From Ramones to David Bowie: David Byrne’s favourite artists of all time
David Byrne is an enigmatic figure, one which very few artists could ever dream of holding a candle up to. It’s hard to imagine the former Talking Heads frontman taking inference from any other artist or seeking inspiration from anywhere else apart from his remarkable brain. Unsurprisingly, his music taste is as eclectic and wonderous as you could ever imagine and features the likes of the Ramones, David Bowie as well as a lovely bit of funk thrown into his record collection.
Byrne, never wanting to be like someone else, has always triumphed originality above everything else. With his band Talking Heads, he rose to the top of the pile in New York and, soon enough, surpassing his counterparts. However, it was never enough for Byrne to pull out a greatest hits tour every few years to pay the bills, Byrne has far more integrity than that.
Instead, the singer continues to take his talents to wherever they lead him, whether that’s to Broadway working on his show American Utopia, he has forged out a career which is unique in every sense of the word that has made him a true icon of music.
We have taken a look through the artists that the former Talking Heads man has spoken about in the past and detailed his adoration for. It’s a mighty list that provides a staggering insight into the world of David Byrne and what makes him tick.
Let’s dive in!
David Byrne’s favourite artists:
George Clinton’s funk-filled universe is one that Byrne is completely enamoured with. “In Talking Heads, the record collection was filled with Hamilton Bohannon, James Brown, Roxy Music, Funkadelic, and P-Funk, that whole world. George Clinton and his whole crazy P-Funk philosophy was great; they were doing these kind of spectacles,” he once said in a feature with Pitchfork.
One member of Clinton’s world that worked with Byrne in Talking Heads was Bernie Worrall who toured with the Heads for several years until their split in 1991. Following the death of the keyboardist in 2016, Byrne wrote a heartfelt tribute. He was a lynchpin of Parliament Funkadelic and after that, he collaborated with a lot of other musicians—like Talking Heads (that’s Bernie in Stop Making Sense), as well as some of my own projects,” Byrne wrote.
“I learned a lot from that music, and of course from the time spent travelling and playing with Bernie—wordplay, musical attitude and lot more. He informed the musician and composer I was to become,” the Talking Heads man praisingly said.
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground is the band that remains one of the most important acts that helped create what alternative music is today. During their era, the Velvet Underground’s music sales and billboard numbers were not astonishingly high (only two of their albums made it on the Billboard’s Top 200), but their influence on rock planted a foundation during the 1960s, inadvertently inspiring others and eventually becoming as one of the most important rock bands of all time.
“The Velvet Underground was a big revelation,” Byrne said to 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?”
One person that even the former Talking Heads singer would concede creative defeat to would be the late David Bowie. Byrne, never shy to discuss is admiration for the Starman, has openly discussed how Bowie has been a constant source of inspiration throughout his career and how the great man has inspired him to improve his own artistry. Bowie was also a huge admirer of his work, so much so that when The Starman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1996, he gave Byrne the call to induct him.
“Hello!” he begins his speech, “When David Bowie came along, rock and roll needed a shot in the arm, and when I first saw him it was a shock and very familiar, it was very necessary, it was something that was needed,” he said, passionately delivering the words straight from his heart.
Byrne continues to deliver a plethora of words and ideas, attributing them to Bowie: “It was visionary, it was tasteless, it was glamorous, it was perverse,” he said. “It was liberation, it was genocide, it was a dream and it was a nightmare, it was about sex and drugs,” And on and on. It showed off the giant influence Bowie had on Byrne and countless like him across the globe.
William Onyeabor, a reclusive Nigerian funk musician, has a story full of mystery and the unknown. According to the label that Byrne founded, Luaka Bop, Onyeabor “self-released eight albums between 1977 and 1985 and then became a born-again Christian, refusing to ever speak about himself or his music again.”
The label reported that through attempting to speak with Onyeabor himself, and by talking to people who seem to have firsthand knowledge, it tried to construct an accurate biography of him for 18 months, without success. Thankfully, three years before his death he made his debut broadcast appearance on BBC 6 Music in 2014, where he told Lauren Laverne that”I only create music that will help the world.”
“I parted ways with Luaka Bop maybe 10 years ago,” Byrne said to Pitchfork about the label he formed in 1988. “It was taking too much of my time and my money and my house. But the label still goes on. And they’ve done wonderful things, including this album by the African electronic musician William Onyeabor a few years ago. And then they put on shows of people like myself and others performing his songs. They continue to do great things.”
Ramones and Talking Heads played a pivotal role in shaping the culture of New York in the late ’70s thanks to their iconic performances at CBGBs. Byrne’s first steps onto the stage with his band at the legendary punk club CBGB would be a pivotal moment for the band and, in turn, the rest of the musical landscape and it was all thanks to the ambivalence/arrogance of Johnny Ramone.
Chris Frantz spoke to the New York Post about the now-iconic first foray onto the stage. “Hilly [Kristal, owner of CBGB, asked Johnny [Ramone] if we could open for them, and Johnny said, ‘Sure, they’re gonna suck, so no problem’,” he said, before adding: “There were very few people in the audience, maybe 10 altogether. Five came to see us and five came to see the Ramones.”
Frantz also revealed that all of the Talking Heads members loved the Ramones even though their punk contemporaries didn’t initially enjoy their brand of ‘new wave’ but eventually were won over and together they would tour the world.
When David Byrne appeared on Desert Island Discs on the BBC back in 2018, he made sure to deliver a slice of New York City in his selections with The Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, with the singer saying the band came “from somewhere you didn’t know existed.”
“At the same time [as listening to The Stooges] we, the Talking Heads and I, were listening to a lot of R&B,” Byrne added which is a testament to the diverse musical taste that he has always had in his record collection ranging back to when he formed the Talking Heads.