put him on the cover and call him “Rock’s Renaissance Man” in 1986 for nothing.

Of Scottish descent on his father’s side and born in Dumbarton, Byrne may be snapped up as a national treasure north of the border long before the incumbent President of the United States of America ever will. Byrne’s family emigrated to Ontario, Canada when he was two, and then onto the Arbutus, Maryland suburbs on the outskirts of Baltimore where he grew up. He formed Talking Heads with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz in the mid 70s in New York, and it’s well documented that the band soon became a fixture at CBGB’s (their first show in 1975 was in support of the Ramones). Jerry Harrison, then ex of the Modern Lovers, joined a little later. Talking Heads swelled to a nine-piece for live dates during the 80s, including Parliament-Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell. Then at Byrne’s bidding they stopped touring and stripped everything back, which ultimately led to the band’s dissolution.

For many, there will be a clear demarcation between Byrne’s eclectic solo work and his time in Talking Heads, but throughout, his work has exuded an ebullience and a spirit of enquiry, and Byrne has an almost childlike sense of wonder that hasn’t diminished over the years. Like all good artists, he examines how we look at the world by presenting reality in a skewed and interesting way, from his art punk roots right through to more contemporary avant-garde alliances. It therefore makes sense to view his music as an entire body of work. Take a look at that below, then return here to read our in-depth profile piece on one of music's most interesting, creative forces.

So you want to get into: Hit Machine David Byrne?

If you Google David Byrne, one of the first options the search will offer up is “david byrne big suit.” The big suit in question relates to his stage attire at the conclusion of Stop Making Sense, a classy conceptual 1984 concert film capturing the majesty of Talking Heads live at the pinnacle of their creativity. The singer returns to the stage at the conclusion with enormous dictator’s shoulder pads, and sleeves and trouser legs as commodious as beer tents. Characteristically fidgety with sweaty upper lip, it’s a grotesque and funny and slightly unnerving image that chimed with millions, probably because it said something about the excess of the times. The big suit was actually inspired in a roundabout kind of way by kabuki mime.

There’s an entry-level Talking Heads that most people subscribed to during the 80s, where idiosyncratic songs about buildings (“Burning Down The House”), evangelical preachers (“Once In A Lifetime”), and LSD consumption (“And She Was”) became mainstream radio and MTV-endorsed earworms that more than troubled the charts. There was also often a layer of irony that may not have been easily detected by the masses: “(Nothing But) Flowers,” for instance, is an imaginary ode to capitalism where the protagonist is misty-eyed about fallen shopping malls now that the environmentalist movement has won. Meanwhile “Road To Nowhere,” “And She Was,” and “Wild Wild Life” were all great pop singles that managed to cover over the cracks that were appearing beneath.

After his time in Talking Heads, the hits dried up, although you suspect massive mainstream success was always low on Byrne’s priority list. He did perhaps have the biggest hit of his career though, with British electronic duo X-Press 2 in 2002 with “Lazy,” a dancefloor stomper with vocals recorded remotely and then sent by file via email. It made number 2 in the UK and number 1 on the US Club Chart and is naggingly catchy. It was also a lightbulb moment for Byrne, who realized that lo-fi home recordings were no obstacle to collaboration. He would become irrepressible in his dalliances thereon.

Playlist: “Take Me To The River” / “Life During Wartime” / “Once In A Lifetime” / “Burning Down the House” / “Road to Nowhere” / “And She Was” / “Wild Wild Life” / “(Nothing But) Flowers” / “Sax and Violins” / “Lazy” (with X-Press 2)

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So you want to get into: Musical Polygamist David Byrne?

“The online magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos,” Byrne wrote in his 2012 book How Music Works. “This wasn’t intended as a compliment—though, to be honest, it’s not that far from the truth.” The year How Music Works was published was peak musical polygamy for Byrne, who also managed to release a lauded album with St. Vincent, record a live show at Carnegie Hall with Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, and made a wonderful and overlooked song, “Eyes,” with avant-garde arranger Jherek Bischoff.

