For some music fans, David Byrne is just the quirky guy in the big boxlike suit from almost four decades ago, despite him being a Renaissance man making sense of these tumultuous times in which we live.
The depiction of Byrne in his absurdly large suit featured in the critically acclaimed 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense, as well as on the cover of the live album with the same name. Granted, it is still one of the most enduring music images of the 1980s: art rock icon Byrne doing a gawky dance routine in a massively exaggerated, light grey suit that makes his head look tiny.
The suit had giant webbed shoulder pads and a webbed girdle that the singer of American band Talking Heads wore around his waist. It was “more of an architectural project than a clothing project”, according to the suit’s designer, Gail Blacker.
Byrne gave two reasons for the oversized suit, which he wore for two of the last songs of the show. First in a quirky filmed interview he did with himself in 1984: “I like symmetry, geometric shapes. I wanted my head to appear smaller and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger. Because music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”
In another interview, Byrne said “a friend made a kind of quip, while I was trying to think of what to do on this next tour, what to wear, and he said: ‘Well, you know what theatre is – everything has to be bigger.’ And he didn’t mean the clothes had to be bigger, he meant that the gestures were larger, the music had to be more exaggerated, on stage than they would in real life. But I took it very literally and thought, ‘Oh, the clothes are bigger.’”
With polymath Byrne, the ideas have also been bigger.
From 1975 to 1991, it was with the avant-garde quartet Talking Heads. The band’s swamp funk that was influenced by African artists such as Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, early hip-hop and funk musicians like The Meters and Chic, as well as the Velvet Underground, but the way the musical ideas manifested in their songs were always original and brilliant. They still sound fresh today, not only as historical artefacts but also as an influence for current bands such as Radiohead, Vampire Weekend and The Weeknd.
Then, Luaka Bop, the fiercely open-minded independent record label Byrne established 21 years ago, showcased otherwise ignored and diverse music from around the world. More than 70 albums later, Luaka Bop still subversively breaks down borders, musical and otherwise. They’re “not afraid of ‘mutant’ styles and cultivate an eye for the unusual, the less known, the little side roads that music takes, the cult sound, for the thing that contradicts the stereotype, the unexpected and the raw and rough – trashy organs, wah-wah guitars or synthesisers”.
A guiding principle
Decades after the film, Stop Making Sense is still like a political and creative guiding principle. Byrne will always go in the opposite direction. He’s contrarian in the positive sense, he believes in making sense by stopping to make sense in the conventional way.
Last year, he founded online magazine Reasons to be Cheerful, described as a “tonic for tumultuous times”. The Daily Beast news website cleverly described it as “David Byrne is trying his best to talk us off the ledge”.
This “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world” looks for replicable solutions from around the world – from Nigeria to India, the United States to Japan and beyond – for humanity’s most pressing problems. “Through sharp reporting, our stories balance a sense of healthy optimism with journalistic rigour, and find cause for hope,” the site promises.
The idea came about after the release of Byrne’s 2018 solo album, American Utopia, which was dedicated to covering solutions to the many of the world’s problems.
“It often seems as if the world is going straight to hell. I wake up in the morning, I look at the paper, and I say to myself, ‘Oh no!’ Often I’m depressed for half the day,” Byrne said in a press release. “As a kind of remedy, and possibly as a kind of therapy, I started collecting good news.” He shared it with his friends and their responses were so encouraging that he created the optimism-driven Reasons to be Cheerful.
But even a glass full to the brim kind of guy like Byrne has something that makes him pessimistic, as he told Rolling Stone magazine: “The fact that the Republican Party hasn’t broken rank with Donald Trump. He’s a fucking racist, and they’re going along with it ’cause it gets them where they wanna go. If they don’t break rank, they’re as racist as he is. And let’s not forget that.”
Remain in Light was Talking Heads’ fourth album. Released in 1980, it had strong African influences. Producer Brian Eno said Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti’s 1973 album, Afrodisiac, was its template. While Byrne has steadfastly refused to reunite Talking Heads since they broke up in December 1991, there’s one under-sung, cinematic song from this masterful album that is perfect for a revisit in these Trumpian times: Listening Wind.
This beautiful, atmospheric lament with its North African-Arabic sound empathetically tells the story of Mojique, a young resistance fighter presumably in an African county, who thinks of the days before Americans arrived:
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember… now
To redress the damage to his land:
Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone
He feels the wind is lifting up his people
He calls the wind to guide him on his mission
He knows his friend the wind is always standing… by
Asked about this song in a 2004 interview with The Herald newspaper in Scotland, Byrne said: “I don’t know if I could get away with performing that live anymore! Wooaaaooh! Nothing’s changed. God, nothing’s changed at all. We should send that off as a little bonus CD for the troops.”
What makes Listening Wind worth listening to on repeat in 2020 is that it endures, still asking questions of our current context, of nation and global politics, and particularly of American bellicosity.
The landscape looks different today from 1980, when Listening Wind was released. Now the US military claims to have a “light footprint” in Africa, but as US media organisation National Public Radio (NPR) reported, they have “military missions under way in roughly 20 African countries, mostly in the northern half of the continent”. The NPR report added that in “almost all of the missions, the Americans are there to advise, assist and train African militaries – and not to take part in combat. Still, those supporting roles can often take US forces into the field with their African partners.”
In an investigation about what they called the US’s “best kept secret”, The Nation news magazine reported that the American military has built “an extensive archipelago of African outposts” in at least 34 countries. That was before the notoriously unpredictable Trump took office.
The US president’s attention has been focused mainly on the neighbouring region, the Middle East, where his close and belligerent ally Israel has been rattling its sabres more intensely. Early in January, Trump ordered the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in Iraq, leading to a major escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.
It’s unclear what Soleimani’s killing will lead to, but a destabilisation of the larger region is inevitable. Much like in Listening Wind, the region will see “foreigners in growing number”. But the wind that comes from far away won’t “come to drive them away”.