Talking Heads Singles Ranked, 1-10

I confess, I’ve done David Byrne a disservice. I’ve read that most of his post-Talking Heads albums are at least good and often outstanding. While I do remember enjoying some of the tracks off of Rei Momo back in my radio days, I couldn’t tell you what those tracks were. In fact, the only David Byrne track I am familiar with is this cut from the soundtrack to Something Wild:

If I have time in this life, I swear I am going to catch up with what Byrne has been doing all these years. Bad fan, bad bad. Especially in light of how I kept up with Tom Tom Club and even The Heads.

Anyhow, my top ten leans pretty heavily towards the pop end of Talking Heads’ ouevre. That’s just the way I’ve wired my brain, I guess. How did I get here?

Like this:

10. Love For Sale

From 1986’s True Stories, Second Single

This is, I suppose, Talking Heads’ genuine article Big Dumb Song. I love it so much. The video is almost exactly the same in the film of True Stores as what you see there. Talking Heads are costumed in a way that presages The Wiggles. The song is built around an almost cliche rock chord progression, features fabulous staccato “ooh ooh” backing vocals and David Byrne sings is like he’s the lead singer of a snotty first wave punk band (BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT HE WAS). The lyrics are about a person who was raised by a TV and, thus, can only court somebody using techniques he observed in commercials. Its the best possible trash and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

9. Sax and Violins

From the Soundtrack to the 1991 Film Until The End of The World, First Single

The soundtrack to Wim Wenders Until The End of The World was one of those records that everyone I knew owned back in 1991. It features great tracks by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, R.E.M., U2, Jane Siberry with kd lang and a dozen or so others. It also features the “last” Talking Heads single (though, as we discussed, “Lifetime Piling Up” is truly the last Talking Heads single). An early version of “Sax and Violins” was put together during the Naked sessions but Byrne busted it out and finished it for Wender’s film. Byrne composed the music in an attempt to predict what music might sound like in the year 2000 (9 years off at the time, though 17 years in the past now) and ultimately decided that it wouldn’t necessarily be all that different. The song’s title puns on “sex and violence” of course. There’s what sounds like a chant in an African language in the background a couple of times. Anyhow, the song is great.

8. Psycho Killer

From 1977’s Talking Heads: 77, Second Single

Ah, the song that Talking Heads are arguably best known for! While Byrne gets most of the attention for this track (and deservedly so), I am compelled to point out that the opening hook is all bass played by Tina Weymouth. That simple, throbbing note progression is one of the most famous basslines in all of rock music. There’s a lot of other things to love about the song (Byrne’s delivery, the lyrics, the kind of psycho guitar playing, etc) but that bassline is – I don’t know – elemental. “Psycho Killer” is one of those songs that feels like it’s always been there – like I’m sure there was a time when I first heard it but I can’t remember when that might have been. Isn’t that strange? The first time one hears “Psycho Killer” should be a seminal event in one’s life. I still get a bit of a thrill when I hear that first “dun dun dun dun dun dun dundun dun” before the rest of the band kicks in. The song was never a top 40 hit but that didn’t stop anyone at any high school dance I ever attended from knowing all the words and going a little berserk on the dance floor when it played. Well, berserk for us New England kids was “we actually sort of danced.”

7. Once In A Lifetime

From 1980’s Remain in Light, Second Single

Once your song has been covered by Kermit the Frog, you’ve reached the maximum level of fame. This will not stop you from asking yourself “Well? How did I get here?” While “Once in a Lifetime” was not a top 40 hit upon release, the seminal video (choreographed by Toni Basil, later of “Hey Mickey” fame) went into heavy rotation in the early days of MTV. As a result, while Talking Heads might have had more commercially successful songs, this is arguably their most iconic song. It checks off the Afrobeat and quirky lyric boxes as well as the striking visual images box. I realize I keep focusing on her to the exclusion of the rest of the band, but Tina Weymouth proves once again that she’s a monster bass player on this tune. Seriously, she’s great.

The Wikipedia article on “Once in a Lifetime” gives a great overview of the process producer Brian Eno and the band went through while creating the song. Its fascinating and worth a read.

6. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)

From 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, Second Single

Apparently, Byrne referred to this as a naive melody because he has bass and guitar basically playing the same melody through the whole song. Furthermore, the lyrics are all non-sequiturs. There were so many possible other singles from Speaking in Tongues (“Girlfriend is Better,” “Slippery People,” “Swamp” and “Making Flippy Floppy”) that I find it refreshing, in retrospect, that they selected the lovely, simple piece as the follow-up single to “Burning Down The House.” Naive indeed. Byrne plays the charming little keyboard solo. I’ve loved this song almost since the moment I heard it (even though my dyslexic brain insisted that the title was “NATIVE Melody,” which confused me).

