[Review] David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (1981)

This is probably the most fun you’ll ever have listening to a ballet score.

Kronomyth 2.0: Go ahead, fill their heads with poison.

During Talking Heads’ hiatus, David Byrne turned the idea of “music you can dance to” on its head by providing the score to Twyla Tharp’s ballet, The Catherine Wheel. The music is herky-jerky, minimalist, mesmerizing, and more or less what you’d expect from the auteur of Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, only stripped down (or at least wearing a few less layers). I tend to see this album as the third of an arty trilogy, the aforementioned pair being parts one and two, with the caveat that Brian Eno’s now-limited participation makes it the least interesting of the trio. The original elpee version of The Catherine Wheel features selections from the score, not surprisingly the better tracks. Eventually, the entire score was made available on compact disc and cassette. Although there’s no harm done in picking up the complete score, you’ll get everything you need on the elpee. It’s here that you’ll find the new songs and the more fleshed-out of the instrumental works. Despite their origins in a ballet score, My Big Hands, Big Blue Plymouth, What a Day That Was, Poison, His Wife Refused and Big Business are basically the new batch of songs from David Byrne. The instrumentals either favor the mixed media approach of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Eggs in a Briar Patch, The Red House) or the ambient style of Music for Films (Cloud Chamber, Light Bath). In some ways, The Catherine Wheel is David Byrne’s most overtly avant-garde work to date. It’s also his most rhythmically informed album, featuring two full-time percussionists, Yogi Horton and John Chernoff. Byrne handles most of the musical duties with contributions from a familiar circle of players (Brian Eno, Adrian Belew, Dolette McDonald, Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell). As to whether it offers a glimpse into what life after Talking Heads would look like for Byrne, the answer is yes and no. His later albums were more commercially geared and took on less of a DIY approach, though still chocked full of invention. And yet this may be Byrne’s most transparent work. If you’re interested in what makes him tic, consider this your invitation to the dance.

Original elpee version

A1. His Wife Refused (4:26)
A2. Two Soldiers (David Byrne/Brian Eno) (4:45)
A3. The Red House (3:17)
A4. My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks) (2:45)
A5. Big Business (David Byrne/John Chernoff) (5:16)
B1. Eggs in a Briar Patch (3:31)
B2. Poison (2:38)
B3. Cloud Chamber (2:42)
B4. What a Day That Was (5:32)
B5. Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open) (4:45)

All songs written by David Byrne unless noted.

Original cassette and compact disc version
A1. Light Bath
A2. His Wife Refused
A3. Adé
A4. Walking
A5. Two Soldiers
A6. Under the Mountain
A7. Dinosaur
A8. The Red House
A9. Wheezing
A10. Eggs in a Briar Patch
A11. Poison
A12. Cloud Chamber
A13. Black Flag
B1. My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)
B2. Combat
B3. Leg Bells
B4. The Blue Flame
B5. Big Business
B6. Dense Beasts
B7. Five Golden Sections
B8. What a Day That Was
B9. Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)
B10. Light Bath

The Players

David Byrne (vocals, bass, guitars, OBX, Primetime, Prophet, percussion, fierce and high guitars, vibes, horses, mini synthesizer, Prophet strings, kitchen metals), John Chernoff (Gung gong, congas, galloping guitar), Yogi Horton (drums, concert toms) with Adrian Belew (steel drum guitars, floating guitars), John Cooksey (drums on B4), Brian Eno (bass, piano, Prophet scream), Sue Halloran (vocals on B5), Jerry Harrison (clavinet, large drum), Dolette McDonald (vocals on B2), Steve Scales (congas on B4), Twyla Tharp (water pot on B3), Bernie Worrell (mini moog, piano, clavinet). Produced by David Byrne; engineered by Julie Last, Doug Bennett; mix engineered by Butch Jones.

The Pictures

Cover photos by David Byrne. Design by Jim Feldman (for Resource Manhattan).

The Plastic

Released on elpee and expanded cassette in December 1981* in the US and the UK (Sire, SRK/M5S 3645), Canada (Sire, XSR 3645), Germany (Sire, K56979) and Japan (Warner, P-11168) with lyrics innersleeve. Reached #104 on the US charts. (*First appeared on 12/5/82 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on expanded compact disc in 1987 in the US (Sire, 3645-2) and Germany (Sire, 27418).

3 thoughts on “[Review] David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (1981)

  1. David Ross Smith on AllMusic listed this album in his 25 desert island picks. I always thought it was intriguing to read what editors posted as their desert island picks since it was a great to discover some, um, lost classics. I can’t remember the whole list. It isn’t there anymore. However, these are the ones I remember.

    1. King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black
    2. Yes – Relayer
    3. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
    4. The Beatles – The White Album
    5. Gong – Live, Etc.
    6. Joni Mitchell – Hejira
    7. Weather Report – Heavy Weather
    8. Jaco Pastorius – Jaco Pastorius
    9. Dudu Pukwana – In the Townships
    10. David Byrne – Songs from “The Catherine Wheel”
    11. Kate Bush – The Dreaming
    12. Roy Harper – Bullinamingvase
    13. Roxy Music – Stranded
    14. 801 – 801 Live
    15. Brian Eno – Another Green World
    16. Brian Eno – Before and After Science
    17. A Clockwork Orange: Music from the Soundtrack
    18. Frank Zappa – Apostrophe
    19. Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
    20. Santana – Caravanserai
    21. The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet

    1. You’ve got quite a memory, Miles. That sounds like an interesting island. I’d have a lot of the same artists but different albums, while adding that the world would be a very boring place if we all liked the same things.

  2. Oh, here were two that I missed:

    Mahavishnu Orchestra – Visions of the Emerald Beyond
    Can – Future Days

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