For David Byrne, the 80s were the best of times and the worst of times. Sure, the Talking Heads had a great run with Speaking in Tongues, Little Creatures, and even True Stories, but as their sound grew more pop (with twists of “weird”), Byrne was trying very hard to prove that he was serious artist whose contribution to theater would be, well, taken seriously.
Recorded in 1984, but released in 1985, Music for The Knee Plays was a side project that never really materialized. According to the Wiki on this theatrical piece: “The CIVIL warS was conceived as a single daylong piece of music theatre to accompany the 1984 Summer Olympics. Six different composers from six different countries were to compose sections of [Robert]Wilson’s text inspired by the American Civil War. After initial premieres in their countries of origin, the six parts were to be fused in one epic performance in Los Angeles during the games, a parallel to the internationalist ideals of the Olympic movement.” The ambitious project, however, was never performed in its entirety, but there is Byrne’s contribution that has survived in my, ahem, record vault since I purchased a copy in 1985.
Byrne’s contribution is noted for the Dirty Dozen Bras Band of New Orleans — at least according the liner notes. And yes, there is a preponderance of brass on these pieces, but that doesn’t mean that Byrne doesn’t want to get weird with it.
In “Social Studies,” Byrne explores the notion of consumption and identity in a culture where, to somewhat flip a George Micheal lyric on its head, “The clothes do make the man.” But in this case, it’s more like the “food makes the man…into another man.” Musically and lyrically, Byrne loves to play with familiar styles while peppering the song with lyrics that make for odd perspective on life. It’s all wonderfully strange, but not in a way that feels overly contrived — at least to me, that is. And that’s a tough thing to do when you’re whole public persona is largely built on the following images:
While this song has elements of these personas, I found it to be more adventurous than the output of Talking Heads after Speaking in Tongues.
David Byrne “Social Studies” (Download)