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David Byrne


Not your average son of Dumbarton (if such a thing really exists), and probably something to do with the fact that he left Scotland with his parents Tom and Emma not long after being born on May 14, 1952, the worldly and multi-faceted singer/composer/musician/director can claim dual British/American citizenship; he was actually raised until he was 9 in Canada (Hamilton, Ontario) before his family settled in Artubus, Maryland, USA.
As leader and spokesman of New York’s artiest new wave combo, TALKING HEADS, the enigmatic and almost preacher-like BYRNE emerged as one of the true geniuses of his generation. When one thinks of BYRNE, one immediately thinks of that big “flippy floppy” white suit he wore in the Heads’ classy rockumentary movie, `Stop Making Sense’ – embarrassing as it was out of this world.
One can trace his first steps into the music business way back to the late 60s, when high school duo Bizadi (comprising also Mark Kehoe), performed the odd nostalgic piece and a few garage cuts. After dropping out of subsequent courses at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute of Art in the early 70s, the young BYRNE returned to music, initially hooking up with fellow RISD student Chris Frantz in a group called The Artistics. From there, the pair (plus Chris’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth) eventually relocated to New York, where Tina became stand-in bassist for their new outlet, TALKING HEADS.
Integral to the burgeoning NY nascent new wave/punk movement, the trio began making a name for themselves at the now famous CBGB’s venue, alongside the likes of RAMONES (whom they almost immediately supported), BLONDIE and TELEVISION. The ‘Heads quickly established themselves as one of the mainstays of the city’s thriving scene, signing to Sire Records and releasing a series of top-notch albums which explored the artier, more cerebral end of edgy white-boy funk.
As well as being the wayward visionary behind the band’s left-field appeal, BYRNE’s restlessly creative energies spilled over into a series of side projects, beginning with the early 80s, BRIAN ENO magnum opus, `My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’. DB’s talents even extended into the world of stage/theatre, working with choreographer Twyla Tharp on a score for Broadway production of “THE CATHERINE WHEEL” (1981) {*7}. This album project was funky as he’d ever been, drawing on the not too considerable talents of session giants John Chernoff (percussion), Yogi Horton (drums) and KING CRIMSON’s Adrian Belew (guitar) for chunky munkys such as `The Red House’, `My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)’, `What A Day That Was’, `Big Blue Plymouth’ and `His Wife Refused’.
BYRNE would duly lend his creative talents to contemporaries such as The B-52’s and FUN BOY THREE before he re-grouped with his TALKING HEADS buddies for their 1983 studio album, “Remain In Light”. The man’s highly developed and often whimsical sense of the absurd permeated further images for music for THE KNEE PLAYS (1985) {*5}, a score for a Robert Wilson theatre/opera piece, The Civil Wars. Not that far removed from his previous theatrical excursion, this work was decidedly cerebral and retrained, as backers The Dirty Dozen Brass Band led the way on some Bourbon Street-style marches.
Sounds From TRUE STORIES (1986) {*4}, was, to all intents and purposes, the man’s directorial debut. A series of eccentric Texan snapshots inspired by tabloid cuttings, the movie was written, directed, narrated and scored by BYRNE. He carried aspects of it over to the penultimate TALKING HEADS album, also – confusingly titled “True Stories”. A mile or so away from the group album, this set misled one on a road to nowhere, to a big country where rural Americana finds solace.
Like something from a DANNY ELFMAN score (think “Forbidden Zone”), the movie soundtrack opens its musical account with the Terry Allen-sung, `Cocktail Desperado’, a novelty tune like several of the subsequent dirges. There are glimpses of TALKING HEADS, but this is solo BYRNE’s brainchild, and definitely no “Catherine Wheel”. The Nu Yoik musician (once saviour of the new wave scene) gets his maracas out (so to speak) on `Freeway Son’, the first of many meetings between hand-held instrument, Hawaiian guitar and orchestra. Bypassing a few lounge instrumentals, DB takes us Bontempi-rary-style into the world of `Mall Muzak’ (a medley). His choice of various artists for the film and soundtrack is either genius or downright mystifying; Meredith Monk and the pre-ELVIS COSTELLO Kronos Quartet were among the backers. If it wasn’t for his `Glass Operator’ finale, complete with symphony, straining violins and a brief peak of climactic crescendo, this would’ve been one of the most self-indulgent albums ever.
