A life in music, and what makes it tick
How Music Works
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.
Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne