David Byrne and Talking Heads
Talking Heads (illustration by Andy Friedman)
In June 2016, Tame Impala played one of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival's benefit concerts. Hanging out in the rear row of a fleet of folding chairs, watching the show, was former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. As unmistakable a New York landmark as the Chrysler Building, with his exclamatory shock of white hair (and, improbably, sporting tube socks and deck shoes), Byrne's presence was a reminder that as maddening as this city might be, the chance of spotting a rock 'n' roll icon is still pretty good.
Over the last handful of years, the city has lost a lot of its most beloved music ambassadors of the '70s and '80s—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Alan Vega, Ric Ocasek, and all of the original Ramones—but knowing that Byrne and members of Talking Heads still roam the streets (and parks) is an urban perk, a sentimental reminder of New York's former ineffable coolness.
Talking Heads first opened for the Ramones at CBGB on June 5, 1975, a motley group of mostly Rhode Island School of Design grads—Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth—and Harvard-educated Modern Lovers' alumnus Jerry Harrison. They couldn't have imagined the long-lived impact of their quirky band. Nascent bands don't often think in terms of their legacy forty years down the line, especially when dragging their gear down the pre-gentrified, inebriated Bowery of the mid-Seventies—at the time, a dirty, dank strip of an apocalyptic avenue. But artists could easily thrive and live cheaply in the walkups and lofts of the East Village, Soho, and the Lower East Side back then: it was a galvanizing period of New York's cultural history. And one which Byrne, as he wrote in a 2013 essay in the Guardian, fears might be lost in this "gilded age" of gentrification and glass towers.
Although Talking Heads introduced a refined, conceptually arty, intellectual perspective to the punk sphere, they also brought along a broad swath of the American suburbs to the scene. As Frantz says in a 1979 "American Bandstand" interview with Dick Clark (which featured a hilariously awkward exchange with, as Weymouth quips, an "organically shy" Byrne), the group's members hailed from all parts of the United States: Coronado, California (bassist Weymouth); Milwaukee, Wisconsin (guitarist and keyboardist Harrison); Baltimore, Maryland (the Scottish-born guitarist and singer Byrne); and Lexington, Kentucky (drummer Frantz). Talking Heads were fueled by the buzz of quasi-dystopian '70s New York, but the edgy, raw nerve of their songs slyly reflected the suburban angst of the era too; still recovering from Watergate and the Vietnam War and not easily soothed by the vapidity of mainstream pop culture. The band's debut, Talking Heads: 77, offered up "Psycho Killer," "No Compassion" and "Don't Worry About the Government"—three songs that examined dissociative modern life with chilly reserve, but in a strangely relatable way.
"We wanted to avoid the image that a rock star was better than anyone else," recalled Frantz in a 1979 episode of ITV's "South Bank Show." Their subsequent pursuit of enhanced normalcy (or as Harrison described it in the same documentary, an "ordinary demeanor") became a secret weapon of Talking Heads' arsenal. No leather jackets or bare-chested, Robert Plant swagger. Just regular clothes, a low-key presence, and an ungainly frontman who exulted in vocal tics, a staccato delivery, and jagged guitar riffs. There were no epic guitar solos; instead Talking Heads experimented far beyond rock boundaries, veering towards R&B, funk, pop, and West African polyrhythms, spurred on by the influence of Fela Kuti and others. New York was also abundant with clubs at the time—from the Mudd Club to Danceteria to Hurrah—and the music of Talking Heads eased its way into every DJ's set.
The jittery post-modern unease of More Songs About Building and Food, released in 1978, matched Talking Heads with co-producer Brian Eno and the partnership that followed—through 1979's Fear of Music and 1980's Remain in Light—solidified the band's expressive and expansive aesthetic. Talking Heads' first four albums are still touchstones for contemporary artists: Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, tUnE-yArds, and LCD Soundsystem are all progeny. The freaked out, existential queries of the band's astonishing single "Once in a Lifetime," from Remain in Light, are permanently embedded in the American psyche even four decades down the line, as the ultimate suburban meltdown:
And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
By the Eighties, when MTV came along, Talking Heads' visual artistry served them well. The video for "Once in a Lifetime," which seemed to run constantly on MTV in its early days, introduced the rest of America to Byrne's physical paroxysms. The clip for the band's only bonifide Top 10 hit in the States, "Burning Down the House" from 1983's Speaking in Tongues, would eventually land in heavy rotation too and segued the band to the big screen. A subsequent tour supporting Speaking in Tongues was documented by director Jonathan Demme as "Stop Making Sense" and also released as a live album.
The final song on Speaking in Tongues, "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," became the album's second single and is arguably the band's most popular tune today: on the DVD of "Stop Making Sense," Byrne described it as a love song of non sequiturs (it was inspired by his relationship with his then-future-now-ex wife Adelle Lutz). The song was also an anomaly, sounding unlike anything Talking Heads had ever recorded before. In a 2012 New Yorker article, James Verini muses upon its "dreadful longing and anticipatory regret."
