As we get closer to the top, I always reflect on how I reveal my bad taste most clearly through what falls just outside the top ten. I suspect that almost every single here will elicit at least one “wait, that’s not #1” gasp from a fan somewhere. Since these lists are based on the very scientific method of “do I like each song more than the previous song at this particular moment in time,” please take comfort in knowing that I, too, will wonder what the heck I was thinking in time – perhaps as early as next week.
Prepare the fainting couches…
20. Take Me To The River
From the 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food, First Single
The original by Al Green is so good, but this is a pretty amazing cover by Talking Heads. This was their first top 40 hit and their only single from More Songs About Buildings and Food. According to Byrne, there were four covers of this song kicking around at the time including the Talking Heads version (the other three were, if you’re curious, by Foghat, Bryan Ferry and Levon Helm). Something about the song’s mix of religion and sexual anxiety suits Byrne’s vocal delivery perfectly and I know from conversation that there are many people who are unaware that this song is a cover. As great as it is, they have even better tunes (some even from this song’s parent album).
19. I Zimbra
From 1979’s Fear of Music, Second Single
“I Zimbra” was cut from the original release of Stop Making Sense but you can see that version here if you’re curious (be curious). Featuring lyrics by Dadaist poet Hugo Ball and (according to that Wikipedia link) “draws heavily on the African popular music Byrne was listening to at the time,” “I Zimbra” was Talking Heads big leap forward. Working with Brian Eno and a small army of extremely talented musicians in the Bahamas, they discovered a shared passion for world music that ultimately inspired a ton of 80’s Western rock and pop with strong African influence (I’m looking at you, Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon). For a long time, I assumed the lyrics were in some African language because A) I’m ignorant and B) I assumed this was a cover of an actual African song (in the same vein as “Take Me To The River”). Wrong on both accounts.
We were not having conversations about cultural appropriation in my circle of friends in my part of New England in the 80’s. I’ll leave that discussion to wiser people than myself.
18. Crosseyed and Painless
From 1980’s Remain in Light, First Single
Talking heads drummer Chris Frantz was apparently a fan of Kurtis Blow‘s “The Breaks.” He shared a copy with David Byrne which inspired the rap-like section of “Crosseyed and Painless.” (themoreyouknow.gif) For reasons I can’t explain, by the time 1992’s 2 CD Talking Heads’ greatest hits collection Sand in The Vaseline was released, I’d not really paid any attention to this song at all (despite the fact that its featured prominently in Stop Making Sense and despite the fact that its a really good song). When I first heard it – I mean really heard it – I spent a month singing “still waiting…” I find the paranoid lyrics fascinating especially in our day and age where a faction of the country does indeed complain that facts don’t do what they want them to.
17. Wild Wild Life
From 1996’s True Stories, First Single
Whoa, that video is offensive and I didn’t realize it back in 1986. Jerry Harrison in yellowface, blackface and as a sort of Latin character. The Cure’s “Why Can’t I Be You” also featured blackface so maybe this was a thing in the mid-80’s? If so, ugh for it being a thing and double ugh for me not noticing back in the day.
Anyhow, the song itself is a pretty straightforward rocker and was Talking Heads third and final US Top 40 hit. Its pretty clear that Byrne could dash off catchy pop melodies in his sleep and my impression is they bored him. I am gaga for his pop tunes and this might be the second closest Talking Heads got to recording an actual Big Dumb Song (the closest was also from True Stories and is coming up still). Byrne was kind of too smart for any of his songs to be actually dumb but for the sake of the film True Stories, he did his best to create some dumb pop.
16. (Nothing But) Flowers
From 1988’s Naked, Second Single
Arguably the highlight of Naked, “(Nothing But) Flowers)” takes one of Byrne’s frequent characters – the guy who loves buildings and being a cog in the corporate American lifestyle – and places him in an idyllic pastoral future. Highways and cities have been replaced with lush, verdant fields and forests. His character is miserable. The song sort of hilarious flips urban creep on its head and poses the question “would anyone actually miss cement and asphalt if it were replaced with grass and flowers?” There have been several other songs that explored this theme since (my favorite being XTC’s “River of Orchids”) but Talking Heads’ take on it is notable both for its witty lyrics and for the wonderful guitar work throughout the song. After a couple of pop-leaning albums, Talking Heads were back to exploring African (and sometimes Latin) beats on Naked and if the song wasn’t an enormous pop hit, its a very satisfying song and would have made a fine final single (had it been the final single).
