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Live review: David Byrne, Glasgow Concert Hall, 31 March

David Byrne at Glasgow Concert Hall

[A very poor photograph from my balcony seat]

When David Byrne sings “This ain’t no Mudd Clubb, or CBGB” in Life During Wartime tonight, the lyric has never seemed so true. The formal, seated auditorium of Glasgow Concert Hall is the antithesis of the dirty Lower East Side punk clubs in which Byrne began his musical career.

But punk was never Byrne’s style anyway, and as soon as his ambitions grew too wide-ranging he left the scene behind, moving on to experiments with African rhythms and found sounds with studio boffin Brian Eno. And it’s this 30-year mutual admiration that forms the crux of this tour: Byrne is focussing solely on the three Talking Heads albums he made with Eno, their groundbreaking 1981 LP My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – ignoring “the massive gap in between”, as he puts it.

So no matter how many times they shout it, the audience will not get to hear Psycho Killer. But they do manage to remind the Dumbarton-born Byrne of his Scottish connections with greetings of “Welcome home David”, and, when he’s jabbering on about Bush of Ghosts, stopping him short with “What’s yer point Davie?”, which the silver-haired icon greets with a wry smile, as if reminded of the blunt Scottish humour he left behind all those years ago. At one point he even raises the lights and picks out some extended family members.

But Byrne was never going to bow down to the brash, Glaswegian gig-going mentality. On this tour he has enlisted three modern ballet dancers, who perform behind him throughout most of a loose yet imaginatively staged two-hour set. This non-musical element is the talking point of the night, and although there are early whispers of derision, it all begins to click when we see that they’re really just having fun with it, whirling like windmills, gliding over the stage in office chairs and even leapfrogging over Byrne’s shoulders.

After a respectful early reaction, there is a burst of dancing in the aisles when Byrne and his superb band blaze through the complex grooves of Crosseyed and Painless. Despite Bush of Ghosts tracks like Help Me Somebody getting a rousing reception and the new material given an interesting treatment, it’s inevitably the Talking Heads songs that inspire that frenzied, I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this excitement among the fans. It’s spine-tingling to watch Byrne perform Heaven, Take Me To The River and Burning Down the House. Were it not for the change in hair colour, it really could be Stop Making Sense again, as he jogs on the spot in his white flannel suit.

There were high expectations for this concert, but the performative imagination and youthful energy shown by a middle aged rock legend sailed beyond anyone’s preconceptions. Byrne has come a long way from CBGB’s, and his artistic journey shows no sign of ending.

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Fujiya & Miyagi – Light Bulbs

Fujiya & Miyagi - Light Bulbs

Rating: 4/5

A gastronomic interest is introduced in the first seconds of Fujiya & Miyagi‘s third album, with David Best’s repetitive whisper of “vanilla, strawberry, knickerbockerglory”. Best later makes reference to “Stella Artois mixed with beefburger” in that distinctive hushed tone that recalls Massive Attack’s Daddy G. But delving into the lyrical meaning is pointless: this Brighton group use words purely for rhythmic effect. In fact, arguably every noise F&M make is for rhythmic effect, whether it’s the layered groove on ‘Rook to Queen’s Pawn Six’, to which Brian Eno would surely nod his baldie heid, or – since we’re in that ballpark – the updated Talking Heads afro-funk of ‘Sore Thumb’, complete with retro synth gurgles. 

The irrepressible heartbeat pumps on through the spidery riff on ‘Pterodactyls’, the motorik muscle of ‘Hundreds & Thousands’ and the breathy vocals on ‘Pussyfooting’, where Best eventually gives up on proper words, resorting to lots of taka-taka-uh’s. Judged against Transparent Things, the 2006 record that launched their career, Light Bulbs is no radical overhaul. But when the original model was so effective, it’s probably better that they’ve tightened their sound on Light Bulbs, rather than ripping out the wiring and heading for Homebase. 

Light Bulbs is out now on Full Time Hobby

Fujiya & Miyagi play Stereo, Glasgow on 27 Sep

(Album review for The Skinny)

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Classic album: Talking Heads – Speaking In Tongues

Talking Heads pictured in the early Eighties

Twenty-five years have elaspsed since Speaking In Tongues gave Talking Heads their biggest commercial success, but the passage of time hasn’t diminished the influence or freshness of the New York band’s first post-Brian Eno record…

It’s 1981. Talking Heads have just released the wildly ambitious Remain In Light, but the band’s future is far from assured. How could they possibly follow such an album? Where next? Bassist Tina Weymouth said at the time: “We spent so many years trying to be original that we don’t know how to be original any more.”

