By Sean-Paul Boynton
In the midst of a New Wave-reviving musical climate, where everyone from Franz Ferdinand to Ashlee Simpson are mining the days when sonic exploration and world music informed the pop landscape, David Byrne is making the rounds to show us all how it’s done.
While the former Talking Head’s newest album, a collaboration with Brian Eno called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, may seem to sound nothing like current popular music (both men describe the tunes as “electronic gospel”), his latest tour is set to silence those who may say he’s lost the touch. Bearing the title “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno,” the set veers from the new record to songs from three classic Talking Heads albums that Eno produced, as well as the 1981 collaborative album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. In short, the tour encompasses a creative partnership that spans 30 years – albeit with a 25-year gap between projects – and one of the most prolific bodies of work in 20th century music.
Eno first met Byrne backstage after Talking Heads’ first London headlining show in May 1977. The band had been formed in 1975 after Byrne – born in Dumbarton, Scotland and raised in Maryland – met bassist Tina Weymouth and her fiancé, drummer Chris Frantz, at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Byrne dipped his toes in all things avant-garde, including performance art (one piece consisted of shaving off half his beard to accordion music while a showgirl held up Russian cue cards). The group, now a quartet with former Modern Lovers keyboardist Jerry Harrison, became part of the initial wave of artists that emerged from CBGB’s to form New York’s punk scene, including the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television and Blondie. While they certainly weren’t punk in the traditional sense, their bare-bones, lo-fi music fit right in with the sounds coming out of the Bowery.
By the time Eno came around, their debut album, Talking Heads: 77 had been released to strong reviews, with the single “Psycho Killer” slowly crawling up the pop charts. Eno, who four years earlier had been booted from his “synthesizers and tapes” post in Roxy Music, had just finished working with David Bowie on his album Low, and became fascinated with Talking Heads’ skeletal funk rock. Byrne and Eno struck up an immediate camaraderie after further meetings.
“We became friends,” Byrne told David Sheppard in the Eno biography On Some Faraway Beach, “which was more important to us than whether or not Brian had a good musical track record…. We didn’t talk much about music, in fact.”
Eno was employed in March 1978 to produce Talking Heads’ sophomore album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, which spawned the band’s first Top 40 hit, a cover of Al Green’s soul classic “Take Me To the River.” The band’s third album, 1979’s Fear of Music, wasn’t originally meant to have an outside producer involved, but after initial sessions proved unsatisfactory, Eno was asked to add his touch to the recordings.
By this time, Eno was becoming increasingly interested in the idea of “found vocals” – borrowing sounds and phrases from other sources and manipulating them to his own musical means. Byrne became interested in the idea as well, and the two started collecting recordings of Islamic singers, evangelical priests, and talk-radio hosts, even taping live broadcasts from the radio. The pair developed musical backdrops that drew extensively from African funk and world beat music, over which they would sample, manipulate, distort and painstakingly sequence their “found vocals.” The resulting album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, wouldn’t appear until 1981 (legal troubles over some of the vocal tracks delayed the release), but proved infinitely influential to the developing sampling and hip-hop cultures, equally paving the way for the Chemical Brothers and Public Enemy producers Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad.
Byrne’s time spent with Eno on Bush of Ghosts certainly laid the groundwork for Talking Heads’ next album, which also explored a more worldly musical direction. Once again, Eno wasn’t initially involved, but was asked to lend a hand towards organizing and focusing the band’s extended jams. By this time, Eno was being thought of in the press as “the fifth Head,” and tensions were high within the group: Weymouth and Frantz often found themselves squaring off with Byrne and Eno, while Harrison remained the unwilling moderator. Things reached a boiling point when initial pressings of Remain in Light contained the legend, “All songs by Byrne, Eno, Talking Heads.” While Eno felt the credit was due, he agreed to sever ties with the group, although he and Byrne kept in touch over the ensuing years.
Remain in Light was greeted as the band’s masterpiece in 1980 (and is still revered as much today), but Byrne and Talking Heads arguably had their greatest success after Eno’s exit. 1983’s Speaking in Tongues became the highest-charting album of their career, and the single “Burning Down the House” entered the Top 10 and remains the band’s most well known song. Jonathan Demme captured the supporting tour for the classic film Stop Making Sense in 1984. Three more albums were released during the 1980s, until Talking Heads disbanded in 1991.
To condense Byrne’s post-Heads career into a paragraph is nearly impossible. He has released dozens of musical works, whether they are “official” solo albums or scores for theatre, film and television. He has given lectures in arts schools around the world and has created visual art that, like his best musical work, transforms the mundane into the sublime, like his themed bike racks on the streets of New York City or turning a building into a musical instrument for his Playing the Building installation in Manhattan.
All of Byrne’s work up till now has been about looking forward, which is why a tour that checks the rearview mirror will come as a welcome surprise. Accept no substitutes. New Wave is officially back, and it comes in the form of a seasoned professional.