Talking Heads aren’t known for their swooning ballads, that’s for sure. The group, fronted by David Byrne, were was one of the seminal new-wave bands of the 1970s and ’80s, fusing aspects of pop, art-rock and funk with a distinctly avant-garde sensibility.
Talking Heads were a product of the art-school tradition. They formed in downtown New York in 1975 and quickly became involved in the city’s thriving punk scene, joining bands like Blondie and Television at the famous CBGBs club. But Talking Heads we’re always slightly separate from the scene which they fell into. Unlike many punk bands of the time, their look was clean-cut, and their music was influenced more by Fela Kuti than it was by The Stooges. They didn’t structure their songs in the same way as most punk bands, and their lyrics were oblique and obscure.
So, it comes as a surprise to learn that one of the band’s biggest hits is, in fact, a love song. Not a traditional love song, of course, but a love song nonetheless. ‘This Must Be The Place’ is one of the most infectious songs in the group’s catalogue, blending the minimalist approach of Terry Reilly and Steve Reich with the Polyrhyhtms of Cuban and West-African music. The resulting track is as bewildering as it is groovy, a song which, over 40 years later, still confounds musicians with its otherworldly appeal.
In the iconic concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne talks about how he’d wanted to write a love song for some time but had shied away from it because it was a “kinda big” topic to deal with in a pop song. Of ‘This Must Be The Place’, Bryne said: “That’s a love song made up almost completely of non-sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities. It’s a real honest kind of love song. I don’t think I’ve ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a sort of reservation or a twist. I tried to write one that wasn’t corny, that didn’t sound stupid or lame the way many do. I think I succeeded; I was pretty happy with that.”
On reading over the lyrics, we see Byrne’s intention. Seemingly, he wanted to express that feeling of heady euphoria without being overly specific about its origins. The result is a set of lyrics that feel more like the fragments of some bigger story, like shards of a vase that Byrne has smashed into a dozen tiny pieces and then pieced back together. He sings:
“The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It’s ok I know nothing’s wrong.”
And with those lines, we are given just enough detail to form a picture for ourselves. In this way, Byrne avoids any sense of smugness, any sense that this feeling is unique to him and the rest of the world simply doesn’t understand it. Instead, he imbues the song with a universal appeal. The love Byrne sings of isn’t simply romantic, it could be platonic, filial. Neither does it contain gendered pronouns, allowing listeners to relate to it regardless of how they identify.
Yes, ‘This must Be The Place’ is proof that you don’t have to be corny to write a love song. If only Michael Bolton had learnt the same lesson.
You can listen to the track below.