Icons / March 2017

Stop Making Sense: David Byrne

One of American music’s great chameleons, the former Talking Head is a multi-instrumentalist known for his distinctive voice and surrealist fashion sense.

David Byrne at Meltdown Festival, London, 2015. Photo by Victor Frankowski/REX/Shutterstock.

David Byrne, whose new documentary Contemporary Colour comes out in the US this week, is a professor of worldly innocence, the ringmaster of music as democratic circus, a magpie feathered like a cockatoo. A rare winner of an Oscar, a Grammy and a Golden Globe, the Scottish-born singer is a multi-instrumentalist known for his yearningly high voice, surrealist fashion sense, tufty white hair and forays into film, photography, opera, architecture, fiction and non-fiction. As influential as he is influenced, his band Talking Heads have inspired the likes of REM, Vampire Weekend and Radiohead, who named themselves after one of their songs.

A gauche student who poured his shyness into pop, he formed Talking Heads in 1975 with two friends from his Rhode Island art school. Against the glam excess of T-Rex and Queen, Byrne felt the most subversive look for a new band was total normality, so he bought a $50 office suit to perform in. Their post-punk art-pop imagery would expand over their eight studio albums and Byrne, like Morrissey, had a particularly good ear for song titles. Their debut Talking Heads 77 harmonised bookish introspection (‘Tentative Decisions’) with mordant scandal (‘Psycho Killer’). Sophomore album More Songs About Buildings and Food covered Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’, smooth soul dressed in jerky postmodern businesswear.

From here, the band sounded fuller and more porous. Fear of Music compressed philosophical sketches into Warholian one-word titles (‘Paper’, ‘Cities’, ‘Air’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Drugs’). They dabbled in funky futurism (‘Houses In Motion’), electro melancholy (‘This Must Be The Place’), retro pop (‘And She Was’, the sunnily apocalyptic (‘Road To Nowhere’) and domestic surrealism (‘Mommy Daddy You and I’) before they broke up in 1991.

The split was an opportunity for Byrne to broaden his horizons even further, most fruitfully with Brian Eno, the ambient pioneer behind Roxy Music and David Bowie. Their two albums together, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, are Byrne’s finest work outside Talking Heads, gorgeous hybrids of Byrne’s jangling rhythms, Eno’s Kraftwerkian minimalism and combined dreamlike lyrics. Like Eno, Byrne is a prolific solo artist, promiscuous collaborator (flings include Arcade Fire, Paul Simon and St Vincent), world music self-infuser (merengue, son cubano, samba, mambo, country, African popular music) and producer in his own right (his own label Luaka Bop champions genres from Brazilian pop to Japanese folk).