Welcome to the first new (as opposed to reprinted) ranking list on AccordingToDoyle.com. If you’re curious about what’s going on here, check out the About This Project page.
Ranking the songs of Talking Heads was a bit of a bigger challenge than I initially thought it would be because – as it happens – I genuinely like pretty much all of their singles. Indeed, pretty much all of their songs.
I divide the band’s career into roughly three periods. The early “art punk” years (Talking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food), the Brian Eno years (Fear of Music and Remain in Light specifically, though Eno also produced the earlier More Songs) and the commercially successful years (Speaking in Tongues through Naked). While there’s obvious overlap between the three periods, if you’re not familiar with a specific Talking Heads song you can usually listen to it and make an educated guess about which general period its from (sometimes from just listening to the rhythm section).
I’m presenting four bonus tracks here that are not ranked:
Bonus Track: Don’t Take My Kindness for Weakness by The Heads
From 1996’s No Talking, Just Head, Second Single
After David Byrne left Talking Heads and the band ostensibly came to an end, the remaining three members (Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz and Jerry Harrison) decided that they’d make a go of it without him. They changed their name to The Heads and recorded an album titled No Talking, Just Head that featured a different lyricist/singer on each song. As it happens, each song sounds like the band that that singer was associated with. For example, Shaun Ryder of The Happy Mondays is the singer and lyricist on this track and, thus, it sounds a bit like a Happy Mondays tune. Andy Partridge of XTC’s song sounds like an XTC song, etc. I’m sure this was part of what made this project fun for The Heads, but the resulting album was pretty dull and uninspiring. To whit, the band sounded like they really didn’t have an identity of their own without Byrne. There were two singles released from the album and this was the better reviewed of the two. I can’t stand it and I like both The Heads and the Happy Mondays.
Bonus Track: Damage I’ve Done by The Heads
From 1996’s No Talking, Just Head, First Single
This first single from No Talking, Just Head, on the other hand, is quite good. Former Concrete Blonde singer/bassist Johnette Napolitano became the official touring singer for The short-lived Heads and is featured on this tune. When The Heads released their album in 1996, I had limited funds and only bought cassettes or CDs if I heard they were not to be missed. I’d heard The Heads’ album was to be missed… and it wasn’t getting any airplay… and this was pretty much pre-Internet as a music listening tool. I first heard this song when one of our local Honolulu radio stations decided to give away thousands of CDs (particularly CD singles). I picked the “Damage I’ve Done” CD single up and, when I played it, its throbbing bass gave me high hopes for the whole CD. So, I bought the CD and have regretted it ever since. This song, however, is great, especially if you dig Concrete Blonde.
Bonus Track: Making Flippy Floppy (B-Side)
From 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, B-Side
I don’t think I could write about Talking Heads if I wasn’t able to allow myself to reference “Making Flippy Floppy.” I was a junior in high school when Speaking in Tongues was released and the title of this song was the subject of endless age-appropriate foolery. Better yet, it was a B-Side at one point to “Slippery People” so it charted briefly as “Slippery People – Making Flippy Floppy.” Peels of teenage laughter. Peels, I tell you. That it turned out to be a great song with a killer bass line from Tina Weymouth was a bonus.
Bonus Track: Life During Wartime (Live)
From 1982’s The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, First Single
Arguably, this is the definitive version of “Life During Wartime.” I’ve included the original single from Fear of Music in my ranking, but since I prefer not to cover live versions of songs that were previously released as singles (and including this one would mean including singles of live versions of “Swamp,” “Once In A Lifetime” and “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”) I’m going to write about it briefly here instead. The main thing I want to mention is that I love how the live version of the song ends. The studio version fades out while Byrne is still singing. The live version lets him complete the song and then concludes with a great coda featuring some wild keyboard work from Jerry Harrison (or possibly from guest musician Bernie Worrell). Either way, the additional 30 seconds or so are an improvement on an already excellent song. Furthermore, the band just sounds great live and they rip through this one like a hungry cat’s claws through my chin at 6 in the morning.
