On the surface, Talking Heads emerged from the CBGB scene as some new artistic punks. Every now and then music needs somebody to come along, grab it by the lapels and rattle it about like a pinball in-play during an earthquake. Talking Heads didn’t quite do this entirely. David Byrne and the band more sort of moseyed up to the music industry, introduced themselves as an intergalactic presence, walked it hand-in-hand to the dancefloor and showed it how to make Flippy Floppy. As bassist Tina Weymouth once said, “When Talking Heads started, we called ourselves Thinking Man’s Dance Music.”
This unique approach to the craft made the band one of the most original acts of all time, but their music shows the true worth of ‘originality’ as an adjective. It should be a token used to describe your work as opposed to something to strive for while making it, this notion is where imitators have gone wrong and the band themselves triumphed unquestionably. Behind the singular sound that the group crafted is a simple need for exultation that we can all celebrate in.
Thus, beneath the CBGB surface label of punk, the truth is that David Byrne and his cohorts were very much in a league of their own in more ways than one. Therefore, albeit The Rolling Stones and Byrne may come from the same world of guitar rock on paper, the truth is they form as jarring a mix as Skittles amid M&M’s. If The Rolling Stones back catalogue is a monochrome mass of blues and rock, then Byrne’s is a kaleidoscope of dada, Afrobeat and every other madness that his muse has latched onto. Somehow, this doesn’t stop his cover of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at Montreal in 1992 from being astounding.
“I covered Sympathy For The Devil on a tour I did in ’92 with a large Latin funk band,” he once explained. “It was a late addition to the setlist. This mix sounds like a board mix or maybe a monitor mix. Why did we do this? Because we could! We had a band line-up that could rock this tune… so why not? We did it as an encore number, which is where these oddball unexpected covers sometimes land.”
He added: “The lyrics – I had to research the real lyrics – are sometimes absolutely brilliant, sometimes silly – the Stones playing at being bad boys – and sometimes completely nonsensical. I covered Keith’s guitar solo as best I could. You can hear the audience doing the ‘woo woohs’ in the 1st verse!”
Therein, Byrne even reveals that he has clearly been influenced by the Micky Mouse franchise throughout his entire career as he slips into a rendition, explaining: “You’ll notice I go into a ‘funny’ voice about two-thirds through for certain lines. I was trying to sing like Goofy, the Disney character. Why? Well, there actually was a reason, though maybe not one good enough to justify how weird this sounds.”
He continues to explain: “I have long believed that the devil, should one exist, would not be some scary guy, but someone who sweetly perverts our better natures by more surreptitious means… and for me, Disney is the perfect example of that, with maybe the Olsen Twins as his consorts. So, following that logic, Goofy – the ‘harmless’ clown minion – would be the perfect one to suggest we have some sympathy for the devil.”
Based on the masterful novel, The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, the track is a rock ‘n’ roll classic. Even when it is bashed through a filter of Disney and Byrne’s fevered imagination the riff shines through as Byrne adds an artistic devilish splurge onto the canvas that is entirely his own. Like many of the greatest covers of all time, Byrne’s rendition adheres to the old Stevie Smith quote: “A great artist takes what he did not make and makes of it something that only he can make.”