So Talking Heads did what any highly creative band on the verge of splitting up should do: the quartet went on hiatus to distract themselves with side projects. David Byrne made The Catherine Wheel, a soundtrack for a ballet by his choreographer girlfriend Twyla Tharp. Weymouth and husband/drummer Chris Frantz cut their first album as Tom Tom Club, a pop-by-numbers moneyspinner. And guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, not to be outdone, released his first solo album, The Red And the Black, which satisfied Jerry Harrison, if no-one else.

When they regrouped, the niggling jealousies within this famously dysfunctional band had not disappeared, but they had receded sufficiently. In his seminal Heads biography This Must Be the Place, David Bowman writes: “They still appeared more Addams family than Brady Bunch, but they no longer seemed to be embittered.” The new congenial atmosphere allowed them to make their fifth great album, Speaking in Tongues, released in late May, 1983.

For three reasons, Speaking in Tongues was a departure from the norm for Talking Heads. Firstly, all four core members had now proved they could work independently of the band. Secondly, it was the first album to benefit from the interracial ‘Expanded Heads’ group that appear in the Stop Making Sense concert film. Thirdly – and most importantly – it was Talking Heads’ first post-Brian Eno release.

Byrne and Eno - an affinity of music and clothesEno‘s influence on Talking Heads cannot be understated. Band and producer met in London in 1978 when the Heads were supporting the Ramones. Their instant bond was such that Eno would produce their next three albums and loom large over the most fertile phase of the band’s history. Famous for his musical non-ability, Eno described his input as “listening to what they were doing and picking out sounds and making new sounds from them… using delays to create new rhythms within their own.” In the following years Byrne and Eno were almost joined at the hip, hanging out among the Manhattan trendies, collaborating on the leftfield LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, even dressing alike; their relationship as fellow artists was intense, but platonic. But within the fragile power structure of Talking Heads, their exclusive cosiness inevitably caused tension. Note that Eno is just one letter from Ono.

The final insult for the other Heads was the biased credit on the sleeve of Remain in Light: ‘All songs written by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Talking Heads’. Byrne sensed that Eno’s ongoing influence would spell the end of the band that had taken him from a skinny young art student in Rhode Island to a skinny rich rock star in New York, and ended the relationship. Eno being Eno would say that it was he who lost interest in such conventional music makers.

Following the ‘Big Suit’ tour with the Expanded Heads, the band flew down to the Bahamas to start work on the as-yet-untitled Speaking in Tongues. But the exotic surroundings weren’t inspiration enough for Byrne, who would fly back to New York to pace around his SoHo loft with a tape recorder, mumbling lyrics to himself day and night – in short, speaking in tongues. Byrne was no Dylan: he didn’t do narrative – his lyrics were disembodied slogans and Dada-like verse. But this time, Bowman reports that “the words weren’t just random. David was actually saying something, it just wasn’t in a linear fashion.”

In fact Byrne was writing his best lyrics yet. On Burning Down the House, David Byrne, certified oddball, sings emphatically: ‘I’m an or-di-na-ry guy!’ On Making Flippy Floppy, he is almost political in the ever-topical line, ‘Our president’s crazy’. Perhaps the best lyric on the album is from This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody): ‘Love me till I’m dead’. The double entendre, in such a sweet song, is perfectly poised.

Musically, Speaking in Tongues takes the Heads’ love affair with funk to its orgasmic conclusion. The rhythms are complex, African, black. The relentless pulse of the music was boosted by the Expanded Heads, especially by the talents of Parliament keyboard legend Bernie Worrell and Wally Badarou, a classically trained funk maestro. That’s not to say the white Heads couldn’t do rhythm of course: Frantz’s drumming, Weymouth’s bass, and Harrison and Byrne’s guitars are all tighter than ever. 

Side one (in vinyl terms) is practically flawless: Burning Down the House, Making Flippy Floppy, Girlfriend is Better, Slippery People, I Get Wild/Wild Gravity. The beats are hypnotic, the synths dark, Byrne’s voice fizzing between paranoia and elation. Side two starts with the electro-blues of Swamp, where Byrne pulls off a convincing Delta growl, before – sadly – two filler tracks, Moon Rocks and Pull Up the Roots. The album ends on This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody), with everyone apart from Frantz playing instruments on which they’re not proficient. The result is aptly naïve but beautifully sincere.

With Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads sold a million copies for the first time, most in the emerging Japanese format of pre-recorded cassette. The record industry was changing. MTV was dominant. The dollar-eyed Eighties were in full swing. Punk was dead. Post-punk was dead. Talking Heads, now one of the biggest bands in America, would spend three more albums trying to reclaim their former edge. As it turns 25, this landmark work of prog-funk genius is definitely due a reissue.

