If you happen to see him riding his bicycle somewhere in lower Manhattan, be sure to lob a cupcake at David Byrne, who is celebrating his birthday today. The former Talking Heads frontman turned ultra-eclectic solo artist, art curator and bike enthusiast is now 58 years old, but his present work is just as vital, energetic, experimental and far-reaching as it was when he was in his twenties.
Born in Scotland, Byrne split his childhood between there and Canada before settling outside Baltimore, Maryland. Already skilled at several instruments and with an interest in painting and graphic design, Byrne graduated high school and attended the Rhode Island School of Design. It was there he met Chris Frantz, with whom he formed a band with Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth. The trio moved to New York and played their first gig as Talking Heads in 1975 (guitarist Jerry Harrison was added in 1977).
Though they didn’t have the same kind of savage sound as some of their contemporaries, Talking Heads were welcomed into Manhattan’s punk rock universe. They shared stages with the Ramones, Blondie, Television and a handful of other seminal groups. Talking Heads took garage band simplicity and jacked it up with world-biting polyrhythms, electronic instruments, samples and Byrne’s unusual take on vocalization. Their first four albums — 1977’s Talking Heads: 77, 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1979’s Fear of Music and 1980’s Remain in Light — represent some of the finest music of that era and certainly the best opening quartet of long-players in rock history.
Despite their arty tendencies and genre-bending production by Brian Eno, Talking Heads stumbled into pop stardom, scoring MTV-era hits with “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime.” All the while, Byrne dabbled in various other projects, including film soundtracks, a score for a ballet choreographed by Twyla Tharp, an opera and the landmark film “True Stories.” He split with the Heads in 1991 and continued on as a writer, producer, label head and collaborator (his latest projects include a book about bicycling and a concept album about Imelda Marcos called Here Lies Love that he made with Fatboy Slim). Of all his solo albums, the argument over the best is split between 2001’s Look Into the Eyeball and 1997’s Feelings, the latter of which had a tremendous single called “Miss America” that has a video that is eye-poppingly sharp and brutally funny.