Understanding the Talking Heads' obsession with urban planning

Understanding the Talking Heads' obsession with urban planning
In an attempt to conjure up a perfect city, I imagine a place that is a mash-up of the best qualities of a host of cities. The permutations are endless. Maybe I'd take the nightlife of New York in a setting like Sydney's with bars like those in Barcelona and cuisine from Singapore served in outdoor restaurants like those in Mexico City. Or I could layer the sense of humor in Spain over the civic accommodation and elegance of Kyoto. Of course, it's not really possible to cherry pick like this—mainly because a city's qualities cannot thrive out of context. A place's cuisine and architecture and language are all somehow interwoven. But one can dream.
-David Byrne, The Wall Street Journal, "A Talking Head Dreams of a Perfect City"


Talking Heads - expect the unexpected (photo credit: Pinterest)

Talking Heads - expect the unexpected (photo credit: Pinterest)

It was 1980.  While The Police conjured up naughty, Lolita-esque scenes in "Don't Stand Too Close to Me" and Pat Benatar begged her crush to test her with "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," the Talking Heads were on another planet lyrics-wise.  This was the year of "Once in a Lifetime," one of the American rock band's greatest hits, and the song's mix of catchy tunes and lyrics suggest existential crises and urban sprawl:

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself-Well...How did I get here?
-Once in a Lifetime, "Remain In Light" (1980)

In the early 1980s, the Talking Heads' career was at its peak.  The band marched to the beat of their own drum, as the adage goes, flooding airwaves with songs about cities, highways, women, and factories.  The Talking Heads' unique ability to weave urban references into songs about mysterious women, on top of their refusal to fit into the traditional rock star mold, endeared me to them since I was a kid.  I've always loved this bizarre and otherwordly band, led by the exceptionally bizarre front man David Byrne, so stumbling across their borderline-obsessive interest in urban planning further endears me to them.

Eager to better understand the Talking Heads' affinity for cities -- and, let's face it, out of boredom -- I read through many of the bands' song lyrics at azlyrics.com.  They read like poetry, and I've pasted some of my favorite lines below as well as made a playlist.  The built world is such a common theme in Talking Heads songs that I wouldn't be surprised if their song's human subjects were really symbols for something urban-related.

Despite the Talking Heads breaking up in 1991, David Bryne forged ahead with a music career as a solo artist.  He continued peppering his songs with urban flourishes, predicting how people would live in the future (hint: it's not in cities) and crooning that it takes more than glass, concrete, and stone to make a home.  In 2009, before I got into urban planning, a flurry of articles came out hailing Byrne as a champion for bicycling and proper urban planning (here here and here).  At this point, Byrne had worked on a bicycle rack project in New York City and published his book 'Bicycle Diaries,' officially propelling him into the hearts of urban planners slash music lovers such as myself.  And never one to shy away from urban planning lessons, Byrne named ten things that make a city livable, themes that overlap with Jane Jacobs and which I have summarized below.  Enjoy!

  1.  Size - a city can't be too small
  2.  Density - humans need frequent interactions
  3.  Sensibility & attitude - the need to feel comfortable and welcome
  4.  Security - a sense of trust and belonging, a community with eyes and ears (bonus points here for referencing Jane Jacobs)
  5.  Chaos & danger - relaxed, less rigid society and a "sense of excitement and possibility"
  6.  Human scale - low, dense clusters of historic buildings and constant foot traffic
  7.  Parking - dead real estate, avoid!
  8.  Boulevards - landscaped areas to break up dense spaces, wide enough for people-oriented uses
  9.  Mixed use - diverse uses that keep a neighborhood in constant use
  10.  Public spaces - common areas for people to pass through and use and public access to natural areas

I got it figured out
There's good points and bad points
Find a city
Find myself a city to live in.
-Cities, "Fear Of Music" (1979)


And she was lying in the grass
And she could hear the highway breathing
And she could see a nearby factory
She's making sure she is not dreaming
-And She Was, "Little Creatures" (1985)


We're on the road to paradise
Here we go, here we go
We're on a ride to nowhere
Come on inside
-Road to Nowhere, "Little Creatures" (1985)


I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture [...]
Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis [...]
Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle
-(Nothing But) Flowers, "Naked" (1988)


Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaunts and bar for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.
I see the parkway that passes through them all.
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
-The Big Country, "More Songs About Buildings & Food" (1978)


That's the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in [...]
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
-Don't Worry About The Government, "Talking Heads 77" (1977)


Underneath the concrete
The dream is still alive
A hundred million lifetimes
A world that never dies
We live in the city of dreams
We drive on the highway of fire
-City of Dreams, "True Stories" (1986)