David Byrne is a once-in-a-lifetime creative mind. Born in Scotland and raised in Ontario, Canada and, later, in Maryland, Byrne began to show signs of musical aptitude at a young age. By the time he reached high school, he was already well-versed in several instruments, including the guitar, the harmonica, the violin, and the accordion.
During a brief stint at the Rhode Island School of Design, Byrne linked up with fellow student Chris Frantz to form a band called the Artistics. He and Frantz later moved to New York City and recruited Tina Weymouth to learn to play bass guitar, giving her lessons and coaching her up until they were ready to debut their new band: Talking Heads.
From the time they signed with SIRE records in 1966 (and added multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison in 1977) to the time they went began the hiatus that would lead to their official breakup in 1988, Talking Heads became an idiosyncratic force in the music world. With Byrne as the auteur, Talking Heads pioneered a “new wave” of music with their eclectic blend of artistic styles and their avant-garde, anti-establishment yet whimsically unassuming image. Talking Heads released eight albums during their tenure and, true to their fine art roots, frequently put great weight on the visual elements of their releases.
The band’s multi-sensory attention to detail frequently bootstrapped their success. While their fourth album, Remain In Light (1980), initially failed to chart in the U.S., the song eventually gained commercial traction and became a veritable classic on the back of its widely acclaimed music video.
Talking Heads – “Once In A Lifetime” [Music Video]
[Video: David Byrne]
Byrne always placed the same premium on aesthetics to the band’s live shows. He was known to add increasingly more members to the band’s touring lineup to bolster their sound, including Adrian Belew, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell, and a variety of other talented players. Byrne’s own role in the band’s live shows was fluid, playing various instruments, singing lead, dancing, and generally serving as the ringleader of the high-concept musical circus.
The most well-known, if not the best example of Talking Heads’ live brilliance is Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-directed 1984 concert film captured over three nights at the Hollywood Palladium in 1983, as the band was on tour to support Speaking In Tongues. The movie has become a cult classic, with many critics hailing it as one of the greatest concert films ever made.
Stop Making Sense – Trailer
Ever the restless creative mind, Byrne eventually left Talking Heads to explore his other various artistic predilections as a solo artist. He went on to dabble in a wide array of genres, including the Afro-Cuban/Afro-Hispanic styles (on Rei Momo, 1989), the addition of a brass section on Uh-Oh (1992), the expansion of that idea into a full collaboration with the Black Cat Orchestra on Feelings (1997), and beyond. While still with Talking Heads, he collaborated with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, one of the earliest albums to gain acclaim for its use of analog sampling.
While his output of solo records has decreased somewhat, Byrne has still had his hand on a number of notable projects in recent years. In the last decade, Byrne has released a new collaborative album with Eno, an additional collaborative LP with hip American singer-songwriter-guitarist St. Vincent, and created a stage musical that portrays Joan of Arc as a rock star.
In late 2017, however, Byrne burst back into the spotlight with the announcement of American Utopia, his first solo LP in 14 years, and a massive tour—his first in nearly a decade—to go along with it, described by Byrne as “the most ambitious show [he’s] done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense.”
Whatever he decides to do next, the fact of the matter remains: David Byrne is one of the most brilliant performers out there today… Same as it ever was.
David Byrne Performs American Utopia‘s “Everybody’s Coming To My House” on The Late Show – 3/9/18
[Video: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert]
Happy birthday, David Byrne! Here’s to many more!
[Originally published 5/14/18]