Entertainment Magazine

20 Fave Talking Heads Songs

Posted on the 14 June 2013 by Thewildhoneypie @thewildhoneypie



Today I’m pleased to offer you (what I assume is) exactly what David Byrne would not want someone to do with his art: apply one’s own senses of alleged musical expertise and bias to separate his most well-known conjunctive works into a list, sorted by personal preference, complete with my explanations for each corresponding applicable numeric placeholder. This brings me great joy. Great joy (feel free to repeat that in your head with the vocal tonality of C. Montgomery Burns).

Not only have (the) Talking Heads been one of my absolute favorite groups for my entire adult life, and for most of what I call my “consciously adaptive years,” but as a musician I can blatantly acknowledge their influence on me with a lot of the guitar lines I construct with Deathrow Tull, as well as their transitive influence on almost any of today’s performing artists.

They made large jackets fashionable. They used Moog Synthesizers before almost everyone, and they got Bernie Worrell and Brian Eno to sonically screw-drive that shit. They made the greatest live concert film ever with Stop Making Sense in 1984. They were fearless, they were dangerous, and more than anything: they were funky. Tina Weymouth, people. Tina. Weymouth. Chris Frantz. Jerry Harrison. David Byrne. David. Fucking. Byrne! The name of this band is Talking Heads, and these are their best twenty songs.

20. “Love → Building On Fire”/”Artists Only”

Yeah, I started with a tie, deal with it. The reason I grouped these two radically different compositions together is because I actually love them both equally. Both are tremendous works from the beginning of the Talking Heads’ catalog, and a great way to juxtapose my struggle between selecting their more artistically-driven compositions (“Artists Only”) and their pop tunes (“Love -> Building On Fire”).

19. “Take Me To The River”

The only reason this is so low on the list is because it’s not an original (Al Green & Teenie Hodges penning the classic in 1974), though it did land at #26 on The Billboard Top 100 in both the US & Australia. The groove is undeniably tight thanks to Tina Weymouth’s ridiculously sick bass line, and David Byrne’s signature hybrid of tonal yelp and warble shines in their version of “Take Me To the River,” proving to be one of the best covers ever pressed on record.

18. “The Great Curve”

Speaking of undeniably tight grooves… With a thick layer of percussion, heavily layered vocals, and a wicked guitar line: the Talking Heads put the Curtis Mayfield blueprint double time for “The Great Curve.” Punk was an attitude (not a genre) and they put the proverbial pedal-to-the-metal, taking the general construct for funk and disco by taking it deep into space. Not to say Funkadelic didn’t do it first, but its kinda like George and Bootsy were Kirk & Spock and David Bynre was The Doctor…or this Doctor…or Han Solo (which means Jerry Harrison is Chewbacca and that’s just awesome). Does that make Tina Weymouth Obi-Wan or does it make her Rose Tyler?

17. “Found A Job”

They waste literally no time at all launching right into this in-your-face new wave nod to The Clash. David Byrne’s lyrics depict a wonderfully homogenized view of domesticated television executives, and he attacks it with the tenacity their fictional relationship lacks. That, coupled with killer guitar work and the standard Frantz-Weymouth groovitational multibeast, we have a full-fledged, heart-pounding, mecha jam.

16. “Born Under Punches”

There’s going to be a lot of tunes from Remain In Light on here because it is (with the utmost respect to their other releases) a perfect album, and the Talking Heads have a true gift for opening their albums with incredible songs. “Psycho Killer” opens ‘77, “Burning Down The House” opens Speaking In Tongues, and “Born Under Punches” kickstarts Remain In Light. With a syncopated dual-guitar attack, drums racing with the perfect trails of delay, and reverberated choral David Byrnes echoing a less-reverberated David Byrne shouting the decrees of a scorned man all atop a screaming Moog: oscillating. Yeah, he’s a tumbler.

15. “Swamp”

Hell yeah, “Swamp.” Hellllllll fuckin yeah. “Haiiii, hai-hai-hai-hai haiiiiiiii, yoo-hoo!”

