When Talking Heads first emerged from the bowels of the CBGB’s burgeoning punk scene, they defined themselves as ‘Thinking Man’s Dance Music’. Ten years earlier, the Velvet Underground could quite easily have borrowed that same prefix and applied it to rock ‘n’ roll. While it’s obviously arbitrary to say that without Velvet Underground there would be no Talking Heads, amid the unfurling diegesis of pop culture, that arbitrary statement holds more of a grain of truth on this occasion.
As Byrne said himself about when he first heard Candy Says as a 20-year-old art enthusiast: “By 1972, I’ve finished up in art schools, hitchhiked around the country, and I moved to Providence, Rhode Island. 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.”
However, one act shaped him more than most. He continued: “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?’”
This mixture of beauty and absurdity, darkness and levity, artfulness and a stark vernacular, are all things that inspired a slew of musicians. As Nick Cave also said of Lou Reed’s impact: “He taught me that you can put the most sonically aggressive music and put it side by side by some of the most beautiful ballads that anyone has ever written.”
His uncompromised oeuvre also had the same impact on Byrne. “No surprise I was a big fan, and his music, with and without the Velvets, was a big influence on myself and Talking Heads,” he said upon the star’s passing back in 2013. “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,” Byrne added.
Reed was Mr New York in many ways. And the quintessential New York Clubhouse was the CBGB. When it first opened in 1973, it was clear, maybe Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not New York’s — the city was falling into some sort of adrenalised comic book dystopia. Hilly Kristal’s rebranding over the former biker bar was supposed to house country, bluegrass and blues, but the zeitgeist had other plans for it—it was a zeitgeist that Reed helped to spawn.
Thus, it seems fitting that 20 years later, Byrne would bask the crumby little intimate venue with a stunning rendition of one of the first Reed tracks that moved him. Check out the stirring cover of the acerbic ‘Candy Says’ below.