Tuesday, 14 April 2009
Being David Byrne
Between 1981 and 1985 I was David Byrne. Now David might dispute this, and so may many of my college friends, but I was that man - the former Talking Heads front man. It is only really clear to me now - having moved on from this period of portmanteau identity - that this might be the closest I've got to being someone else. So, I suppose, seeing David Byrne in concert on Easter Sunday night (12/04/09) was always going to be a special moment; an occasion when I was finally freed from my doppelganger imprisonment. You'll be glad to know that I have been released.
In fact, the sight of seeing thousands of musical souls float heavenward from other 40 somethings in the audience, up above the congregation and through the ceiling of the Royal Festival Hall to the sound of "Houses in Motion", "Life During Wartime", "Once in a Lifetime" and "Take Me To The River" was probably as close as I am ever going to get to a mass collective religious experience...
[Boredom health warning! Alert! Siren! This near-45 year old, father of three, has just been to his first gig of 2009 and is liable to lose all objectivity].
When I dropped into emails to friends that I was going to see Byrne - "same as it ever was" was the oft received reply. But as students of history and culture we know nothing stays the same and yet Byrne - and his sound - has aged gracefully. His shock silver hair, white linen suit and general litheness were a testimony to a 56 year old who has looked after himself. A fitting progression from his over-sized, shoulder-padded zoot suit affair of "The Stop Making Sense" film that was a promotional vehicle for Talking Heads' popular "Speaking in Tongues" album of 1983. But we weren't here to listen to 1983's output, oh no, this tour has been billed as the "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno" tour and so we are talking about music from five Byrne/T. Heads/Eno album collaborations:
More Songs About Building and Food - Talking Heads - 1978
Fear of Music - Talking Heads - 1979
Remain in Light - Talking Heads - 1980
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts - Byrne/Eno - 1981
Everything That Happens Will happen Today - Byrne/Eno - 2008
There you go listheads don't say I never think about you!
My mate Mike, who had kindly had the foresight to purchase the concert tickets, was agitated before the gig because he bought the tickets believing that he was going to get a Byrne and Eno concert with Eno actually gracing the stage. He might have a viable trades descriptions violation but as was explained by Eno in The Guardian, he had no intention of any surprise live appearance. [And yet a free newspaper handed to me on my way down to the tube tonight suggested that Eno was there - where? - and "added backing vocals to the heartbreaking "Everything That Happens", London Lite, 14 April 2009]. So perhaps Mike will have to call off the trades description dogs but if Eno was there and singing, I'd have to say he was hiding or I was so completely danced-out that my ability to see or hear anything clearly was heavily compromised.
Sorry, if you were looking for serious review then go here.
I went to the gig naked. I hadn't pre-Tubed* or bought the new album or even dug out my "Fear of Music" vinyl or my "Remain in Light", "...Bush of Ghosts" cassettes. Being too busy with work in the run up to Easter I had made the conscious decision not to prepare and I have to say my lack of preparation paid off to maximum effect.
Byrne played all my favourite Talking Heads tracks. Yes, all! (I don't count "Psycho Killer" which was pre-Eno and is too much of a classic to be a favourite, if you know what I mean). Having missed out on the opportunity to see TH in the early 80s this was a special treat. The all white-suited entourage of 11, 8 musicians and 3 dancers (who occasionally donned instruments) meant we were going to get a blast. The new album is very poppy but sat easily with the Byrne/Eno classics of the first period. Why? How? Because Byrne is a master of the mix: African Indie White Funk Whimsy Country are all in the pot. My favourite from the new album (having now listened to it for free here), "Strange Overtones", opened the night and although it was the first time I had heard it, I immediately felt my cultural slippers, slipping on and I was in safe, warm space. Byrne's voice was strong and full of his trademark shouts and preacher-like hollers. We were going to get a night of Byrne/Eno classics, no need for the laying down of gauntlets, or edgey art school rock diffident aloofness - in my mind there was simply nothing to prove. So let's have a party.
Two hours and 3 sets of encores later and I felt I had seen a true artist. Someone who had experimented with fusions of funk, African, punk and garage band rock and had benefited from a collaboration with an exceptional composer-producer in Eno. In 1981 when punk was a lost cause and new wave was lacking staying power, the British synth-pop experiments of the Human League and Heaven 17 and a ska revival seemed to be all we indie-kids had. But there had to be something else and there was: Talking Heads in collaboration with Eno. I picked up a copy of "Fear of Music" and learnt the riffs and got the t-shirt. In 1983 when I got to Trent Poly, new friends recommended "Remain in Light" and "...Bush of Ghosts", the sounds they were creating were just amazing for the time, as Byrne said on the night they were using "found sounds" before "sampling" had been discovered. I briefly played guitar in an Afro-beat influenced indie type band, and made many recordings in my bedroom with other Nottingham indie-jazz fellow travellers and one spectrum of sounds, one sensibility and one person influenced my contribution to this musical apprenticeship more than anyone else and that was David Byrne. If Eclectic Trains handed out honorary fellowships for sheer creative eclectic bloodymindedness, Byrne would be top of my list to receive one.
*Pre-Tubing: the advance checking out of a tour from a vast selection of differing quality mobile phone video clips uploaded to YouTube. Check out this Born Under Punches clip.