14. “Cities”

“Cities” is one of those songs people skip over, and I’m not sure why. You know, it does have an unnecessarily long fade-in…like, 12 seconds or something ridiculous like that. Whatever. I fuckin’ love “Cities.” David Byrne puts together some of the greatest lyrics ever, conversationally discussing the prospects of (shit you not): some of his favorite cities. All that atop a wicked minor disco vamp, and you’ve got a surprisingly super badass tune.

13. “And She Was”

Some of you may hate me for this, but this is the only good song on Little Creatures. But, I’m one of those people who happens to think EMI didn’t have a very good vision for the Talking Heads. I mean, they essentially coaxed the weirdness out of Byrne’s songwriting and they were very mic-trend oriented in their recording and production strategy BUT…”And She Was” is a kick-ass pop song. The chorus is exceptional, and you know the melody even if you don’t remember the lyrics. But, deeper than the accolades of the songwriting is actual notion of the arrangement. The guitar line at the end of the song, wow. Just wow. Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.

12. “Making Flippy Floppy”

Now this is the weirdness. This song perfectly embodies everything I love about David Byrne’s fascination-based musings. Honestly, I have no idea what he’s trying to explain in the lyrics aside from a theme of semi-conscious assimilation. His thought process is so manic, so conversational, and so blissfully awkward that I don’t think we were meant to over-analyze. We know David Byrne has a problem with everything (and everyone), and his honest and conversely danceable sputtering of distrust is perfectly laid above its uptempo, minor stomp-fiesta of a groove. It is that funky-ness that makes it that much easier to fall into the mysticism of Bryne’s sermon; because of that tremendous balance it is what it is: a gem.

11. “I Zimbra”

I see fingers scratching heads right now. I do. I see confused readers wondering what the fuck is on The Onion, moving their trackpads upwards towards their open tabs, meandering to other parts of the internet because you have absolutely no idea what “I Zimbra” is because you’ve never listened to Fear Of Music. Well, stop. It’s alright. When you get to “I Zimbra” on our playlist you’ll be like “ohhhhh, shiiiiiit!” and all will right itself.

This song is masterful for a myriad of reasons: (1) The guitar parts are insane, one of them courtesy of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, (2) the layer of Ghanian percussion over the hi-hat pattern is dope as fuck, (3) the group-chanting of Dadaist poetry that nobody knows the correct pronunciation of and (4) Eno. Brian Eno’s production is at the top of its game. That, and (5) its Jerry Harrison’s favorite Talking Heads song. Word.

10. “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”

Now, this song is very Tom Tom Club. In fact, it’s almost like David Byrne singing over a TTC backing track, but it’s also a very honest tune. As it is admittedly a love song (which Bryne famously likes to avoid as lyrical subject matter), it’s brilliantly composed in his style of using short phrases to convey a larger meaning.

In the documentary portion of Stop Making Sense he states, “”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.” Byrne continues, “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” and it’s that kind of honesty that makes “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” such a strong part of their catalog.

9. “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel”

The second stepping stone in their notorious penchant for having amazing opening tracks, “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel” is one of the Heads’ more unique songs. Churning from very beginning, Chris Frantz’s marching-style snare pattern has (what I like to call) the “locomotive effect,” propelling the song forward at a steady, yet heavy-footed pace and staying all-but-aurally subliminal as David Byrne’s vocals raise the tension over its brief two minute, twelve second run-time. By the end, it’s impossible not to be engaged. You CAN walk, you CAN (in fact), talk just like him…but he WILL walk in circles around you. You’ve been outsmarted again. Eno got ya, deal with it.

8. “Girlfriend Is Better”

I don’t care what kind of journalistic prerequisites you have for writers as readers, but I have no shame in conveying subjectivity. I fucking love this song. I really do. Its almost criminal. In fact, I’ll admit that every time I listen to this song, I mouth out Tina Weymouth’s bass line like a jackass (I know that sounded dirty, and I don’t care about that either). You know the one, “womp-wompa-womp-wompa-womp-wompa-womp-wompa-womp…” Its amazing, and you know you do it too.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what an All-Star Bernie Worrell is. Seriously, what a behemoth. He’s like the Ken Griffey Jr. of synthesizers…from the little brass stabs, to the Moog thats almost doubles as a roto-tom, to the Mono Synth Bass solo at the end, Bernie just kills it. But that’s exactly what he does, he kills it. David Byrne is screaming “I don’t care how impossible it seems,” and Bernie’s like “Dave, I got this…meedly-meedly-whirrrshhh” and Eno’s like, “Man, I should’ve gotten on this record.” That’s why “Girlfriend Is Better” rules, and I think its very important you know my composite rationale. Now you do.