Over the years he’s thrown himself into high art collaborations with Robert Wilson, Twyla Thar, and Philip Glass, and slummed it with Fatboy Slim. Actually that’s not strictly true: he worked with Norman Cook on Here Lies Love, a musical about the extravagant former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. As you do. The pair worked with a number of great singers including Sharon Jones, Santigold and Cyndi Lauper, and miracles were achieved when Florence Welch exercised restraint on the title track. Byrne is as at home recording a French libretto by Bizet with Rufus Wainwright as he is dropping a vocal on a De La Soul hip hop track.

Playlist: “Miss America” (with Morcheeba) / “The People Tree” (with N.A.S.A.) / “Knotty Pine” (with the Dirty Projectors) / “Here Lies Love” (with Fatboy Slim and Florence Welch) / “Au fond du temple saint” (with Rufus Wainwright) / “Who” (with St Vincent) / “Eyes” (with Jherek Bischoff) / “Dreamworld: Marco de Canaveses” (with Caetano Veloso) / “Strange Weather” (with Anna Calvi) / “Toe Jam” (with the BPA and Dizzee Rascal) / “Snoopies” (with De La Soul)

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So you want to get into: Art Punk David Byrne?

In their initial phase, Talking Heads took reductionism to new lengths, performing under the house lights with the club lighting turned off, baulking at lyrical cliches and rock and roll posturing. Their form of punk manifested itself aesthetically in preppy polo shirts – a straight look completely out-of-kilter with everything else that was going on at the time. The music was initially stripped back too, a maelstrom of garage rock and panicky dance riffs and Byrne’s constricted tenor. His lyrics too were out-of-step, such as on early favourite “Psycho Killer.” Punk may have been a DIY movement where anyone could join in, but their concepts were anything but linear. Art school dropout Byrne had met Tina and Chris at RISD (Jerry Harrison was an art major at Harvard), and Talking Heads became figureheads of a subgenre retrospectively called art punk.

Byrne again stripped everything back after the 1984 live album and film of Stop Making Sense, and his perfectionism meant Talking Heads never toured again. Byrne couldn’t figure out a way to top the greatest concert movie ever made, which caused huge tensions with the rest of the band who were keen to go back on the road. He’s been known to strip things back when the mood’s taken him as a solo artist too; his 1992 solo album Uh-Oh was pared back almost as a reaction to his immersive foray into Tropicalismo on Rei Momo, with a song like “Angels” as beholden to Lou Reed as it is to—god forbid—the prevalent, concomitant grunge movement. 2001’s Look Into The Eyeball featured a host of musicians, but was really Byrne reasserting himself as an artist who could write and arrange simplistic pop songs on his own, Doritos be damned.

Playlist: “Love -> Building on Fire” / “Psycho Killer” / “New Feeling” / “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” / “Found A Job” / “Heaven” / “Television Man” / “She’s Mad” / “Angels” / “The Moment of Conception” / “Like Humans Do”

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So you want to get into: Eno-assisted Sonically-experimental David Byrne

We’ve done collaborations already, but there was no way of including Brian Eno without giving him a section to himself. Byrne and Eno apparently bonded over a shared interest in cybernetic management theory according to Sytze Steenstra’s exhaustive David Byrne biography Song and Circumstance, and like David Bowie before him, there was a great meeting of minds. Aside from their first names and initials, Bowie and Byrne don’t appear to have too much in common musically, though both were endlessly open to possibilities and happy to be conduits for other kinds of music, and both allowed Eno carte blanche to use the music studio as compositional tool.

