The year is 1975 and David Byrne is holed up in art school on Rhode Island feverishly cogitating how to shrink his own head. He would soon crack the case, stating: “I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger.” It is wild creative endeavours like this one that have made David Byrne and Talking Heads precious additions to our dismal daily lives. Like hot sauce onto old leftovers, he reimagined sterile and stilted rock ‘n’ roll in a manner akin to a benevolent Dr Frankenstein, or whoever it is turning Neighbours actors in global superstars on a whim.
However, the trait that truly makes him one of our greatest living artists, is how firmly his finger is pressed to the pulse of society. His art school ethos – inspired by the Dadaist movement that boomed out of the First World War – of holding an allegorical mirror to the ways of civilisation is a transfiguring feature of his work. In a 1979 interview with NME, this patently apparent artistic foresight became spookily prescient as he seemingly predicted the future with one of the most exacting retrospective quotes you are ever likely to see:
“There will be chronic food shortages and gas shortages and people will live in hovels. Paradoxically, they’ll be surrounded by computers the size of wrist watches. Calculators will be cheap. It’ll be as easy to hook up your computer with a central television bank as it is to get the week’s groceries. I think we’ll be cushioned by amazing technological development and sitting on Salvation Army furniture. Everything else will be crumbling. Government surveillance becomes inevitable because there’s this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage. A lot of it is for your convenience – but as more information gets on file it’s bound to be misused.”David Byrne (NME, 1979)
Thus, with cold sweat settling on the forehead like due, and wild thoughts of whether Byrne is, in fact, the rather more literal otherworldly creative force we always suspected him to be, we dive into the song that spawned the quote, and how he is guiding us away from cloudy dystopia to sunnier climes in his latest live show boon…
When Talking Heads emerged from the fertile creative stage of the CBGB and blossomed into the sort of band that Jeff Bridges would describe as, “like a splash of cold water,” bassist Tina Weymouth laid out the following mantra for the group: “We call ourselves Thinking Man’s Dance Music.” They were a pariah band of creative outlaws and in their long-chequered history of gross assaults against banality, they still never lost their ‘thinking man’ edge. The song ‘Life During Wartime’ from their 1979 masterpiece Fear of Music is testimony to this.
There is no band in the world who could take on the terrorist ideology of West Berlin’s left-wing Bolshevistic Baader-Meinhof group, transpose the political assessment onto a disco-beat, and not lose the visceral edge of either element. Far from being a careless satire that misplaces the serious nature of the destructive group in a carefree song, the band approaches the subject judiciously and houses Byrne’s savvy observations in a rightfully jarring jazzy abode.
The track is as fast and furious as ever with Funkadelic rhythms finding an unexpected soulmate in the snarling seething passions of the New York art-punk scene. There is also a darkness on display here that illuminates the band’s ability to journey into all quarters that their wandering imaginations lead.
The reason the song sits so perfectly with Byrne’s fool’s paradise view of the future, however, is in the juxtaposition that it crafts. He sings “This ain’t no disco!” but the music itself assures you that it is. Throughout the song no matter how hard he tries to yell about the darkened slide of the world to some sort of dilapidated dystopia, the bright boon of music itself illuminates the gloom and the lead singers’ words ultimately land in vain.
While on the one hand, this happy go lucky cry of desperation against a bleak future is a metaphor for how the cushioning blow of apparent progress and cheap exultation allows us to wonder in a somnambulant slumber towards despair and depravity, there is a second factor at play. Byrne looks into the future, but he also guardedly puts the present situation of the Baader-Meinhof group at the centre to warn that whilst casual and sheltered acquiescence of a doomed fate is to be avoided, extremism against it is just as bad.
If you apply the tenets of the song to the future-predicting statement, Byrne’s glass-ball mind becomes even more impressive. Britain currently faces food and petrol shortages as we speak which adds a chilling prescience to the quote at present, but the last line is perhaps even more noteworthy. “Government surveillance becomes inevitable because there’s this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage. A lot of it is for your convenience – but as more information gets on file it’s bound to be misused.”
Currently, as you read this article, your data is being used and probably misused. For the most part, as Byrne rightfully predicted, this is for your own convenience. For instance, if you decide to go for your first head-clearing jog in a few months after reading this, and you take your phone along with you, the step counter that all smartphones are fitted with will probably recognise that you’re running. Thus, when you return home, have a shower and settle down for some evening relaxation on YouTube, you may well find adverts selling you running shoes owing to the wonders of data.
This, in of itself, is harmless. In fact, it’s probably for the best. After all, maybe you need some new running shoes, and these ones can prevent you from incurring an injury due to the battered soles on your old stinking shitflickers. Equally, this data is also open to misuse, and this is where the message of ‘Life During Wartime’ goes from a fascinating titbit to a portent well worth a lot of consideration.
As the song rightfully says, we shouldn’t go dancing blindly into the future like the world is one big disco, but it isn’t something to cynically attack and guard against either; the salve of music and the satirical condemnation of divisive West Berlin movements make sure of that. In this increasingly conspiratorial age, Byrne warns against paranoia and mindless individualistic revolt. Instead, he calls for considered collective governance and constant assessment of the state of affairs.
This same exulted viewpoint is at the forefront of his exceptional American Utopia, the live show that came almost exactly 40 years after his initial quote, in an era where computers on wristwatches were a reality. The tagline for the show is: “What if we could eliminate everything from the stage, except the stuff we care about the most… us and you… and that’s what the show is.” With this message of simplified collectivism, he tackles the world head-on, but in typical Byrnian fashion, he accomplishes an uncompromised view of America without ever succumbing to cynicism and celebrating the simple joy of life and unity and the potential that creates for positive and meaningful change.
In an age where ridiculous and harmful conspiracies have created needless caustic division and shrouded the issues that really do matter in the blur of information bombardment and cyber-screaming. Byrne strips it all back and presents a utopia that keeps a keen eye on the world, but never loses sight of the most important things whilst coming together to celebrate them. In short, American Utopia is not only one of the greatest live shows of all time, but the film that the world needs right now, and Byrne has been eyeing it up since his days of head shrinking wizardry.