Talking Heads, The Mudd Club, and CBGB

In her 33 1/3 book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Kim Cooper writes about the idea of “the Scene,” those cities and times that become breeding grounds for creativity. She writes:

Like scientists wondering if a given planet has the building blocks to generate life, rock historians like to puzzle over why some towns suddenly belch up that elusive quarry, the Scene. It seems random, and maybe it is. Why Minneapolis in ’84, Seattle in ’89, London in ’66 and San Francisco in ’67?

Entrance to CBGB.

The same could be said for New York City in the late 70s – early 80s. “New Wave” and “post-punk” bands, including Talking Heads, got their start here, and both The Mudd Club and CBGB were where they first started to perform. In “Life During Wartime,” (Fear of Music, 1979) David Byrne even nods to both venues,  singing, “This ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB.”

The Mudd Club and CBGB were located in Manhattan, Mudd on 77 White St. and CBGB on Bowery. However, it was CBGB where Talking Heads first opened for The Ramones in 1975 and where they, along with bands like Blondie, Misfits, Television, The B-52’s, and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, really started making waves.

Weird art crowd at The Mudd Club.
Weird art crowd at The Mudd Club.

In his 2010 TED Talk on how architecture helped music evolve (watch it, now) Byrne highlights CBGB. He says:

It was, remarkably, a pretty good sounding room, with all the uneven walls and all the crap everywhere, it actually sounded pretty good…The nature of the room meant that words could be understood, the lyrics of the songs could pretty much be understood, the sound system was kind of decent, and there wasn’t a lot of reverberation in the room, so the, uh, rhythms could be pretty intact, too – pretty concise.

He goes on to talk about the clientele, how the band had to turn the volume up in places like CBGB to “overcome people falling down, shouting out, or whatever else they were doing.”

Though Byrne’s TED Talk is wonderfully educational and entertaining with regards to different venues’ architecture and their effects on music, what I find most interesting is how Byrne talks about CBGB sentimentally. He spent a lot of time there, wrote and performed much of the music that would go on to define his career, and it is obvious that he knows every nook and cranny of the place. I’m sure any musician from the 70s-80s NYC scene would talk about the place as fondly as he does.

thcbgbBut, bands (at least the good ones) move on. In “Life During Wartime,” right after he nods to CBGB, Byrne sings, “I ain’t got time for that now.” Bands became bigger than the cramped, uneven space of CBGB, played bigger venues with bigger crowds. Still, up into the early 90s, Byrne returned to play a few surprise shows at CBGB to test new songs he was working on at the time.

CBGB finally closed its doors in 2006, but its legacy will live in the bands that got their start there and the myriad of musicians who have been influenced by the sounds that came out of the Bowery club.

Now, it’s a longer video but certainly worth your time. Here are the Talking Heads (pre-Jerry Harrison) performing at CBGB in December, 1975.

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