7. “Memories Can’t Wait”

The next journalist that calls this a ballad is getting slapped. It’s heavy…but this is not a ballad, its a banger. True, ballads can be heavy. “Love Reign O’er Me” by The Who is a ballad, and it’s as hard as they come. But, this is no ballad. This song has all of the punk attitude of The Clash, with the tongue-in-cheek lyrical approach of Frank Zappa, with the production of Can. I mean, “Memories Can’t Wait” is by far and large the Talking Heads’ heaviest song. Clean guitars, but heavy as fuck.

Not only is Brian Eno’s production absolutely brilliant, but David Byrne is such a commandant in “Memories,” that he almost mocks the application of this tune’s signature vocal echo in the verses with the slap back reverb on his choruses. He wails (once again) maniacally as the dementia of his drug-tarnished narrative overcomes him and put his metaphorical soapbox into a vile of LSD, sparking the signature darkness “Memories Can’t Wait” personifies.

6. “Life During Wartime”

Let’s be clear, the live version of this on Stop Making Sense is much better than the studio version on Fear Of Music but the studio version is no slouch. The live version is just better. Regardless, this is the Talking Heads song that best exemplifies that ‘core sound’ and personality that stayed with them throughout their discography; for every reason I’ve discussed previously. Its uptempo, funky, every member plays an integral part of the groove, David Byrne is fiercely vocal, and the lyrics are beyond clever. It is the Talking Heads.

Now, to the debate between Stop Making Sense and Fear Of Music…By now you know that I have the utmost respect, admiration and gratitude for Bernie Worrell and what he’s done for music so you can understand why I lean towards the live version. You have to wait for it, but that Moog solo is unreal. Its one of those moments where an instrumentalist truly stands out as a master of their craft, much like Hendrix on “Machine Gun” off Band Of Gypsy’s or Clarence Clemons on “Jungleland” off Hammersmith Odeon 1975. He stands out and defines what every hipster bullshiting on a Korg Microsynth through every Pitchfork-fueled buzzwave single fails to understand about synthesizers: they’re a brilliant analog instrument. Just like a saxophone…just like an electric guitar and Bernie Worrell is their almighty God.

5. “Burning Down The House”

Arguably their most well-known song, it comes with no contest within the Top 5 Best Talking Heads songs. “ In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to dissect this song into what makes it as great as it is because it’s that powerful, as a unified composition, which coincidentally is what makes it that great. Not only was it their only Top 10 Single in the US (peaking at #9), but it made Roto-Toms cool (despite Phil Collins’ incessant need to make them lame). All hail the mighty “Burning Down The House,” suck it Phil Collins.

4. “Crosseyed and Painless”

The secret star of Remain In Light, “Crosseyed & Painless” was the first of its kind. Faster than its predecessors, aptly anchored by an unbreakable dance-punk ostinato: “Crosseyed” is absolutely tenacious. What makes this song even more fantastic is that David Byrne was inspired to write its signature bridge when (drummer) Chris Frantz gave him a copy of Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” his first exposure to Hip-Hop.

We have the same manic lyrical directive Byrne normally uses: paranoia, distrust, the perils of alienation and feeling off-set, yet this time his protagonist possesses a need. As a songwriter, I respect that alot…speaking in song as someone who’s necessity-based rather than someone who’s searching for something, or venting about something simple is much more opaque and can be much more difficult for a listener to understand. That and conveying emotions in songwriting can become increasingly personal when inventing a character, and Byrne’s general distrust of establishment comes along perfectly transparent in “Crosseyed and Painless.” Beyond innovative; instantly classic.

3. “Psycho Killer”

A bold, swarthy attack from an isolationist on the edge, “Psycho Killer” is ruthless. I know that it’s been over-played, and I know everyone’s friend’s shitty bands do shitty covers of it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredible song. Originally performed by Byrne, Weymouth, & Frantz’ first band, The Artistic in 1974, this song was their first hit (their second single) and they managed to land radio play with an intricately written song about a serial killer.