The erstwhile frontman continued to develop his solo career through the medium of film and theatre, collaborating with RYUICHI SAKAMOTO and Cong Su on the Oscar-winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic, The Last Emperor. Inevitably, his love of world music, and Latin and Afro-Portuguese music in particular, manifested itself in docu-film via a compelling study of Brazilian Candomble, Ile Aiye (1989), itself a great companion piece to that country’s V/A compilations on his newly formed Luaka Bop imprint. The musical chameleon had now an outlet for both his own solo releases (beginning with 1989’s REI MOMO {*7}) and musical exotica from around the globe. Augmented by the likes of John Pacheco, Willie Colon and ARTO LINDSAY, David’s oddball vision was awakened on such worldbeat ditties as `Make Believe Mambo’, `Independence Day’ and `Marching Through The Wilderness’.
While a score for French documentary, Magicians Of The Earth (1990) also tied in with his ethnic affinities, BYRNE’s reputation (and one he modestly tries to play down) as a genuine renaissance man, was further strengthened in 1991 with the belated release of a neo-classical/avant-garde score for another Robert Wilson theatre piece, THE FOREST {*4}.
With TALKING HEADS rested for good, the creative singer duly delivered the more conventionally song-orientated UH-OH (1992) {*6}. Top 30 in Britain, the rhythmatist’s newfound pop potential extended his love of world music, although slightly tempered to suit the pop-rock market; `Girls On My Mind’, `Hanging Upside Down’ and `She’s Mad’, examples of singles too eclectic to chart.
A brief return to his musical roots and the UK Top 50 by way of 1994’s eponymous DAVID BYRNE {*4} kept his profile high, if indeed nowhere near the top of the musical pyramid anymore. Dark and denser than its predecessor, David gets in LOU REED mode for a couple of songs here; `A Self-Made Man’ and the rather “Once In A Lifetime” Mk.II was found on the `Angels’ track. Yet more arty side-projects including a book of his own, highly-acclaimed photography, window-dressed the man’s slightly descending career.
Three years later, the man who once donned the baggiest suit in avant-pop music, released FEELINGS (1997) {*5}, an ambitious album that was pretty much meat ’n’ two veg for the contemporary/worldbeat-inflected artist. A few collaborations with DEVO and Brit trip-hop group MORCHEEBA, injected some panache into the mix, but with the exception of `Miss America’, `Fuzzy Freaky’ and `Dance On Vaseline’, this set was rather average.
Following on from a soundscape soundtrack work for director Wim Vandekeybus, IN SPITE OF WISHING AND WANTING (1999) {*4}, and four years in the making, subsequent effort LOOK INTO THE EYEBALL (2001) {*6} was a collaboration with legendary “Philly” soul producer Thom Bell; the man’s string and horn arrangements helped the album glide into a genre of its own. BYRNE’s vocals were still staccato and as sharp as a tack (`The Great Intoxication’, a prime example), but the Latin rhythms, chilled-out trip-hop beats and floating orchestral accompaniment were the strangest and least obvious backing tracks for his paranoid, edgy larynx.
BYRNE surprised even more of his fanbase when he featured on dance-meisters X-Press 2’s near chart-topping, translucent, underground dance anthem `Lazy’. Very lazy indeed, the song soon wormed its way into the minds of the listener who couldn’t resist the “I’m wicked and I’m lazzzzy” chorus hook. If the dance song `Going Back To My Roots’ (by ODYSSEY, incidentally) was ever more poignant, David returned to his hometown of Dumbarton in August 2002, this time to write a score for the film version of Alex Trocchi’s Young Adam.
Released by Thrill Jockey Records as LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION (2003) {*8}, Arguably BYRNE’s best solo work up to now, perhaps it’s because he was feeling the pull of his Scottish roots (this was recorded at Glasgow’s CaVa studios), or because the spicy yang of his more Latin-tinged work was beginning to smother his artistic yin, but this is at once the darkest and most compelling music the man has composed since leaving the mighty TALKING HEADS. It might also have something to do with the fact that various members of some of Scotland’s finest bands – BELLE AND SEBASTIAN, MOGWAI and The DELGADOS were backing him up. Track 7 in the scheme of things, `Sex On The Docks’, literally wrings the pathos from its melody, carrying its wounded piano thread onto the next cue. The lanky musical polymath even sings, or at least contributes a woozy, barely comprehensible vocal on the appropriately-titled `Speechless’, and also handles lead vocals on the closing `Great Western Road’, presumably named after Glasgow’s famous thoroughfare.
