Both the Talking Heads first single and last single can be found on this segment of the list. I want to reiterate that I essentially like all of their songs, so this exercise is even more academic than usual. None the less, I’ve pained over where to place these songs and have moved all of them around one or two slots trying to ascertain exactly which ones I like more than others.
First, another bonus track!
BONUS: Man With A Gun by Jerry Harrison
From Jerry Harrison’s 1988 solo album Casual Gods, Second Single
Jerry Harrison had a number of decent solo tunes in the late 80’s and early 90’s including “Rev It Up,” “Flying Under Radar” and this classic. Harrison was a featured member of two seminal bands – Talking Heads, of course, but also he was one of the original Modern Lovers (later Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers). Two of Harrison’s three solo albums were released between the release of Talking Heads’ Naked in 1988 and the announcement that the band was breaking up in late 1991. As a solo artist, Harrison seemed to prefer accessible mainstream rock (see “Rev It Up”) over the quirky sounds of Talking Heads. “Man With A Gun,” however, is pretty darn quirky pop in its own right. I recall back in ’88, my friends and I liked singing with the backing vocals of the chorus especially. After the break-up, Harrison continued for a short time as a member of The Heads with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz but he ultimately moved on to a successful career as a producer.
And back to our list…
30. New Feeling
From 1977’s Talking Heads: 77, Australian Single Only
The Talking Heads started their career as art-punks from New York City. Their first album, Talking Heads: 77, is all angular guitars, killer bass and drums and David Byrne’s signature vocals. Tina Weymouth’s bass work is a particular highlight of “New Feeling.” The lyrics give me the impression of a humanoid who has read about human interaction doing his best to put his book-learning into practice. Indeed, many of Byrne’s songs suggest more of a detached – even academic – view of friendship. Like he knows engaging with people is something that regular humans do and so he does it even though he doesn’t quite understand it – like Jack Skellington trying to figure out Christmas.
From 1988’s Naked, First Single
My arbitrary third period of Talking heads’ career begins with Speaking in Tongues and ends with their break-up in 1991. This period tended to sound a little more pop than either of their first two periods. On their final album, Naked, Byrne starts to take them a bit more in a Latin music direction (a goal which came to a much more successful fruition on his excellent 1989 solo album, Rei Moma). “Blind” opens with some great 70’s style funk horns before resolving into (according to The Rolling Stone review of Naked) an afro-beat. Byrne improvised a lyric to the song when it was first recorded but apparently only kept the choral “blind – blah-ind” part. I was a DJ at WRBC at Bates college when this song and album came out and I remember being put-off by this track – I must have been expecting another “Wild Wild Life,” which shows you how little I understood David Byrne then. And still now.
28. Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town
From 1977’s Talking Heads: 77, First Single
Another fantastic Tina Weymouth bass line and one that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jackson 5 single. In some ways, the theme of this song is a pretty common rock music theme – love overwhelms common sense. Of course, Byrne takes that idea and expands it specifically towards how love makes it hard to do your work because you’d rather just do stuff with the person you love. I love that he’s framing this early love song in terms of the impact love has has on job performance. Its kind of hilarious. (also, listen for the steel drums)
27. Radio Head
From 1986’s True Stories, Fifth Single
The song that gave Radiohead their name is a highlight of True Stories. Tito Larivva’s performance of the song in the film is one of the movie’s major musical highlights (another major highlight is John Goodman singing “People Like Us,” arguably the best song from True Stories but was never a single). Byrne had become interested in a story that one of the original screenwriters told him about hearing “‘tones’ that told him things about other people” and composed this song in response. In the movie, Larivva’s performance is of unbridled joy. Talking Head’s version is quite good too even if it doesn’t reach the height of the film’s.
26. Ruby Dear
From 1988’s Naked, UK Promotional Single
I had thought that the only two singles from Naked were “Blind” and “Nothing But Flowers.” I’m pleased to report that “Ruby Dear,” one of the best songs from the record, was released as a promotional single in the UK. “Ruby Dear” is one of Talking Heads’ most traditional sounding songs. Chris Frantz anchors it with the Bo Diddley beat (the song that comes to mind immediately for me is the Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away”). I’m not 100% sure what’s going on with the lyrics, but Byrne sometimes falls into genuine stream of consciousness so perhaps that’s what happened here.
