A life in mu­sic, and what makes it tick

How Mu­sic Works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Fitz­patrick Stephen Fitz­patrick

By David Byrne Allen & Un­win, 358p, $39.99 (HB)

IN a world where pop mu­sic star­dom is more of­ten about the fame than the tunes, David Byrne has al­ways stood askance. The singer, gui­tarist, Talk­ing Heads co­founder, Brian Eno col­lab­o­ra­tor and avid cy­clist seems to ex­ist out­side the world of celebrity and awards-night puffery, pre­fer­ring in­stead a life of al­most as­cetic and artis­tic quest­ing.

At least, that’s the im­pres­sion he gives, although if a ca­reer lived in the pub­lic eye is al­ways and nec­es­sar­ily a prod­uct of care­ful craft­ing, Byrne has been as nim­ble a cre­ator as any. How Mu­sic Works, his sweep­ing sur­vey of fash­ion, tech­nol­ogy, sound and pos­ture, demon­strates the veteran per­former is as aware of the fickle na­ture of the in­dus­try as you’d ex­pect.

But he is also adamant that this is not a bi­og­ra­phy: ‘‘ I hope that you will find some­thing to en­joy here even if you have no in­ter­est in my own mu­sic,’’ he writes coyly in the in­tro­duc­tion.

For a gen­er­a­tion or more of mu­sic fans from the late 1970s, Byrne’s big suits and jaunty hair­cut of the Stop Mak­ing Sense- era Talk­ing Heads de­fine an en­tire cul­tural moment. The film of that name, made by Jonathan Demme, came from the band’s ground­break­ing con­cert tour to pro­mote its 1983 al­bum Speak­ing in Tongues, and it drew in ev­ery­one who knew punk mu­sic had achieved some­thing ma­jor in mu­si­cal his­tory but wanted its brash DIY at­ti­tude to be matched by so­phis­ti­cated per­for­mances. Byrne and co served this up hand­somely.

Of the big suits, he traces a fash­ion nar­ra­tive fol­lowed from the band’s in­cep­tion around the scene at New York’s ground zero of punk, the fa­mous CBGB club, based on the idea that ‘‘ the most sub­ver­sive thing was to look to­tally nor­mal’’ (Byrne writes that while he liked Bri­tish punk pioneers the Sex Pis­tols, when he saw video of them per­form­ing dur­ing a trip to Lon­don, he was con­vinced they were a com­edy act, ‘‘ a par­ody of a rock ’ n’ roll band’’).

So Talk­ing Heads would look to­tally ‘‘ nor­mal’’, then — and suits had long fig­ured in the band’s stage out­fit — but, as he be­gan to un­der­stand through the next few years ab­sorb­ing him­self in var­i­ous Asian per­for­mance tra­di­tions, big­ger as well, in ev­ery way. Over lunch one day in Tokyo, he writes, ‘‘ I doo­dled an idea for a stage out­fit. A busi­ness suit (again!) but big­ger, and stylised in the man­ner of a Noh cos­tume.’’ The ac­tual draw­ing is re­pro­duced in the book.

The anec­dote sits com­fort­ably in an un­fold­ing de­scrip­tion of how Byrne has al­ways played with the gram­mar of per­for­mance; in the case of the tra­di­tional Ja­panese kabuki, noh and bun­raku the­atre styles that in­spired this big-suit moment, he notes stage acts where ‘‘ it was as if the var­i­ous parts of an ac­tor’s per­for­mance had been de­con­structed, split into count­less con­stituent parts and func­tions. You had to re­assem­ble the char­ac­ter in your head.’’

Which is as good a de­scrip­tion as any of the 60-year-old Scot­tish-born New Yorker’s en­tire cre­ative life — even if, as he prom­ises, this is not a bi­og­ra­phy, the ti­tle of chap­ter two (‘‘My life in Per­for­mance’’) not­with­stand­ing. It is, rather, a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­plo­ration of so much of what makes the world of mu­sic tick.

There’s the key role Bing Crosby played in the devel­op­ment of mag­netic record­ing tape, based mostly on the US ra­dio star’s de­sire to get out of the stu­dio and on to the golf course, to take a random ex­am­ple. An Amer­i­can en­gi­neer named Jack Mullin, sta­tioned in Ger­many dur­ing the war, re­alised the Nazis had devel­oped a ma­chine that could record sound on to tape — a ma­jor ad­vance on the ex­ist­ing sys­tem of record­ing to wax disc and one that was to rev­o­lu­tionise the in­dus­try. It would mean, for in­stance, that you could edit record­ings by splic­ing two pieces to­gether — en­abling the birth of the laugh track, Byrne notes drily.

At war’s end Mullin got hold of one of th­ese machines, took it back to the US and dis­man­tled it to learn how it worked. A com­pany, Am­pex, was cre­ated to de­velop the tech­nol­ogy, but when fi­nance proved hard to come by, Crosby wrote a per­sonal cheque for the project, hav­ing quickly re­alised that ‘‘ by us­ing th­ese new machines to record his shows, he could con­ceiv­ably tape a cou­ple of shows in one day and then play golf while the shows were be­ing broad­cast. No one would know the shows weren’t live.’’

Not just the laugh track, then, en­tire mod­ern broad­cast in­dus­try.

Per­haps one of Byrne’s sim­plest truths comes in the fi­nal sec­tion, ‘‘ Har­mo­nia Mundi’’ with the state­ment that ‘‘ far from be­ing merely en­ter­tain­ment, mu­sic, I would ar­gue, is a part of what makes us hu­man’’. Fame and celebrity — and the il­lu­sory na­ture of as-live ra­dio broad­casts — run a dis­tant sec­ond to this.

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Talk­ing Heads co-founder David Byrne

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