For GROWN BACKWARDS (2004), BYRNE revealed a different writing process, conceiving the lyrics first and developing the songs around them, fleshing them out with accompaniment from Texas-based chamber ensemble the Tosca Strings. As ever, the results were intriguing, often mystifying and occasionally brilliant. Gorgeous opener `Glass, Concrete And Stone’ had previously aired on the soundtrack to Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, a plinking ethnic-orchestral hymnal which almost won its composer an Oscar. Alongside a few backwards nods to TALKING HEADS – the wry automatonata of `Tiny Apocalypse’ – BYRNE even ventured a rare, tastefully selected cover in LAMBCHOP’s `The Man Who Loved Beer’ and another in Bizet’s operatic `Au Fond Du Temple Saint’ (from The Pearl Fishers).
2008 saw simultaneous releases on his own Todomundo imprint, BIG LOVE: HYMNAL {*5}, a soundtrack of music written for the HBO series plus other recent compositions, and a long-awaited BYRNE/ENO combination, EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS WILL HAPPEN TODAY {*7}. Unlike their “Bush Of Ghosts” experience of 27 years past, alt-pop-rock convention supersedes the splices and sample-delic; sophisticated song structures coming no better than `Home’, `My Big Nurse’, `The River’ and `The Lighthouse’.
Piecing together a concept double-disc piece based on the lives of the former First Lady of the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and her nanny Estrella Cumpas, collaborator FATBOY SLIM (or Norman Cook to his friends), find grace and drama in HERE LIES LOVE (2010) {*7}. Featuring a raft of female chanters including Ms. Welch (of FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE), TORI AMOS, CYNDI LAUPER, Kate Pierson (of The B-52’s), NATALIE MERCHANT, MARTHA WAINWRIGHT, Roisin Murphy, Nellie McKay, Charmaine Clamor, Sharon Jones, Theresa Andersson, Allison Moorer, Alice Russell, Nicole Atkins, Shara Worden, Sia, Candie Payne, ST. VINCENT, Camille and Santi White (of SANTIGOLD), the set bubbles with anthemic dance tunes throughout; alt-country star STEVE EARLE then seemed a bit misplaced on the track, `A Perfect Hand’.
LOVE THIS GIANT (2012) {*6} continued on BYRNE’s quest to find the right combination, ST. VINCENT (aka Annie Clark) his foil this time around. A little more experimental, arty and wide-ranging, the record produced a handful of powerful tunes in `Lazarus’, `Ice Age’, `Who’, `Optimist’ and the brassy `Dinner For Two’.
The silver-haired BYRNE star was on the rise again on 2018’s curveball Top 3 set, AMERICAN UTOPIA {*8}; his best chart showing since his TALKING HEADS halcyon days. An ironic or cynical view of today’s chaotic and complex times as viewed through the doe eyes of animals (e.g. `Dog’s Mind’ and `Every Day Is A Miracle’), several BYRNE/ENO pieces would probably go over the heads of a certain party. As if to add method to his madness, it was all said to be the first of a trilogy entitled, “Reasons To Be Cheerful”; and David could thank the late IAN DURY for that optimistic sentiment. Overall, the puzzling product deserved to be heard several times, especially via above average songs, `Everybody’s Coming To My House’, `Doing The Right Thing’ and `Gasoline And Dirty Sheets’.
Sardonic and semi-detached as it might sound on paper, the original cast recording of BYRNE’s AMERICAN UTOPIA ON BROADWAY (2019) {*8} – double-CD – was an all-encompassing celebration of the man’s career up to now; from his halcyon days as kingpin of TALKING HEADS a la `Slippery People’, `Once In A Lifetime’, `I Zimbra’, `Burning Down The House’, `Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’, `Don’t Worry About The Government’, `Road To Nowhere’ etc. etc. The only problem was that these seminal classics somewhat overshadowed – or even trumped – his more recent mischievous acquisitions.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-MCS/BG-LCS // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Nov2019

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