15. Road to Nowhere
From 1985’s Little Creatures, Second Single
I was just sure this was the first single from Little Creatures (it was actually “The Lady Don’t Mind”). “Burning Down The House” had been a big enough success that I first heard this song on I-95 – our local rock (later classic rock) station. It got a ton of airplay on that station but that must not have translated to airplay everywhere because this song didn’t even crack the Billboard Top 100. It was, however, a top 10 his in the Netherlands – presumably Northern Europeans are more comfortable with cheery songs about doom. While the song is pretty simple (a military drum, a choir, and straightforward 80’s rock orchestration), Byrne’s increasingly enthusiastic vocals make it something special. I especially like his whoops and “hee’s!” at the end.
14. The Great Curve
From 1980’s Remain in Light, Single in France Only
I love the round in this song. Each time it starts it feels like they’ve accidentally stumbled into it and can’t quite figure out how to stop now that they’ve started again. Side one of Remain in Light consists of three songs: “(Born Under Punches) The Heat Goes On,” “Crosseyed and Painless” and then this one. What a remarkable album side – and Side 2 opens with “Once In a Lifetime,” just in case you think they flushed their endorphins out on Side 1. I mentioned that I had sort of never paid much attention to “Crosseyed and Painless” before the 1992 greatest hits package. That led me to acquiring Remain in Life (late in life, I know) and marveling at the whole album. Somehow, this tune builds on the promise of the first two tracks of that album and blows the roof off the place. Burn down the house indeed.
13. Girlfriend is Better (Live)
From the soundtrack to the 1984 film Stop Making Sense, Second Single
The original version of this song on Speaking in Tongues is pretty good but this live version is the definitive record of the song. I was hooked the first time I heard it from the first sound (“I”) that Byrne emits. The song is (and I did not know this) about cheating on the titular girlfriend. Recently when I’ve listened to this song I’ve been especially taken by the keyboard parts (the video suggest its Jerry Harrison on the more bizarro keyboard flourishes here though Bernie Worrell is also contributing keyboard at this point as well) that sound almost like interruptions but ultimately support the whole piece. I’ve noticed this listening to The Cars and Duran Duran (coming soon) lately – sometimes the keyboard doesn’t really have to be doing the same thing as the rest of the instruments. I dig it, man.
12. Burning Down The House
From 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, First Single
Talking Heads managed to have a top ten pop hit with this song. Maybe this could only have happened in 1982 and 1983. There were some songs climbing up the charts in those days that were awesome but that had no business on pop radio. Or maybe the country was having a momentary lapse of bad taste. Who can say? The Wikipedia entry on this song confirms what I heard long ago – Chris Frantz had come from a Parliament-Funkadelic concert where they’d gotten the audience to chant “Burn Down The House” and he was so amped he kept shouting it in rehearsal. Byrne was taken with the phrase and built a song around it. Thus were all things funky that Chris Frantz loved filtered through the mind of David Byrne, for good or ill. I find myself getting happily lost in the drums and keyboard when I listen to this song – especially during the outro. I wish that were five minutes longer.
Tom Jones – a man who can make any song sound awesome not kidding – did a great cover of “Burning Down The House” with The Cardigans in 1999. You should take the time to listen to it if you haven’t.
11. Stay Up Late
From 1985’s Little Creatures, Fourth Single
You have a new baby. David Byrne finds out. Comes over to your house. Keeps the baby up until like three partying. Baby has a blast. Byrne has a blast. Byrne goes home and the baby spends the next week on a messed up sleep schedule. Every parents’ worst nightmare immortalized in as a Talking Heads song.
Coming Soon: Honestly, my whole top ten is kind of screwed up.