As singer and principal songwriter for the Talking Heads, Byrne was an influential figure in the postpunk new wave movement of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. His prodigious talent as a musical and visual artist made him an exciting and memorable front man.
Born: May 14, 1952; Dumbarton, Scotland
Although born in Scotland, David Byrne (burn) grew up in North America. He spent most of his childhood in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, and Baltimore, Maryland, and their innocuous middleclass landscapes later played a role in many of his songs. He was the son of a respected scientist, whose work brought the family across the Atlantic while Byrne was a toddler. However, Byrne’s keen aesthetic sensibilities took him in a career direction quite different from his father’s. After high school, Byrne was accepted at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1970. He stayed at RISD for only a year, dismissing art schools as overpriced and unnecessary. While in art school, he met drummer Chris Franz and bassist Tina Weymouth, and their musical collaboration resulted in the formation of the Talking Heads, one of new wave’s most vital and influential bands.
After playing sporadically in Boston and New York, in 1975 the Talking Heads added guitarist-keyboardist Jerry Harrison (formerly of Jonathan Richman’s band the Modern Lovers) and landed regular gigs at Hilly Kristal’s music club CBGB. Because it was one of the few clubs at the time to feature such cutting-edge bands as the Ramones, Television, Blondie, and the Talking Heads, this small but important Manhattan venue came to be recognized as the birthplace of the fledgling punk, new wave scene of the mid- to late 1970’s. By 1979 Byrne and the Talking Heads were the undisputed darlings of the new wave scene, having chalked up two popular albums and an appearance as musical guests on NBC television’s Saturday Night Live. As lead singer and principal lyricist, Byrne garnered considerable attention. His intense, frenetic stage persona made him a charismatic, exciting performer, and his astute but accessible lyrics delighted both mainstream fans and avant-garde purists.
The Talking Heads’ Remain in Light made several critics’ Top 10 lists for 1980, and the album was widely heralded as a groundbreaking fusion of pop, disco, funk, and experimental music. Having penned most of the album’s tracks, Byrne rapidly earned the attention of the worldwide rock press. Offers for Byrne to participate in a number of projects poured in. By the early 1990’s Byrne had toured the world as a rock performer, scored films and ballets, appeared in hit music videos and a full-length concert film, shown his paintings and mixed-media installations in gallery exhibitions, and published books. In 1991 the Talking Heads officially broke up. Even though the band’s working relationship had been dysfunctional since the release of Naked in 1988, greater interest in side and solo projects on the part of Byrne and the other band members compelled them to go their separate ways. Byrne was an ambitious and prolific artist,working in a staggering variety of genres. Beginning in 1981 he released several solo albums and collaborated on recordings with other musicians.Heestablished a record label, Luaka Bop, in the early 1990’s, focusing primarily on African and other worldmusic performers. He displayed numerous works, from drawings and paintings to photographs and furnishings, in prestigious art galleries. In the late 1990’s he hosted the public television show Sessions at West 54th and later appeared in other television series, including The Simpsons and Inside the Actors Studio.
The Music Byrne worked in several musical styles, running the gamut from the Talking Heads’ jaunty early minimalism to the group’s later lush, radiofriendly productions. As a solo artist, Byrne released projects that include experimental, Africaninfluenced, and acoustic works. An open mind and a penchant for eclecticism typified his music, and his lyrics were characterized by plain phrasing and wide-eyed optimism. Talking Heads: 77. Falling somewhere between punk and new wave, the Talking Heads’ debut album features a fresh combination of stark instrumentation and quirky lyrics. The popular single “Psycho Killer” combines a brooding, infectious bass line with ponderous lyrics written from a serial murderer’s point of view. Byrne delivers the song’s vocal in a terse, nervy staccato that punctuates the song’s message. In thematic terms, however, “Psycho Killer” is atypical of the album, which features several songs–particularly “Love Comes to Town” and “Don’t Worry About the Government”– with brazenly enthusiastic, sometimes even kitschy lyrics. Byrne’s distinctive vocal style, simultaneously shrill and sincere, gives these tracks the irony-laden, painfully self-conscious flavor that defines new wave.
Remain in Light. By 1980 the Talking Heads had abandoned the minimalism of its early albums for a more complex sound. Remain in Light is generally regarded as their artistic breakthrough, awork that masterfully combines African rhythms and dense, emotive musical landscapes with some of Byrne’s most perceptive lyrics. The album features “Once in a Lifetime,” which spawned a video that made the Talking Heads one of MTV’s earliest stars. “Life During Wartime” and “This Must Be the Place,” also thematic centerpieces of the album, show Byrne’s depth as a lyricist and remain among the band’s most respected recordings. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. In 1980 avantgarde musician Brian Eno produced Remain in Light, and that collaboration between Eno and Byrne spawned 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Acclaimed for its distinctive sound, at turns dreamy and ominous and always unpredictable, the work is perhaps best known for its use of samples–digitally manipulated and reinterpreted fragments of other recordings–as a central part of its sound.
The Catherine Wheel. In the early 1980’s Byrne expanded his musical scope to include scores, his first being for modernist choreographer Twyla produced, and performed the music for the ballet, which is considered one of the most important works of contemporary American dance. Little Creatures. Little Creatures was markedly devoid of the dense, sample-laden funk soundscapes that had characterized the Talking Heads’ previous albums. The clean, stripped-down songs– especially the Talking Heads’ classics “Road to Nowhere” and “Stay Up Late”–brought Byrne’s refreshingly innocent, joyous lyrics to the forefront in a way that had not been heard since the band’s debut. Naked. Although a critical and commercial success, Naked was the Talking Heads’ last album.During the album’s production, the band was rife with internal struggles, but the result was a remarkably cohesive album, in both sound and theme. Several songs, particularly Byrne’s, lament the alienation caused by modern mechanization. Tracks such as “Blind” and “(Nothing but) Flowers” point out the intellectual and spiritual sterility to which unbridled technological development has given birth.
Author Bret Easton Ellis used lyrics from “(Nothing but) Flowers” as the epigraph for his nihilistic novel American Psycho (1990). Grown Backwards. Byrne’s 2004 solo effort, released by the folk-jazz label Nonesuch Records, signaled another musical departure. Grown Backwards includes the heavy use of orchestral string arrangements as well as two operatic arias. Following the release of the album, Byrne toured North America and Australia with the renowned Tosca Strings, performing selections from the release. Musical Legacy One of the most recognizable faces from MTV, Byrne was also familiar to those who attend art galleries and theaters. For his contributions to the development of punk and new wave music, Byrne’s status in musical history was secure. However, his contributions to the visual and theatrical arts distinguished Byrne as one of the most dynamic figures in contemporary popular culture. His many prestigious accolades included Grammy Awards for his recordings with the Talking Heads and a score of gold and platinum albums commemorating his commercial triumphs. Talking Heads was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.