David Byrne, the lead singer of Talking Heads and one of the most unique voices in the music industry, deserves recognition as a singular figure. Never easy to nail down to a particular style or indeed medium, Byrne has always operated as the wildcard pillar of pop music. Never able to be relied on for anything other than the unexpected, the singer has rightly been regarded for much of his career as an off-beat genius. While it may be hard to imagine that any one band or group had a huge influence on the singer, other than himself, the truth is there was one act that grabbed Byrne’s attention.
Of course, Byrne has since cited plenty of different bands that have influenced the singer. He recalled, in an interview with Pitchfork, how David Bowie and the Velvet Underground had inspired. The former had arrived at Max’s Kansas City at the moment Byrne and his folkie friend had set down in the venue to see the ‘cool people’, 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.’” Equally, after listening to Lou Reed’s VU he was also inspired to write one of his biggest hits.
After witnessing the band, a 20-year-old Byrne went back to Baltimore and began crafting a brand new style of pop song. “The Velvet Underground were a big revelation,” Byrne recalled when speaking with Pitchfork. “I realised, ‘Oh, look at the subject of their songs: There’s a tune and a melody, but the sound is either completely abrasive or really pretty. They swing from one extreme to the other.’ ‘White Light/White Heat’ is just this noise, and then ‘Candy Says’ is incredibly pretty but really kind of dark. As a young person, you go, ‘What is this about?’” It inspired Byrne to hone his talent in a brand new way. But, before that moment happened and a young Byrne made his way to New York City, it would be another group that would grab his attention.
Byrne grew up in a fairly liberal household “They read The New York Times and listened to Woody Guthrie records, so you can imagine what kind of a household that was,” Byrne told Pitchfork. While it offered Byrne his first taste of music as an artistic entity, he was also stuck listening to the previous generation’s best work, rather than aspiring to create his own. “In 1962, I was still listening to my parents’ records and vaguely aware that there were other things out there. … I realised that this sounds very palatable and pretty on the surface, but there’s something darker going on underneath.”
For a teenage Byrne, it was the discovery of The Byrds that confirmed a fire burning within him. “The Bob Dylan song ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was like a psychedelic version of a Woody Guthrie song,” he remembered of the iconic number. “But then the Byrds turned it into something unlike anything my young ears had heard before.
“It sounded like jangly pots and pans, bells. If you’re someone who grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, the song is like a little telegraph from someplace else. Hearing that, I realised, ‘I have to get out of here, because there are people in other places. There’s a whole world out there that I don’t know anything about.’” It inspired Byrne to throw himself into music and begin finding his own path — a most notable facet of his career. He’d take himself to Baltimore clubs and play “great literate rock songs” for the audience.
“I’d do songs by the Kinks or the Who, or songs with really insightful lyrics that the folkies had never heard before,” he said. It would be part of what inspired the singer to make his trip to NYC, come face to face with Bowie and begin his own journey towards stardom. “I played ukulele and violin, and he played accordion. … I would dress in old suits and had a long beard, and kids would come up to me and say, ‘Mister, are you one of those men who don’t drive cars?’ I was not.” It was the start of David Byrne as we know him now — eccentric excellence.