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The unbreakable friendship of David Bowie and David Byrne

If David Bowie ever shared a commonality of intergalactic citizenship with another alien, it would most likely be David Byrne. “When did rock ‘n’ roll become self-referential?” Byrne bemused to the assembled crowd present at the 1996 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for which Byrne was invited by an old friend and personal hero of his.

Of course, this is none other than Bowie, who asked his starstruck friend, Byrne, to introduce the Starman onto the stage to be inducted into the hall of fame. It seems fitting that the former Talking Heads man would comment on rock music being self-referential; the two men were artists who never put too much of their ego or their identity into the music. They share chameleonic traits, within their music and other artistic pursuits. For them, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t about telling the world that they play rock and roll, as others had rendered it. Music was simply another art form, among many, for the consummate artists to express their innate creativity.

When pondering why Bowie asked Byrne to do this, one has to look no further than what the footage of the event, reveals; Byrne describes the chameleonic innovator as many things: “He was a shrink, a priest, a sex object, and a prophet of doom,” it’s the exact kind of rhetoric that not only enlivened Bowie as an artist but titillated him as a fan.

Before Byrne moved to New York City and fully grew into the enigmatic songwriter and artist he is today, the Talking Heads singer had a strange but impressionable encounter with Bowie. Upon his first visit to the city, the experience was not only uncomfortable, but it would also prove to be a rather conspicuous one too.

In an interview Byrne conducted with Pitchfork, David recalls his first encounter with Bowie: “We’d heard about the Warhol scene at Max’s Kansas City, and so my friend and I went in there – with the full beard and everything – curious to see where the cool people were,” Byrne recalled. “We were so out of place, and I remember David Bowie came in dressed in his full glam outfit, with the orange hair, the spacesuit, everything. And I just thought, ‘We don’t fit in here. We better go.”

During his 20s, Byrne moved to New York City from Rhode Island where he had just graduated from university; his future bandmates would soon follow suit. It was during this time that he had immersed himself in Bowie’s famed Berlin Trilogy, specifically the album, Low. This marked a very significant time for The Talking Heads singer for a few different reasons. This album influenced him to write some of his early work for the band’s first eponymous album, “I wrote a couple of songs that stuck during that period, including ‘Psycho Killer’.”

Talking Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz recalls this period of time in his article for The New York Post; even from a distance, Bowie had a looming presence over the young New Wave band: “We moved to New York City in 1974, and I urged David Byrne and Tina to start a band with me. We wanted to have a band that spoke to people the way David Bowie and his band had spoken to us, with a soulful intelligence and artistic integrity.”

Throughout the years, it seemed as if there was some otherworldly thread drawing Byrne closer to Bowie. The timing was ripe for a band like Talking Heads to appear at CBGBs; the seminal albums Bowie did with Eno during the new wave era, paved the way for Talking Heads too. Perhaps Byrne grew closer to himself through these albums — Bowie knew how to connect with people through his music, especially with kindred spirits. It is no surprise that they both found another kindred spirit within Brian Eno.

A deeper connection lies between the three pioneering artists. They have never been afraid to explore and break the boundaries between different art mediums. Bowie incorporated theatre into his music and developed characters. Byrne combined stark genres of music, such as experimental African polyrhythms with punk, presented through live performance art. Meanwhile, Brian Eno, the father of ambient music, created sound textures that could trick the senses to cross wires; his Music for Installation prompts the listener to visualise an art gallery within their mind’s eye.

Eno would go on to produce three of Talking Heads’ albums, including the critically acclaimed Remain in Light. Incidentally, Brian Eno introduced David Byrne to the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who helped create the spark for the seminal album.

It is worth mentioning that Byrne, in turn, had an influence on Bowie as well. Allegedly, when recording the track ‘DJ’ taken from his Lodger album — the final piece of the Berlin trilogy — Bowie channelled the Talking Heads singer, successfully emulating Byrne’s artistic and sophisticated croon.

“If you were selling enough records then you get to make another one and if that one sold a little bit more, then you got to make another one. You just kept going.” David Byrne explained in a televised conversation with music journalist and neo-soul drummer, Quest Love. In this conversation, Byrne was asked what the political situation was like between Talking Heads and the label executives, and how to maintain creative integrity in the face of increasing upper-management control. 

In those days, as it so happens, The Talking Heads maintained much of their creative control, as long as record sales were doing OK. In fact, the singer asserted that to change and to break new creative grounds, even in the face of financial uncertainty, was imperative, “And I assumed that that’s what you were supposed to do.”

Byrne continues, “To keep yourself and your audience interested, you’re supposed to change a little bit from to time.” This is the underlying philosophy that both David Bowie and David Byrne have maintained throughout their life’s careers ultimately garnered mutual respect for one another. Despite them never officially collaborating on a project, they kept watchful eyes on the other’s work — fearlessly but lovingly influencing each other and communicating through the soundwaves of the strange and unfamiliar.

Watch the footage of David Byrne inducting his friend, David Bowie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, below.

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