And now on with the ranking…
From 1979’s Fear of Music, Single in Japan Only
As I’ve explained elsewhere, I rank songs on the basis of “I enjoy each song better than the previous song.” This becomes a bit of a challenge when I essentially like all of the songs. The songs here at the bottom are, thus, songs I like but don’t quite like as much as other songs for various reasons. In the case of “Air” (a fine song), its because it won’t stick in my head. I’ve listened to Fear of Music maybe a hundred times in my life and I recognize and enjoy this tune as soon as I hear it but then “Heaven” (which was not released as a single) comes on next and I completely forget “Air.”
35. Hey Now
From the 1986 album True Stories, Third Single
I heard the Talking Heads version of the songs from True Stories long before I saw the movie or heard the versions of the songs in it. Seeing the song performed in context by a group of kids with sticks and rocks makes “Hey Now” make a lot more sense. When I saw it, I metaphorically slapped my head and went “Oh, its a song for children.” Byrne famously regretted releasing the True Stories album as a Talking Heads record instead of with the cast singing the songs. While I quite like the Talking Heads version, I agree with him in this case that the song works better with the children’s chorus.
34. Houses in Motion
From the 1980 album Remain in Light, Second Single
Wait, “Houses in Motion” was released as a single? Really? Hunh. Whadyaknow. I’ve always really digged the “David Byrne singing with himself in two different vocal registers” part of this song but I don’t have much else to say about it.
33. The Girls Want To Be With The Girls
From 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Good, Promotional Single
One of the things I really like about working on this singles project is discovering that some deep album cuts were actually released as singles in various forms or parts of the world. “The Girls Want To Be With The Girls” didn’t get much airplay – indeed, More Songs About Buildings and Food didn’t get much airplay (with one notable exception) despite being a remarkable album. Most bands face a challenge with their second album (particularly if their first album is well received). To whit, they had their whole lives to prepare for their first album and then have like six months to a year to prepare for their second one. The B-52’s (who David Byrne eventually produced) addressed this problem by deliberate withholding some of their best songs from their first album so they would have strong tracks on their second (as a result, it was their third album that suffered from the slump). Talking Heads addressed this by bringing in producer Brian Eno (who’d been working with Bowie, among others) and then beefing up the presence of the Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz rhythm section. I swear I recall Byrne referring to their music on this album as “stealth disco.”
From 1979’s Fear of Music, Third Single
This song is hilarious. Essentially, its about selecting a city to live in but Byrne goes off on some hilarious stream of thought tangents (Wikipedia points out one of my favorite lines: “Did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis, home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks.”). In fact, the song is almost all tangents. Byrne’s propensity for singing what-the-heck ever eventually birthed the title of the band’s Speaking in Tongues album. Punk in New York in the late-1970’s didn’t just refer to the fast and hard rock sound that would later define the genre – Talking Heads (and, in fact, Blondie) were considered punk before they broke because they were playing by their own musical rules. Singing songs about buildings and cities to angular guitar rock was definitely not the “in” thing in 1979. So punk.
31. Puzzlin’ Evidence
From the 1986 album True Stories, Fourth Single
I always forget that in the True Stories film, “Puzzlin’ Evidence” is sung by a televangelist with a large gospel choir. David Byrne made the cover of Time magazine around the time (sic) when he was preparing to release that film. I remember reading the accompanying article and then reading Roger Ebert’s review of the film. I was really excited to see it and just sure I would love it but when I actually did see it, well, er, uh, I guess it wasn’t bad? I’ve watched some clips this week and feel like I owe it another go. Anyhow, the songs of True Stories are frequently tied to America’s love of products and, if I recall, the movie itself is a bit about how consumerism is at the heart of all of our national myth-making. But its been twenty years since I’ve seen it, so who knoooows?