25. Love = Building on Fire
1977 Stand-Alone Single
Before Jerry Harrison joined the band, Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth released this song as a stand-alone single. I’d like to call attention to the fact that this song features some pretty prominent brass work – even before Talking heads started working with Eno, they were experimenting with expanding beyond the art-punk sound palette. There’s a lot to love about this song but if I had to pick one highlight, it would be that the building that is on fire in the song is Byrne’s face. Talking Heads can’t just come right out and say that they’re burning up for your love like Madonna – they need to construct an elaborate metaphor and then spend some time questions whether its love or its not love. Regardless of whether its love or not love, his face still feels like its a building that’s on fire. Art school gives you a lot of time to think thoughts like that.
24. The Lady Don’t Mind
From 1985’s Little Creatures, First Single
I bought Little Creatures on cassette when it was first released in 1985. Hey, fellow old people, remember those clear colored cassette’s that had a sort of jelly smell? This was the first one of those I ever encountered. Not only was the music great, but the cassette featured that little olfactory treat, too. I am pretty sure I owned this before I owned any other Talking Heads album so this is sort of “ground zero” for my love of the band (though I was, of course, familiar with a great deal of their catalog both from WXCI – our local college station – and from their songs that received more extensive mainstream airplay). I was driving a ’72 Plymouth Fury at the time that only had AM radio. As a result, for a long time, all I listened to in the car was WNBC New York (at the time, mostly Don Imus, Soupy Sales and Howard Stern). I spent a great deal of time waiting for them to play a song or just turning off the radio. I eventually bought a little portable boom box so I could play cassettes in the car (when the battery wasn’t dead). Anyhow, Little Creatures was one of the main albums I played during the summer between high school graduation and heading to college (so it got a ton of play in my car).
“The Lady Don’t Mind” was (I am surprised to report) the first single from the album – I had thought it was “Road to Nowhere.” Its a great tune. My favorite part is the build – it starts with a gentle little guitar/keyboard call and response, adds a typical funky beat and a controlled Byrne vocal but eventually explodes into some real rock glory by the end. Its one of my favorite Byrne vocals and I’m genuinely thrilled to get to include it on this list.
23. The Good Thing
From 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, Netherlands Single Only
Apparently, More Songs About Buildings and Food only had one single (because record companies were and continue to be insane, presumably). Granted, that single was their cover of “Take Me To The River” and if you’re only going to release one single, it might as well be one that takes your band top 40 for the first time. That said, the album itself is a terrific one. Its their first with producer Brian Eno and you can hear them transitioning from their art-punk sound towards the more experimental world music influenced rock of their next phase. “The Good Thing” (which I suspect, but can’t prove, is love) sounds a little more like Talking Heads: 77 than not and culminates with a great Talking Heads style of guitar rave-up. Its a pretty straight forward, fun rock song with lyrics about how love (assuming that is what the good thing is) can improve efficiency (in contrast with “Uh Oh Love Comes To Town”).
22. Lifetime Piling Up
From the 1992 Hits Compilation Sand In The Vaseline: Popular Favorites, First Single
Talking Heads had been dissolved for several months when the 2 CD hits compilation Sand in the Vaseline was released in 1992. Its a great general overview of their work and a good place to start if you are interested in learning more about the band but don’t want to just start buying albums willy-nilly. Ha! I write this like anyone buys albums anymore. Other than me. I still download a bunch, record companies. Thank me, corporate masters, for keeping you alive.
“Lifetime Piling Up” was recorded during the sessions for Naked but not included on that album. While it is a great single (and the last single the band released) it would have been completely out of place on that album. Naked sounded a lot like an attempt to recapture some of the Eno-period magic and this track is much more of a well constructed rock track with some great late-period Byrne paranoia. I know many Talking Heads fans managed to miss this track and if you did too, do yourself a favor and give it a spin. The chorus especially is great.
21. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
From 1980’s Remain In Light, Japanese Single Only
Writing about “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is borderline foolish. I encourage you to read the Wikipedia descriptions of the recording process of its parent album, Remain in Light, as well as the entry on the song itself. In summary, Talking Heards, producer Brian Eno, hotshot guitarist Adrian Belew and back-up singer Nona Hendryx and several others improvised around African polyrhythms (using legendary Nigerian jazz musician Fela Kuti’s work as inspiration). Byrne tried to create spontaneous “scat” lyrics that eventually resolved into some more formal lyrics. This song is a gorgeous, relentless number with multiple vocal lines, dynamic bass work, and some oddball keyboard interjections. It was only released as a single in Japan but its one of the highlights of Remain in Light (which is kind of an album for of highlights). Its a tremendous work of art and its only here at 21 because I like 20 other singles even better.
Next: An Interlude.