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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to David Byrne

@jackwhatley89

He’s one of the most mercurial musicians of the 20th century, effortlessly toying with the boundaries of genre and downright human vigour; David Byrne is a multi-talented artist who is, sadly, often remembered for one of the most enormous suits in rock and roll. As such, we’re bringing you a crash course on what makes Byrne a living legend via six definitive songs, each one displaying the vision of a man who knew no limit to his creative intent.

As the leader of the Talking Heads, working alongside Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz and later collaborating with Brian Eno among many other talented musicians, he championed a brand new sound that would lay the groundwork for an entire decade’s worth of musical development. Creatively, he is unmatched, and within his own character, his artistic drive to evolve and push himself is only matched by his sheer and sincere authenticity. It’s is what has made Byrne an undying hero ever since his debut with the band in the mid-1970s.

There can be no doubt that Byrne’s vibrating imagination is still resonating through speakers today, but he became a musician as an extension of a broader creative pursuit. When Byrne met Weymouth and Frantz, the romantic rhythm section of Talking Heads at the Rhode Island School of Design, the trip had an instant connection. Like most art school students, the group were planning their escape and subsequent domination of New York City soon enough.

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The Artistics were born and soon found themselves in a comfortable position outside the mainstream. Byrne, the Scottish-born singer, found his happy place on the peripheries of society, with New York providing more edges per square mile than pretty much anywhere in the world. Soon, Byrne invited the whole world over to his humble abode. It was a marked change in how alternative music was presented and with the band’s arthouse slant and unstoppable groove.

The group’s prowess grew and grew through a string of affected and unquantifiable singles, songs that toyed with the notion of pop music itself. The band’s rise to the top was helped in no small part by the inclusion of Jerry Harrison. With it, so did Byrne’s influence and talent. Though the group came to an end in 1991, Byrne would continue to pursue his artistic direction, still delivering music and performances that find happy audiences with dancing feet, most recently completing his musical American Utopia.

Byrne’s is an unfolding career that provides his audiences with a myriad of meandering journies. But, if you’re short on time, the six songs below do a fine job of giving a quick lesson in the work of David Byrne.

The six definitive songs of David Byrne:

‘Psycho Killer’ (1977)

Iconic performances of this song range from the 1975 appearance at CBGB’s opening for the Ramones to Byrne dressed in an inside-out bodysuit performing the song in the mid-90s. Whichever way you cut it, it’s unthinkable to imagine a better place to start.

Released as part of the band’s debut album Talking Heads: 77 the group managed to convince producer Tony Bongiovi that their original cut needed some more power to it. So they quickly began to heap more and more bass into the song as Byrne’s story of a serial killer unfurls. It’s an area of life that has always been attractive to Byrne, “When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad,” he said. “Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.”

When the first iconic notes of ‘Psycho Killer’ came pounding out of the speakers, everybody roots for David Byrne and Talking Heads.

‘Once In a Lifetime’ (1980)

One of Talking Heads most famous songs, ‘Once In A Lifetime’, is a nuanced and quirk-filled alt-pop powerhouse. In many ways, the track represents the collective creativity of the band, but its power resonates mainly in the lyrics and tone of David Byrne’s brilliant vocal.

The song appears on the band’s fourth album Remain in Light and is around the midpoint of Talking Heads’ output. At this time, Byrne, the leading man and creative force, was at his most exuberantly expressive, but his work with another musician on this song would push it towards its worthy legend status.

During the recording of the album, Byrne was working with Brian Eno on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts while also working on the soundtrack of The Catherine Wheel. This kind of continuous creativity alongside one of electronic music’s most vibrant pioneers made Byrne one of the most exciting and prospering rock and roll singers of the day.

‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ (1982)

Released as the second single from Speaking in Tongues the brilliant ‘This Must Be The Place’ is about as close to a distillation of David Byrne’s talent as you’re likely to find. The singer is in imperious form, allowing his creation to reach new heights through a range of earworms and feet-shuffling lead lines.

The love song, a topic Byrne usually avoids as the issue is “kinda big,” also said of the track: “That’s a love song made up almost completely of non-sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities. It’s a real honest kind of love song.”

Adding: “I don’t think I’ve ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a sort of reservation or a twist. I tried to write one that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do. I think I succeeded; I was pretty happy with that.” We think he should be, and on the band’s concert film Stop Making Sense the performance of the track is matched by only one.

‘Make Believe Mambo’ (1988)

David Byrne’s 1988 debut solo album would predate Talking Head break-up by three years but perhaps began sowing the seeds of those fruitful summers. On ‘Make Believe Mambo’, Byrne is determined to make you smile, and your feet move.

The album sees Byrne once again working with Brian Eno and to devastating effect as he delivers one of his most joyous compositions on ‘Make Believe Mambo’. Listen below and try to stop the infectious groove from brightening your day.

‘Who’ with St. Vincent (2012)

Byrne is famed for his wide-ranging set of collaborators, most notably his fruitful partnership with Eno. However, if you were looking for a counterpart for David Byrne in modern music, you wouldn’t go far wrong in picking St. Vincent, AKA Annie Clark. The mercurial singer has done her fair share of genre-bending, and her collaboration with Byrne proves they’re on the same page.

The horn-driven foot-stomper is a guaranteed party-starter and sees Byrne perhaps meet his match for the very first time. Since this track, the singer has joined Clark on stage for a few performances, with a 2107 rendition of ‘Burning Down The House’ a particular highlight.

‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’ (2018)

Taken from David Byrne’s latest album, 2018’s American Utopia, the track is typical of his work. Forward-thinking and unashamedly forthright, the lyrics “We’re only tourists in this life/Only tourists, but the view is nice” say it all.

Byrne was showing in 2018 that none of that razor-sharp intelligence had been dulled, and he was just as capable of making a statement now as ever before. This incisive piece is certainly one of his best.