Every now and then music needs somebody to come along, grab it by the lapels and rattle it about like a pinball in-play during an earthquake. Talking Heads didn’t quite do this entirely. David Byrne and the band more sort of moseyed up to the music industry, introduced themselves as an intergalactic presence, walked it hand-in-hand to the dancefloor and showed it how to make Flippy Floppy. As bassist Tina Weymouth once said, “When Talking Heads started, we called ourselves Thinking Man’s Dance Music.”
This unique approach to the craft made Talking Heads one of the most original acts of all time, but their music shows the true worth of ‘originality’ as an adjective. It should be a token used to describe your work as opposed to something to strive for while making it, this notion is where imitators have gone wrong and the band themselves triumphed unquestionably. Behind the singular sound that the band crafted is a simple need for exultation that we can all celebrate in.
David Byrne once said, “I couldn’t talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching.” This need to escape from yourself and to cut the dull ties of banality that tether us to the grind of the ‘everyday’, is gorgeously elucidated in their music. They extend this need for spiritual escapism out to the listener as an unmistakable entreaty to join them in the beatific rhapsody of music.
This seemingly divine alchemy that unspools with all the subtly of a speeding juggernaut set ablaze careening up a pedestrian street – particularly in their live shows – is an exhilarating thing to behold. They might not be a band for all occasions but when the time is right there is no act that can form an adrenalized sonic fist and drag you from the mire quite like them.
Below, we’re looking at ten times when the Talking Heads were at their very best and in the words of writer James Baldwin, ‘their triumph was ours’. Whittling it down to ten hasn’t been easy, mostly because revisiting their back catalogue has led me to stop making sense and simply yell ‘Christ I fucking love Talking Heads’ like a man who has developed a very specific form of Tourette’s overnight.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
The 10 best Talking Heads songs:
10. ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’
By the time Naked was released in 1988, the band was a fractured entity. They were no longer embarking on global tours and the beginning of the end was well underway. Naturally, this meant that the lofty heights of previous albums was difficult to achieve. ‘(Nothing But) Flowers’ was the band’s scintillating farewell. With Johnny Marr lending a hand with some trademark tremolo guitar and Kirsty MacColl providing her impassioned pipes for backing vocals, the track stands as proof that if you assemble enough talent in one room then something magic is bound to manifest.
The song is written from the polar opposite perspective of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ as Byrne portrays a man who yearns for the glory of commercialism and laments the fictional slide from Pizza Huts to pastures of paradise. The mirthful satire is chocked with lines like, “If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower,” that only Byrne could have crafted, while the melody unfurls a contradictory narrative in the searing sound of sanguine summer.
9. ‘Houses in Motion’
It would be daft to describe ‘Houses in Motion’ as ahead of its time because that would imply that its time has since come. Listening back to Remain in Light it is hard to fathom that it was a record released way back in 1980. The extraordinary meddling of House beats, Afro rhythms and some of the weirdest sounding horn tones ever put to record, curtesy of Jon Hassell, creates a melee of noise synonymous with the future, Talking Heads, and nothing else.
The song is reflective of a man digging his own grave, reflecting the ruinous pursuit of an insular goal. The message teams up with the melody in a similarly paranoid and jarring wall of sound that Byrne’s friend David Bowie achieved with his descent into madness for ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
8. ‘Life During Wartime’
In Talking Heads long chequered history of gross assaults against banality, they still never lost their ‘thinking man’ edge. There is no band in the world who could take on the terrorist ideology of West Berlin’s left-wing Bolshevistic Baader-Meinhof group, transpose the political assessment onto a disco-beat, and not lose the visceral edge of either elements. Far from being a careless satire that misplaces the serious nature of the destructive group in a carefree song, the band approaches the subject judiciously and houses Byrne’s savvy observations in a rightfully jarring jazzy abode.
The track is as fast and furious as ever with Funkadelic rhythms finding an unexpected soulmate in the snarling seething passions of the New York art-punk scene. There is also a darkness on display here that illuminates the band’s ability to journey into all quarters that their wandering imaginations lead.
7. ‘Thank You for Sending Me an Angel’
Talking Heads were an act that fully encapsulated what it means to be a band. They were not just studio hermits churning out records, or poseurs more concerned with identity than music, they pieced together a collage of everything that was best about being in a group and transfigured it into a glowing cohesive image. That image is on full display in the multi-media style art show of a performance for Stop Making Sense, without a single doubt the greatest concert film of all time (rivalled closely by Byrne’s recent American Utopia). Within that show ‘Thank You for Sending Me an Angel’ lands as an incendiary attack on those still seated.
The song is a Pulp Fiction-Esque shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. Perhaps it is about infancy and learning to walk or perhaps I’m miles off the mark, the fact of the matter is that the song is such a runaway train of raucous melody that the subtext of the lyrics are frankly a moot point amidst the maelstrom of joyous musical mayhem.
6. ‘Burning Down the House’
The soft gathering storm of the acoustic plucking that opens ‘Burning Down the House’, the opening track on the band’s 1983 masterpiece Speaking in Tongues, is the sound of a fuse being lit before the funk explosion of the main composition.
