David Byrne explains how Velvet Underground impacted his songwriting
David Byrne is an enigmatic figure of music unlike anybody that came before him. It’s hard to imagine the former Talking Heads frontman taking inference from any other artist, or seeking inspiration from any source apart from his remarkable brain. However, fellow New Yorkers, The Velvet Underground, single-handedly aided his approach to songwriting at a young age and made Byrne reevaluate his method, a moment which would help the musician become the great writer he is today.
Byrne, never wanting to be like somebody else, has always triumphed originality above all. While comparisons between his sound are thin between his sound and The Velvet Underground, he still learned a precious lesson from Lou Reed’s old band. With Talking Heads, Byrne rose to the top of the pile in New York City just like The Velvet Underground did before them, and they soon enough became the face of the new-wave movement.
The Velvet Underground remains one of the most crucial acts that helped determine the landscape of alternative music, and their influence still holds up today. Although the Velvet Underground’s sales and billboard numbers were not astonishingly high during their tenure, their impact on rock planted a foundation during the 1960s, inadvertently inspiring others and eventually becoming one of the most influential rock bands of all time.
Their music first fell into Byrne’s world in 1972, a time when he was 20-year-old art enthusiast looking to indulge on creative inspiration. Once he heard the record Candy Says, his life was never the same. “By 1972, I’ve finished up in art schools, hitchhiked around the country, and I moved to Providence, Rhode Island,” the singer recalled to Pitchfork. “In the mid-’70s, I was in a band with Chris Frantz from Talking Heads, and I wrote a couple songs that stuck during that period, including ‘Psycho Killer’. We also did a lot of cover songs—Al Green, Velvet Underground, the Sonics, the Troggs.
“The Velvet Underground were a big revelation. 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?”
Following Reed’s death in 2013, Byrne wrote a poignant open letter to discuss his relationship with the singer and how much Reed’s work influenced him, especially his Velvet Underground years. “No surprise I was a big fan, and his music, with and without the Velvets, was a big influence on myself and Talking Heads,” Byrne wrote.
“He came to see us at CBGB numerous times, and I remember three of us going to visit him at his Upper East Side (!) apartment after one of our very early gigs there.”
Byrne then spoke about how the two of them built a strong friendship and often dined together or saw each other at concerts in New York. The former Talking Heads singer finished his emotional letter by movingly stating: “His work and that of the Velvets was a big reason I moved to NY and I don’t think I’m alone there. We wanted to be in a city that nurtured and fed that kind of talent.”
When Byrne was 22, he leapt to New York City as he wanted to bite into the Big Apple that illuminated in every note that The Velvet Underground played and he has never looked back. Their music created this glimpse at paradise, and even though their work is often drenched in darkness, there’s an intangible alluring nature to The Velvet Underground which made Byrne move to New York, which in turn, lead to Talking Heads. If it wasn’t for him making this bold decision, who knows what the future would have held.