Scribes Sounding Off: David Byrne and the Dadaist Disco of Song and Circumstance


“The world is a song,” but as most artists know, to sing it requires periods of intense preparation. This is a book about that for those who enjoy the Talking Heads-deep back catalogue concert documentary Ride, Rise, Roar at SIFF this year and his enthusiastic appearance in Beyond Ipanema, and yearn for more exposition from its punk-spawned, post-modern primary creator. For fellow fans of the fearless musical documentarian of the anxiety of our age and the restless eternal human spirit, reading the just-published Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne, From Talking Heads To The Present (Continuum) is a wondrous experience.

More a sublime diagram of Bryne’s aesthetics with Netherlands-based author/philosopher Sytze Steenstra than a rock biography, Song and Circumstance begins with Byrne’s early 70s discovery of connections between the Velvet Underground, James Brown, Yoko Ono, and John Coltrane; but also Manson, ZAP Comix, the Last Poets, and Luis Bunuel. The reprint of two segments from his three page UFO Survey and experiments in Cybernetics are reprinted and display the level of cosmic creativity that Byrne packed into the Talking Heads. He started the band in New York with fellow former art school students Tina Fey and Chris Frantz in 1975 (later adding Jerry Harrison from the Modern Lovers). Receiving their first accolades from New York Times critic John Rockwell in March, 1976 (a rock and classical reviewer) — about how they showed “no obvious precedent on the underground circuit–or in the music itself” — the Talking Heads had more in common with “flies in the academic-ointment” UK punks in its use of overt ‘Art & Language’ philosophy (“opposed to the traditional division of art from criticism”). The schemata for the band would be one of The Kitchen, an “anti-individualist stance as a group concept.”

This is what we heard when bought albums like their debut, Talking Heads: ’77 (September, 1977), and More Songs About Buildings and Food (July 1978), a band working together fitfully to put new things in different places; the guitars ebullient but mechanical, the rhythms human but stressed with awareness. It sounded like a team, and there was something to win; which in this case, was the often bizarre glimpses into marginal humanity, such as the protagonist of their first, considered-novelty hit “Psycho Killer.” As Byrne explains the bass-thumped first person declaration, a “natural delusion that a psychotic killer would imagine himself as very refined and use a foreign language to talk to himself.” When Byrne would record the culturally “third eye opening” Dadaist track “I, Zimbra” on their third LP, Fear Of Music (August, 1979) he used a tone poem from that movement’s Hugo Ball as the actual lyric. Steenstra ties the “stripping down of the rock song” by the Talking Heads to Byrne’s “conceptual framework of cybernetic science”; most hilariously, in Byrne’s “Set Of All Goals,” a proper psychogeography of live music is specifically created by making sure the venue “is the right size” and that “musicians must get free beer” (“Free beer to explain the mysteries of artistic creation?” Steenstra semi-mocks.)

If David Byrne’s career in music had ended at Talking Heads’ fourth album, Remain In Light (October, 1980), he would still be considered a vital innovator and synthesizer of high culture and pop music. The preparations for that LP, “focused on patterns of small rhythmic elements, recording layer by layer until a new texture emerged,” and arguably the first to feature overt uses of Byrne’s interest in lyrical “biogramming,” began after his experiment with Eno using found voices and art funk on 1980’s My Life In Bush Of Ghosts. Arabic singers, evangelists, radio DJs, and an actual exorcism was part of the world of language they tapped into for sound construction, long before it was so easy to do so digitally with samplers and then the Internet. Though that novel-based collaboration barely scraped the charts and tended to be ignored by the “lead singer with a song”-expectant masses, it would further Byrne’s interest in what would later be called “world music” and the universality of voice and expression. His eager playtime with Eno, and the abstract tinkering of ideas like the producer’s Oblique Strategy cards, would have world-changing effects beyond the rock music marketplace.

Song And Circumstance only begins there, continuing to precisely document solo Byrne as “the artist as ethnomusicologist”; the explorations into Latin music on the popular Rei Momo; Byrne’s discovery of Tom Ze and the founding of label Luaka Bop; winding through “the mythology of cities” in The Bicycle Diaries and his other writings — and eventually coming back to Byrne’s collaboration with Eno on last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. An album and tour, which boldly wrapped up so much of this past, and added unique, somewhat improvisatory choreography to the music that moves so many hearts across so many miles. His use of generic details mirrors the extension to other artists to work in community; bringing together musician and musician as much as human being to human being.

Song And Circumstance is an excellent read, of interest to the old school Talking Heads fan, perfervid David Byrne follower, or for readers of how music and philosophy work together.

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  1. Piotr Orloff
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Um, I hate to say it, but I believe it’s Tina Weymouth.

  2. Paul Bove
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    In the second paragraph, I think you mean, “He started the band in New York with fellow former art school students Tina WEYMOUTH and Chris Frantz in 1975,” not “Tina Fey” as written above.

  3. Chris Estey
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Whoops! Thanks for the correction, guys. My “30 Rock” fandom has apparently corrected my rock vocabulary. All apologies.

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