Talking Heads' tender streak continued with 1985's Little Creatures—a technicolor pop album stirred by lullabies ("Stay Up Late") and libido ("Creatures of Love"). True Stories, released in 1986, served concurrently as a soundtrack to a film that Byrne directed: "Wild Wild Life" became a mainstay on MTV. In 1988, the band released its final album, Naked, which featured former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr on four tracks.
Strangely, not unlike the Smiths, Talking Heads' split, officially announced in 1991, was far from amicable—it was bitterly acrimonious. Over the years, both within and beyond Talking Heads, all four band members have focused on their own projects and they all continue to work in those in those realms.
Frantz and Weymouth formed as Tom Tom Club in 1981, releasing six studio albums and unleashing club staples like "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love." Jerry Harrison has released three solo albums, has composed for film, and as a producer, has worked with the likes of Violent Femmes, No Doubt, the String Cheese Incident, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Byrne's long string of solo releases have included collaborations with Brian Eno (1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and 2008's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today) and St. Vincent (2012's Love This Giant). Driven to reach beyond the usual rock artist perimeters, Byrne has concurrently turned to dance, theatre and film, with projects that ranged from scoring a ballet with Twyla Tharp, 1981's The Catherine Wheel, to collaborating with theatre experimentalists like Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis.. Byrne even dove headlong into film early on, writing, directing and acting in his own movie, 1986's "True Stories," and he scored for others too, notably Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987's epic "The Last Emperor."
But it's Byrne's 2013 off-Broadway musical which he co-wrote with Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim), the Imelda Marcos-inspired Here Lies Love, which gave the musician even more of a solid footing as a theatre artist. Here Lies Love first appeared as a 2010 album with nearly two dozen voices as Imelda, including Florence Welch and Cyndi Lauper. Working with director Alex Timbers, Byrne and Cook's idea evolved into an award-winning off-Broadway hit for the Public Theatre, also produced at the National Theatre in London. Byrne worked with Timbers again on his 2017 musical, Saint Joan, about Joan of Arc, which also ran at the Public Theatre.
Byrne's songs are often steered by the choppy undertow of the American dream — with its echoes of American catastrophes too. As a Scottish immigrant (he didn't become a U.S. citizen until 2012), his curiosity about his adopted county shuttles between ardor, confusion, frustration, and hope. The release of 2018's American Utopia, Byrne's first solo album in 14 years, was a riposte to the results the 2016 U.S. election and troubling political developments worldwide. The tour which followed (and which was broadcast live on FUV from Forest Hills Stadium) swung to the theatrical and joyfully drew on Byrne's passion for the power of a drum line (something he also explored in 2017's Contemporary Color, his love letter to high school color guards and marching bands). His segue to Broadway made absolute sense, which he explained in a letter.
"Because of how theatrical the show is, others started telling me, 'This needs to go to Broadway,'" writes Byrne. "Why not? But what did that mean? Parked in a beautiful Broadway theater, we can perfect the sound, the lights, the movement – we don’t have to adapt to a new place every night! It was an exciting challenge – I realized a Broadway setting would likely be a different audience than the concert crowds I was used to. The Broadway crowd has slightly different expectations. There might even be audience members who don’t know me or my music – which for me is exciting."
Byrne tapped Timbers to direct and asked Anne-B Parson, artistic director of Brooklyn's Big Dance Theater, to choreograph what would turn into a highly successful Broadway run. American Utopia, which went into previews in early October 2019 and opened on October 20 at the Hudson Theatre, closed on February 16 but will be revived in September 2020 for a 17-week run. Described by the New York Times' theatre critic Ben Brantley as an "expansive, dazzlingly staged concert" led by Byrne, an "avuncular, off-center shepherd to flocks of fans still groping to find their way," American Utopia has made Byrne, at the tender age of 67 and a grandfather, a spokesman for these discombulated times. Even more strangely, for anyone weaned on the agitation of Fear of Music and Stop Making Sense, he's even kind of an optimist, as he told CBS Sunday Morning in 2019.
"Am I a different person than I was before? Is my innate nature joyful and optimistic, or – I think this is maybe more likely – that I love working with these musicians so much," he told correspondent Serena Altschul. "I love performing, I love what I'm doing, I love the message that we're putting across, that that gives me optimism."
In novelist Jonathan Lethem's impassioned assessment of Fear of Music, part of Continuum's "33 1/3" series of monographs, he wrote of these “four musicians using their instruments like an erector set to construct a skyline that won’t fall down before they’re finished.” New York still stands, although it's a different city: the circumstances that allowed David Byrne and the Talking Heads to flourish as struggling musicians with real artistic freedom (and manageable finances) no longer exist.
As fans, there's a reason to celebrate Byrne's presence on Broadway. He and his Talking Heads bandmates will always be New York's envoys of its golden age of art punk, no wave, new wave and post punk — and they laid foundations for the future. Over this long life during wartime, Byrne and Talking Heads will always be FUV Essentials.
More on Talking Heads:
#FUVEssentials: Talking Heads and David Byrne (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Paul Cavalconte (Talking Heads) and Kara Manning (David Byrne))