The album cover, clearly influenced by African artReleased: June 1983
Produced by: Talking Heads

01: ‘Burning Down the House’
02: ‘Making Flippy Floppy’
03: ‘Girlfriend is Better’
04: ‘Slippery People’
05: ‘I Get Wild/Wild Gravity’
06: ‘Swamp’
07: ‘Moon Rocks’
08: ‘Pull Up the Roots’
09: ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’

Musicians

David Byrne. Vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, percussion.
Chris Frantz. Drums, backing vocals, synthesizer.
Jerry Harrison. Keyboards, guitar, backing vocals.
Tina Weymouth. Synthesizer and string bass, backing vocals, guitar.

Alex Weir. Guitar.
Wally Badarou. Synthesizer.
Raphael DeJesus. Percussion.
Steve Scales. Percussion.
David Van Tieghem. Percussion
Richard Landry. Saxophone.
Nona Hendryx. Backing vocals.
Dolette MacDonald. Backing vocals.
Bernie Worrell. Synthesizer.
Shankar. Violin.

1983: The Albums

‘Murmur’ REM
‘Synchronicity’ The Police
‘War’ U2
‘She’s So Unusual’ Cindi Lauper
‘Swordfishtrombones’ Tom Waits
‘Madonna’ Madonna

This feature appears in the current edition of Clash magazine

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random playlist – volume one

random playlist - volume one

Because there are no rules for how music affects us, the way we listen can be pretty random. It’s not like we decide to listen to nothing but Canadian indie one week, then nothing but conscious hip hop the next. Instead, it depends more on the way we feel at the time than the style of the music. Sometimes I like nothing more than to put on a Prince record. Other times I just can’t be arsed with the nymphomaniacal glam-funk of ‘the vertically challenged one’. But the point I may or may not be getting to is that musical taste is something that’s constantly changing, from day to day and month to month, just like us. So here are a few tracks that could happily occupy my headphones at this precise moment in time (but not next week of course!)…

Brian Eno/David Byrne – Help Me Somebody

I just finished reading a Talking Heads biography, which turned me on to the underrated Eno/Byrne collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). It’s an astonishing record – ambitious, ethnic, pulsating, haunting, and hugely influential on later dance music in its use of sampling. This track is pure visceral rhythm, sounding more like the green jungle of Africa than the concrete one of its inception.

Best heard: in a dark basement club, or through a bass-heavy PA system in a disused church. Yeah.

Hot Chip – One Pure Thought

From the eagerly-awaited new LP Made in the Dark, this quirky number is one of the best of the batch. It begins with a very un-Hot Chip intro of chilly, ragged guitar, followed by a stormy synth. It then takes a thoroughly unexpected direction when a booty-shaking Jamaican beat kicks in. It may be too stylistically wayward for some people’s tastes, but it is proof if we needed it of the London band’s genre-mangling creativity

Best heard: on a bus, gazing blankly at the rain-soaked streets and dreaming of summer.

The Enemy – You’re Not Alone

I know I know I know. At the risk of holding a lighter and an aerosol can to the last shred of credibility this blog may or may not have, let me state the case for the defence of this much derided, hugely derivative band. When I first saw The Enemy on TV I was not ennamoured. The singer looked like a drowned rat, the average age of their audience was about 14, and their sound is a lawyer’s baw-hair away from The Jam’s Greatest Hits. But then I bought this single on 7″ for 99p (there aren’t many records I won’t buy for that price) and took it home for a quick spin before work. Ok, so it’s basically the same football-terrace, angry-yoof posteuring of primitive lad-rock. But there’s something about that yelled chorus ‘you’re not alone’ that’s also completely valid and thrilling and exciting in its own right. The kids love it, and I can kinda see why. If you’re willing to suspend your chin stroking for three minutes and forty-five seconds, you might too. [If you still hate it, you must explain why you’re right – and I’m wrong – below.]  I’ll probably regret its inclusion in a month’s time of course.

Best heard: at one of their gigs, too wasted to care what your peers think of you.

Rob St John – Tipping In EP

I have to apologise to Rob St John for not getting round to this sooner, as he alerted me to his debut EP a month or so back. I don’t know why I haven’t mentioned it already, because this three-track release from the Fife Kills label has been on my MP3 player a lot. The Edinburgh songwriter is a rare talent, his hushed, melancholy songs full of timeless character (especially The Acid Test). With his finger-picking guitar playing, cello/accordian accompaniment and fireside voice, the obvious comparison is James Yorkston. I don’t know if he’s already tiring of this reference point, but it’s a huge compliment in my opinion.

Best heard: lying awake in the wee small hours.

Digitalism – Pogo

Their album Idealism has really grown on me. Their vocoder-led electroclash may be a bit obvious in an age where Daft Punk are the biggest dance act on the planet, but it’s still pretty fucking enjoyable, uplifting music. Pogo is perhaps the most human track – the only one that doesn’t sound like the bastard lovechild of Stephen Hawking and Nintendog.

Best heard: when you’re in dire need of a holiday.

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