5. Life During Wartime

From 1979’s Fear of Music, First Single

For a song that is often perceived as anti-disco, you sure can dance to this track. That “this ain’t no disco” line is probably no more anti-disco than the previous line is anti-party. It’s just the song’s character stressing the bleakness of his current living situation – he’s involved in some sort of war or military action within the United States (Wikipedia gives more details). While I ultimately like the live version from The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads more than the studio version (as I mentioned in my first entry on Talking Heads), the original is still a killer song. Jerry Harrison’s keyboard – next to Byrne’s vocals – is probably the element that stands out most in my head when I think of this tune. I remember hearing it in the early 80’s and thinking I’d discovered some amazing secret song that nobody else knew. For a long time, this was my absolute favorite song by Talking Heads and its only been recently that my tastes have realigned slightly. I think if I’d included the live version instead of this version, I may well have ranked it #1.

4. Swamp

From 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, Single Released in The Netherlands Only

Oh holy cats, that chorus. Most people remember “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Segar or maybe “Love On A Real Train” by Tangerine Dream from the Risky Business film, but that movie made me notice this song. Indeed, this song gave that movie its title. I didn’t own Speaking in Tongues until around 1985 – it was one of the first two CDs I ever owned (the other was an Elvis Costello CD). When I first heard “Swamp” on that CD, I thought “Holy cats, the Risky Business song is a Talking Heads song!” I didn’t recognize Byrne’s vocal, it doesn’t appear on the Risky Business soundtrack and I don’t think he wrote “swamp” anywhere in the lyrics. Man, life before the Internet was rough (#80sproblems). One of my favorite things to do when I listen to this song is to shout “Low” after the “high high high high high” section. I think Chris Frantz does this in Stop Making Sense, so I suppose this is my tribute to him.

3. And She Was

From 1985’s Little Creatures, Third Single

For years, I thought this song was inspired by Remedios the Beauty from Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. I’m disappointed to learn that it was inspired by a hippie chick dropping acid. Hands down the best song on Little Creatures – at least in my opinion. I’ve loved this song since the moment I heard it on my old cheap boombox in my old Plymouth Fury as it played my jelly-smelling cassette version of that album. From that first “HEY!” to the stop and go rhythm guitar to that final glorious chorus, its one of the best straight up rock songs of the decade. The video is also one of the best of the decade. That this song wasn’t a top 10 hit is some sort of travesty and can only be explained by the fact that America was listening to “We Built This City” by Starship at the time and, thus, was suffering from collective brain damage from being knee-deep in the hoopla. Imagine being given a choice between “We Built This City” and “And She Was” and picking the former. MY GENERATION DID. I mean, there were other songs involved too, but I think blaming Starship is usually correct.

2. Pulled Up

From 1977’s Talking Heads: 77, Third Single

My top 2 are probably not your top 2. “Pulled Up” is an upbeat positive song about being helped by another person that by the end sounds – if anything – even more demented than its album-mate “Psycho Killer.” I used to hear this song on the radio occasionally as a youth and I always sort of liked it. Then I went basically 20 years without hear it at all. I forgot it existed. Then I was listening to Talking Heads: 77 casually one day and “Psycho Killer” ended. I thought “Oh, that’s the last song on the album.” But no! “Pulled Up” started and I thought “holy fa fa fa fa! I love this song!” It’s maybe their best album closer in addition to being one of their best overall songs. But seriously, Byrne’s delivery supported by the tune’s breakneck pace is what does it for me. He’s one of the great vocalists of my lifetime.

1. Slippery People (Live)

From the soundtrack to the 1984 film Stop Making Sense, First Single

Talking Heads released their version of “Slippery People” at the same time that the Staples Singers released their cover of the song. If you’ve not heard Mavis Staples sing this song, treat yourself. My favorite Talking Heads song in 2017 is – without a doubt – this funky, gospel influenced tune, especially as its performed live in the film Stop Making Sense. The harmony singing is what cinches it for me – I move from wanting to dance to the song to wanting to be on stage singing it along with the band. I want to be part of this song when it plays. As I mentioned earlier, there was a single release of this song with “Making Flippy Floppy” on Side B at one point which meant the hilarious phrase “Slippery People Making Flippy Floppy” was in Billboard for a week or two. This basically made my entire teenage life bearable and this was before I’d even heard either song. “I hate a dirty joke its true unless its told by someone who knows how to tell it.” Anyhow, that ribald juxtaposition of titles has nothing to do with the spirit of the song – the lyrics of which take its gospel credential seriously. Who can say why one song is loved by a person more than other songs? I don’t know that I can intellectualize why I dig it,  but I can feel it (love from the bottom to the top).

Next Up: Thomas Dolby’s 26 Singles then Duran Duran’s 64 singles.

Talking Heads Singles Ranked31-3621-30Interlude11-201-10

2 comments

  1. I love Talking Heads whether here or there, whether making sense or not, whether slippery or floppy floppy; I love Talking Heads everyday everywhere! Your collection gave me a chance to remember and enjoy and just remember that my favorites never made it to the top 40 lists.

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