It’s hard to quantify the immeasurable influence Talking Heads had on rock and roll, but, luckily, it is quite easy to hear through the shape of one mammoth playlist. The group built its reputation on being supremely undefinable, and it’s only the music that can really chronicle the career of the most inimitable man on the planet — David Byrne. “Say something once; why say it again?” Byrne once remarked and, judging by the playlist below, it’s fair to say he’s kept to that mantra.
When Byrne met Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, the romantic rhythm section of Talking Heads at the Rhode Island School of Design, the trio of arthouse influenced musicians had an instant connection. Soon enough, they were planning their escape and subsequent domination of New York City. They settled near the grimy Mekkah of CBGB and became an integral part of the explosion of talent that emanated from there and the surrounding neighbourhoods of rockers, poets and serial agitators.
The group arrived as the Artistics and soon found themselves in a comfortable position—on the outside. Byrne, the Scottish-born singer, found his happy place on the peripheries of society but eventually relented and invited the whole world over to his humble abode.
Through a string of affected and unquantifiably rhythmic singles, the group’s prowess grew, 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 with a feverish pace. Never too far from a helpful collaboration, Byrne has accumulated quite the list of incredible songs in his time in the spotlight. It’s a list of songs that, when placed together, such as below, provides not only a crystal clear image of the singer and his journey but of creative integrity itself. Byrne never has and never will sit still.
It’s something we can see in his expansive discography. While certain themes run through all of Byrne’s work both with and without the band, he formed—an unstoppable groove, a thirsty tempo and the kind of lyrics that make Dadaists’ blush—as an artist that is perhaps nobody more stringently aligned with their own those of creative evolution than the singer. It’s what makes listening to this playlist all the more enjoyable.
From Talking Heads 77 all the way through to his 2018 album American Utopia (we’ve left out Byrne’s movie soundtracks as well as his Broadway production of the same name), Byrne displays a rigorous allegiance to the avant-garde. Of course, when he and the Talking Heads first release their debut album, they displayed a keen sense of foresight that would allow the band always to stay one step ahead. The group had been playing at CBGB for two years by the time they cut their first disc, and their decision not to rush into recording meant they could future-proof their sound with African rhythms and funky jams, something which their friends at punk venues thought was ludicrous. The same can be said of 1980’s Remain in Light which is drenched in the sounds of the upcoming decade.
As well as being future proof, Byrne has made it a point of being a collaborative artist. In the latter album, Byrne worked with the mercurial musician Brian Eno as the pair began refining each other’s sound. By 1981, the pair released their own record, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, to emphasise their chemically fruitful relationship. Byrne is not restricted to the talent pool of his contemporaries either, and, in 2012, he co-released an album with St. Vincent to critical acclaim with Love This Giant, an effort that adds some rockier texture to the landscape of the playlist.
When you think that the playlist is nearly a whole day’s worth of listening, by the end of the running time we’re sure you will have shared an unbreakable bond with Byrne. A real journey that will mean you’re forever eyeing up oversized suits and proclaiming that both your living quarters and marital partner are, in fact, not yours at all. The achievement Byrne has completed in recording these songs is to create a small world where not only does the above make sense but Byrne’s the ringmaster of the whole event.
Of course, while Byrne was a whizz in the studio—and a meticulous whizz at that—what he did in the recording booth pales in comparison to his impressive performances on stage. It’s something Talking Heads were sure to capture not only in some live records but in a concert film or two too with Stop Making Sense rightly being the most famous. It’s another reminder that while Byrne is certainly a recording artist he would argue that he’s a performance artist first and foremost.
The semantics of his labelling is positively pointless though. No matter which preface you add to the word artist matters very little as David Byrne has been and will always be an ‘artist’, plain and simple(ish).