Eno produced Talking Heads’ second album More Songs About Buildings And Food, but things really got interesting on the following record Fear of Music, an album Jonathan Lethem’s 33/3 book on said album calls “punk’s most modernist text. It tries to understand itself, but can’t quite.” (the quote actually came from Lethem’s “sounding board”, John Hilgart). Eno’s indelible prints and reverb feedback loop noise are all over “Memories Can’t Wait”, while conversely “Drugs” was pulled apart with large sections omitted to give it its peculiar dynamic; Byrne’s vocals thereafter only last for two minutes on a five minute track, and—perhaps inspired by Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards—the slightly creepy, breathless delivery was achieved by him running on the spot.

Their experimentalism went much further on My Life In The Bush of Ghosts, an album that was completed before (and informed) Remain in Light but was released after it. Bush of Ghosts was a continuation and a consolidation of the zouk rhythms Eno had began exploring with Bowie on Lodger after the latter had made several trips to Kenya, but Eno and Byrne went further by making larceny central to their objectives. There are no recorded vocals from either—the whole record is made up of found sounds, banging, percussive Nigerian Afro rock (“Help Me Somebody”), disembodied exorcists (“The Jezebel Spirit”) and Arabian chanting (“Regiment”). There’s certainly a debate to be had about whether privileged white men are ethnographers or cultural appropriators, but whatever your thoughts on musical colonialism, the album left its mark on US urban music and is regarded by many as a milestone in the evolution of hip hop.

Byrne and Eno came together again in 2008 for the surprisingly non-ambient Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and the former Roxy Music man has popped up again on Byrne’s new album American Utopia. One of the new tracks, the excellent “Everybody’s Coming To My House,” sounds remarkably like LCD Soundsystem, though that’s hardly recompense when you consider James Murphy owes nearly everything to Talking Heads.

Playlist: “Memories Can’t Wait” / “Air” / “Animals” / “Drugs” / “Regiment” / “The Jezebel Spirit” / “Help Me Somebody” / “Two Soldiers” / “Strange Overtones” / “Everybody’s Coming To My House”

Spotify | Apple

So you want to get into: Funky Dadaist David Byrne

When the Dadaist movement began with zany cabaret evenings in Zurich in 1916, it was as a reaction to the horrors of the war that had engulfed Europe. Byrne’s Dadaist declaration “I Zimbra”, the opening track on Fear of Music—featuring nonsense phrases purloined from Hugo Ball’s Dada Manifesto from the same year—is certainly a less grave call to arms than those of the precursors of surrealism. It did however usher in a new rhythmical “herky jerky funk” as Byrne describes it, and was a serious declaration of intent, to eschew their white punk roots and embrace black funk wholesale. With the follow up Remain In Light, they made music that was “less angsty” and “more about surrender, ecstasy and transcendence”, according to Byrne’s How Music Works. Much of the drumming on Remain In Light was overdubbed by the nuclear band in the studio, though to produce it live they would need to grow, adding an extra bass player and multiple percussionists. “Girlfriend is Better”, the song they play during the aforementioned moment when Byrne returns to the stage in the big suit in Stop Making Sense, is included here because the group that was assembled for live shows has so much more depth than on the original recording.

The band’s fifth studio album Speaking In Tongues continued in a similar vein to Remain In Light, then after their commercially viable funk sabbatical, they got back to making pulverising grooves on their final underrated album Naked. With multicultural personnel assembled in Paris, Naked does a rare thing where it pairs together disparate elements like Latin and pedal steel guitar and somehow makes them sound like they’ve always lived harmoniously together (“Totally Nude”). If Byrne’s subsequent solo foray into tropicalia inspires little more than a Pavlovian craving for Nandos when you hear it however, then it could be that he got caught off guard and took it all a bit too seriously. He forgot to add the Dada.

Playlist: “I Zimbra” / “Cities” / “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” / “Crosseyed and Painless” / “Making Flippy Floppy” / “My Big Hands (Falling Through The Cracks)” / “Girlfriend is Better” [Live] / “Blind” / “Totally Nude” / “A Million Miles Away”

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You can find Jeremy on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.