Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has always been known as one of the more eccentric lead singers in rock and roll. His odd facial expressions and wild gyrations quickly brought attention to he and the band and made tickets to their live shows so desirable, even from the band’s early beginnings. It was Byrne’s seemingly uncontrollable nature on stage, mixed with the band’s totally original, brilliant music that landed them their first major gig opening for The Ramones in 1975.
But why did Byrne move like this? Was he just being a freak? As it turns out, no. His movements, though a bit otherwordly, were not only intentional, they were inspired.
Byrne was both imitating and creating a character, an archetype that he had seen on TV and heard on the radio: the evangelist. Probably the most well-known example of these gyrations can be seen in the music video for “Once in a Lifetime” from Remain in Light (1980). Byrne told Time Out:
Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.
Obviously, Byrne was concerned with movement. However, as is usually the case with the Talking Heads, their was a specific purpose. Byrne wasn’t just trying to be odd, though he succeeded in that as well. He was synthesizing the images he had seen of preachers overtaken by the Spirit, venom from snake bites, or whatever else had taken control.
In MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, Tony Basil says:
He [Byrne] wanted to research movement, but he wanted to research movement more as an actor, as does David Bowie, as does Mick Jagger. They come to movement in another way, not as a trained dancer. Or not really interested in dance steps. He wanted to research people in trances – different trances in church and different trances with snakes. So we went over to UCLA and USC, and we viewed a lot of footage of documentaries on that subject. And then he took the ideas, and he ‘physicalized’ the ideas from these documentary-style films.
Byrne didn’t just randomly gyrate. He had studied the movements of those in trances and those preaching while physically overwhelmed. This concept is alluded to in this short Talking Heads documentary. Eight minutes in, you can see video of Byrne interspersed with video of people in religious trances.
Before Talking Heads became one of the most celebrated and influential bands of the 1980s, they were art school students. Performance art in particular was a common expression (it’s said that while in art school, Byrne shaved his beard off with beer instead of shaving cream.) Clearly, this physical form of expression carried over into Talking Heads live shows.