How Music Works, by David Byrne, Canongate, RRP£22/McSweeney’s RRP$32, 345 pages
David Byrne, lead singer and co-founder of Talking Heads, is far from your average rock musician. When I first interviewed him, a decade ago, he asked the initial question: “So how is the FT doing these days?” We talked a little about the precarious future of print journalism and the precarious future of making records. But here we all are, still. No conversation with Byrne leaves you feeling more negative about the world than when you started. He is one of contemporary culture’s brightest talents, mildly eccentric, hungrily eclectic, and a man who knows how to make you dance.
How Music Works is an entertaining and erudite book, from a figure who has spent his career proving that those two adjectives can happily coexist. It is, as he puts it, “neither an autobiography nor a series of think pieces – but a little bit of both”.
He is silent on the kinds of issues that give most memoirs their juice – his personal relationships, for one – and candid on things that normally remain unspoken: there is a fascinating and detailed financial breakdown of the making of his past two solo albums in a chapter on the music business. There is throughout a current of sharp, understated humour.
The book starts with an epiphany or, rather, “a slow-dawning insight” about creativity: “that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung or performed”.
It is social and cultural constructs that determine the nature of all art forms, including music: the size and acoustics of a Gothic cathedral, as compared to a dank punk venue in 1970s New York. Art does not hang in a transcendent bubble above the real world. It is shaped by it, and adapts accordingly. Birds in San Francisco, notes Byrne in David Attenborough mode, have gradually raised the pitch of their songs to be better heard above the surrounding traffic noise.
What follows is essentially a guide to the traffic: an analysis of the forces that have influenced the musical landscape of the past 50 years. He starts with an account of the formation and flowering of Talking Heads, whose angular, punchy songs, “mostly about self-examination, angst and bafflement at the world”, were underpinned by a “groove” that acted as a “sonic and psychological safety net, a link to the body”. The results, as well as bridging the Cartesian divide, were both groundbreaking and popular.
Byrne’s reminiscences testify to a fast-moving intellectual climate, bursting with creative breakthroughs. The band’s early black skinny jeans-look “alluded to ... the tortured, emaciated self-portraits of Egon Schiele and stylised bohemian extremists such as Antonin Artaud”. At dinner in Tokyo in the 1980s he doodles the famous oversized business suit that he was to wear on tour, in unconscious homage to a Noh theatre costume he had just seen on stage.
Having established his credentials as a rock pioneer, he moves to a wider canvas. He is both enthralled by and disparaging of the “advances” of technology but accepts the gradual dematerialisation of music as “a state that is more truthful to its nature, I suspect. Technology has brought us full circle.”
The chapter on the economics of music should be required reading for all 16-year-olds tinkering with their GarageBand software and dreaming of dollar signs, while the section on “How to Make A Scene” is nothing less than a manual for urban regeneration through pop culture. An essay on the arrogance of “high” culture is the nearest Byrne gets to scathing.
There is no hyperbole here: this is a serious, straightforward account of an art form that also manages to be inspiring. You could do a lot worse than use it as a thinking-outside-the-box management manual or a college primer. Art and Society 101: Stop Making Sense.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer