25 Years Ago: David Byrne Begins a New Era With ‘Uh-Oh’
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Over the course of their acclaimed career, Talking Heads were never predictable, moving from post-punk New Wave to synth-funk and global polyrhythms — and regularly popping up in the Top 40 along the way. But when frontman David Byrne wandered away from the band to embark on a solo career, he pushed those eclectic boundaries even further.
Byrne’s first foray outside the band, 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, was a collaborative effort with Brian Eno that was more of a sound collage than the pop effort fans might have expected. When he went solo again with 1989’s Rei Momo, the result was a pan-Latin affair that found him working with a wide array of artists that ranged from Puerto Rican conga player Milton Cardona to U.K. singer Kirsty MacColl. Naturally, his next vocal release was nothing like either of its predecessors.
Uh-Oh, released March 3, 1992, saw Byrne moving officially into the post-Talking Heads era with his first relatively straightforward pop record — albeit one laced with the world-music passion that had steadily suffused his work since the band absorbed funk grooves and African rhythms midway through its career. The result was a set of songs that more smoothly balanced Rei Momo‘s Afro-Brazilian ingredients against the wry lyrics and traditional Western song structures that helped make him a household name.
Byrne employed a large cast of musicians to bring the songs to life, enlisting longtime collaborator Angel Fernandez — a trumpeter and arranger who he’d worked with since the Talking Heads’ Naked LP — as well as Meters bassist George Porter, Jr. a trio of percussionists, and a long list of horn players. If Rei Momo threw sparks through the collision of Byrne’s perpetually detached-sounding vocals against the music’s Latin heat, Uh-Oh presented a seamless union, putting Byrne back in bandleader mode and daring listeners not to dance.
If Uh-Oh represented Byrne’s most commercial work in years — particularly tracks like the singles “She’s Mad,” “Girls on My Mind,” and the irresistible “Hanging Upside Down” — it still wasn’t particularly in step with the zeitgeist. A decade removed from the Talking Heads’ groundbreaking, trendsetting days, Byrne was free to indulge his artistic bliss, and while he was still partly a pop artist at heart, his music wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the aggressive, irony-drenched rock surging onto the airwaves in the early ’90s. The record made some inroads at modern rock radio, but ultimately peaked no higher than No. 125 on Billboard‘s Top 200 Albums chart — lower than Rei Momo.
Unfortunately, chart placements weren’t the only way Byrne was overshadowed by Talking Heads in 1992. Though the group hadn’t worked together in years, they’d never really officially broken up; it wasn’t until Byrne headed back to the studio to work on Uh-Oh that his inferred future plans were made clear. His former bandmates were understandably incensed by the lack of communication — a rift that made headlines later in the year through the release of the compilation Sand in the Vaseline.
Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads vets weren’t the only ones disappointed by his decision to put the band to rest — early calls for a reunion more or less set the tone for the duration of his subsequent recording career, which found him resolutely facing forward and charting an occasionally esoteric path in the face of diminishing commercial returns. While it clearly hasn’t hit a cultural nerve the same way his earlier work did, Byrne’s solo catalog is dotted with more personal and more thrillingly varied moments — and Uh-Oh signaled the start of a new era with a brassy flourish.
Talking Heads Albums Ranked in Order of Awesomeness