The song itself is perfectly entwined with the backstory behind its inception. Tina Weymouth wrote on the liner notes of Once In a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads that “Chris Frantz had just been to see Parliament-Funkadelic in its full glory at Madison Square Garden and he was really hyped. During [a Talking Heads jam session] he kept yelling ‘Burn down the house!’ which was a P-Funk audience chant and David dug the line.”
This carefree way to craft a song, the passionate enthusiasm for music that spawned it and the scintillating skill in being able to pull it all off in a simple jam session speaks of artists at the height of their form. The song itself sounds exactly like the fevered excitement of simply making music and having fun and it’s one hell of a thing to hear.
5. ‘Psycho Killer’
Although David Byrne’s singular genius may well have been the driving force behind the band, they always functioned as an ensemble. On ‘Psycho Killer’ Tina Weymouth came to the fore. Her bassline is one of the most instantly identifiable in music despite its unapologetic simplicity, and she followed this up with a surging middle eight sung in French in order to convey the schizophrenic personality of the unstable narrator.
This uncompromising creative intent, written long before their debut was even released, earmarked the group as an unknown entity, some mutant creation of the art world tangled up in all the world-weary sincerity blue-collared folk and the simple joy of dance music in all of its global guises. This track singled them pioneering band out as belonging to a league of their own, where they have remained to this day, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson “too weird to live and too rare to die.”
David Byrne once beautifully voiced his worldview in a way that even Albert Camus would applaud when he said, “I sense that the world might be more dreamlike, metaphorical and poetic than we currently believe, but just as irrational as sympathetic magic when looked at in a typically scientific way. I wouldn’t be surprised it poetry, poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs, is how the world works. The world isn’t illogical, it’s a song.” That song is ‘Heaven’ or at least we can hope it is.
The track stands out from a lot of the bands back catalogue in that the introspective poetry of the piece is reflected in the melody. The lyrics are dressed in a veil of ambiguity, that is matched in the sound. Sometimes it can sound like youth regrettably escaping an ungrateful grasp and the reflective yearning to reclaim it, other times it can sound like the sanguine hum of bar simmering away under the glowing flame of the joys of life on a celebratory Friday night. The one thing that remains constant, however, is that the songs almost hymnal quality stands up as a gorgeous middle finger to anyone who says surrealism can’t be reverential.
3. ‘Road to Nowhere’
David Byrne has always found liberation in performing. Nowhere is that more apparent than on this track. By the time songs grand crescendo comes along he’s cooing like a seagull who just discovered an open-topped chip factory and it’s a thing of pure joy.
This soaring ode to exultant rapture seems very much to be the work of spiritual alchemy, but as he makes clear in his novel How Music Works, this marching melody that leads towards the joyous nowhere of dancing spiritual oblivion is very much the product of meticulous craft applied soulfully. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “every artist was first an amateur,” and this song is a glowing example of how you must first learn the rules in order to know how to break them, or rather to scream wildly over the top of them. Never before or since has methodical pop perfection been achieved while riding so high on the simple joys of being life.
2. ‘Once in a Lifetime’
Talking Heads have always cut a peculiar shape amidst the pop-culture milieu, and that’s only partly due to the massively oversized suits David Byrne wore in a bid to make his head “appear smaller”. ‘Once in a Lifetime’ stands up on any playlist as an incomparable piece of music for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps one of the most epitomising accolades being that the track was covered by none other than Kermit the Frog. What other artist could make afrobeat rhythms, absurdist poetry and angular soundscapes palatable enough to be performed by everyone’s favourite green straight man?
There is a tendency in music to reserve the word ‘masterpiece’ for only the most earnest of works and taint anything sincere and joyful with the sordid tag of ‘satire’. ‘Once In a Lifetime’ is a raucous work in eviscerating subtly, but it is hard to imagine anything more singular that is so simultaneously poignant and playful.
Brian Eno’s production is once again right on the mad money as Byrne yells out all-important questions in the style of a chanted sermon. He questions and probes at the mundane security of modern life, however, he does so without any cynicism; he acknowledges that it’s not easy being green. The song itself is a tonic to life, in the Dada-ist ethos that has permeated Bryne’s work, the art is an expression of the message even if that’s not easy to make out.
1. ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ (Live)
In 1981 a dancer named Twyla Tharp commissioned David Byrne to score her dance project. Following the collaboration, the two become romantically involved. In Tharp’s memoir she describes Byrne’s curious creative process as an attempt “to find the residue of ancient thoughts in the most up-to-date aspects of society.” This is an important note in analysing Talking Heads, their singular approach to music comes from a very singular place, and as weird as it sounds Byrne’s search for spiritualism or science in the everyday permeates each and every single one of the band’s funkiest grooves.
Byrne’s career and art have not only been a mark of defiant liberation in the face of autism, but an exploration of humanity fuelled by his own insular curiosity; the defiance provides an acerbic energy, while the counterpoint of curiosity colours the songs with a wistfulness. ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ is the perfect example of this, it is a love song in spite of itself in the same way that Byrne seems to be a rockstar in spite of himself. The same can be said of all the creative wizardry deployed throughout the Talking Heads’ back catalogue. Every quirk and oddity is done with such sincerity that it is always fun and never alienating.
The band swapped instruments for this song and whilst from the outside looking in this may seem frivolous, it’s hard to argue with the result. It’s a move that sings of the profuse creative heart behind the band and in the process they crafted a love song that juices life right down to the bittersweet and blissful pith.