By Richard Metzger
Hidden in plain sight in the midst of his prodigious creative output, there is an unfairly overlooked gem in David Byrne’s discography that I feel is an absolutely monumental masterpiece of late 20th century music, one right up there with Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and his seminal collaboration with Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I refer to the seamless funk opera score Byrne created for choreographer, Twyla Tharp in 1981, The Catherine Wheel. Unless you were a big Talking Heads or are David Byrne completest, chances are this one might have passed you by.
The Catherine Wheel is, to my mind, the third spoke (see what I did there) of a deeply psychedelic African-influenced polyrhythmic trilogy along with the above-mentioned Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—all three were easily in my top ten “tripping soundtracks” as an acid-gobbling teenager and all three would still be on my Desert Island Discs list as a middle-aged rock snob. If you’re a fan of the two better-known albums, but have not heard The Catherine Wheel, well, you’ll be in for a profound treat, but especially if you drop some acid beforehand (I’d encourage it, no really!).
Musicians heard on the album include Jerry Harrison, the powerful drummer Yogi Horton, percussionist John Chernoff, Adrian Belew, P-Funk’s resident Minimoog genius Bernie Worrell and Brian Eno. It’s mind-blowing to me that there’s not a deluxe 2-CD set of the album that would include the 12” mixes and live Talking Heads performances of songs from the score, but I feel like this incredible piece of music has always gotten short shrift from whatever major label currently owns it. (The Catherine Wheel is one of the greatest “fuck albums” of all time, too. That’s how they should market it, if you ask me. I toyed with the obnoxious linkbait title of “David Byrne, of all people, recorded the ultimate fuck album” but thought better of it).
Twyla Tharp adapted her Broadway ballet for the BBC and PBS in 1983, incorporating CGI elements. I saw this version of The Catherine Wheel twice when it was on TV back then and I thought that it was completely amazing, but having since seen the Alvin Ailey dancers do some of it in a Twyla Tharp highlights show a few years back, as ahead of its time as this was, modern dance—and Tharp’s own kinetic choreography—has come a long way since 1981.
Yes, it’s more than a bit dated, I grant you, but in 1983, this program was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It’s seemed so avant garde—and so New York—to me back then. Dance needs to be seen live and the twitchy three-dimensional brilliance of what The Catherine Wheel offers as a live experience—like lightening in a bottle aspect of it—just can’t be captured on camera.