David Byrne admitted while writing the lyrics that he found villains to be “more satisfying” than heroes, citing The Joker and Hannibal Lecter specifically. Ahh, depth. You forgot this song had it didn’t you? That’s alright, you’re in a heavy majority. Let’s continue…

Not only is “Pyscho Killer” a kick-ass rock song but there are three released versions of it that I personally consider classics. You’ve got Talking Heads: 77, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, and then you’ve got Stop Making Sense where David Byrne famously performs the song acoustically to a Roland TR-808 (you know kids, like the one “The Kanye West” talks about) that may or may not have been cued up to a boom box he placed on stage. Byrne writhes around like a spastic fish out of water, contorting and droning in and out of his cool, unleashing a classic for both film and music.

2. “Once In a Lifetime”

Brian Eno’s masterpiece, a level above infallible: “Once In A Lifetime” is perfect. Rumored to be inspired by Fela Kuti’s rhythmic-layering production technique (a technique he used as Musical Director of his own ensemble to arrange different sections into separate time signatures, creating natural polyrhythms), the production is absolutely brilliant. Arpeggiating Moog Voyagers soar over Chris Frantz & Tina Weymouth’s signature pocket, and David Byrne’s voice serves not just as a singer’s, but as a Talking Head itself: proclaiming ultimate truth to a starved generation of the blissfull and restless.

This was the moment where David Byrne transcended the traditional confines of rock stardom and became an artistic and intellectual demigod. He wasn’t there to bring revelations, and he didn’t do it immediately. Describing the symptoms of normalcy as a condition frightened the Talking Heads’ young and artistic audience, making a midlife crisis suddenly became an honest vision. A stark, horrifying reality. It was all so simple, and that’s what made that seemingly obvious revelation about seemingly obvious revelations as terrorizing as it was. But, as the Talking Heads love to do: they nurture that discomfort with an incredibly comfortable groove and all the sudden, you have a song about subliminal descent that’s subliminally descended your inhibition and you already know all the words. Victory.

1. “Slippery People”

When Talking Heads released Speaking In Tongues on May 31st, 1983, listeners were instantly charmed by the singles “Burning Down The House” and “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody),” but the true star of that album (and their entire catalog) blossomed because of its incredible impact as a live song; exemplified best on Stop Making Sense. “Slippery People” is explosive, unsuspectingly aggressive, and unavoidably danceable. Once again, David Byrne delivers an absolutely brilliant set of lyrics: this time addressing the concept of dishonesty using a conversation that may or not be in one’s own head.

The keyboards weave in and out of one another beneath Chris Frantz’s air-tight stepper’s groove, glued together by a perfectly executed funk guitar pattern in the styles of James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire. Tina gracefully dances in syncopation with her bass, raising the funkometer to levels only resolvable by an eargasm and an appropriately fitting cigarette immediately following said ‘gasm.

The song builds tension so gradually. When I said unsuspectingly aggressive, I meant it. The groove tightens with each section, gradually increasing in volume and tension, David Byrne assuming his throne as the ultimate alternative emcee spitting adlibs amidst a two minute percussion solo, and then it happens. The hits. Those hits…

I remember listening to Stop Making Sense for the first time, and just how hard Chris Frantz hit me with those. I was parked on the street that circumnavigated my high school during lunch, splitting a Swisher, ganja ground, and sitting on one of my folders I used for class. I was raised in Cleveland, so my bass was maxed on my EQ (as is culturally customary), and I’d just turned my stereo on when the end of the song hit and those hits come in. And the first thing that happened is the fucking toms & kick drum united in some god-destroying soundwave and went through the folder, making my freshly ground pot explode into air and rain down upon my car seat, my shoes, and my car’s incredibly dirty floor. Now, I was pissed…I watched about $10 worth of my Dub fly into the air (and I’d have to settle for a bowl, which was so not strong enough for lunchtime), but as a budding rock and roll musician I was already “drunk on the punk,” and I immediately started the track over with the stereo turned up louder. But this song isn’t just sentimental to me, it’s bloody brilliant. Geniusly composed, and undeniably infectious: “Slippery People” is my shining gold medalist.

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