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Best Talking Heads Songs: 20 Tracks To Cure A Fear Of Music
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List & Guides

Best Talking Heads Songs: 20 Tracks To Cure A Fear Of Music

The best Talking Heads songs engage the brain and the hips in equal measure. There’s never been another group like them.

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Formed in New York City in 1975, Talking Heads – David Byrne, lead vocals and guitar; Chris Frantz, drums; Jerry Harrison, keyboards and guitar; Tina Weymouth, bass – quickly established themselves apart from the punk scene of the day, both in image (preppy and clean-cut) and sound (angular, but with a deep appreciation of soul, funk and disco). Over the course of eight studio albums they established themselves as one of the most innovative groups of the day, forever forging forward with new sounds and working methods. They announced their split in 1991 (though had already embarked on individual solo careers), leaving behind an endlessly inspiring and fascinating body of work. The best Talking Heads songs have informed the music of countless acts since.

Listen to the best of Talking Heads, and take a look at our 20 best Talking Heads songs, below.

20: Uh-Oh, Love Comes To Town (from ‘Talking Heads: 77’, 1977)

The first song from their debut album, and an early sign that the best Talking Heads songs would set the group apart from the CBGB crowd. Rather than crashing in with the sort of punky barrage you’d expect from a NYC debut in punk’s breakthrough year, Uh-Oh, Lover Comes To Town sees drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth quickly establish a light, swaggering groove with a nimble bassline owing a debt to Motown great, James Jamerson. If that baffled the punks, instrumental passages lit up by steel drums would have had their heads spinning. Meanwhile, David Byrne’s voice and idiosyncratic worldview are established from the off, as he sing-yelps a lyric concerned with the incapacitating effects of love. Already, he sounds like nobody else.

19: I Zimbra (from ‘Fear Of Music’, 1980)

They’d come a very long way in a very short time. Rather than play it safe and reap the commercial rewards that recent breakthroughs had suggested were around the corner (Take Me To The River had reached No.26 in the US chart; the group had played Saturday Night Live), for their third album, Fear Of Music, Talking Heads became more uncompromising, more adventurous and more funky, most obviously on its opener, I Zimbra. Their ranks had swollen, and it was as if their inhibitions had been shed overnight. Frenetic beats were provided by some titans of African percussion: Hossom Ramzy (surdo), Abdou M’Boup (djembe, talking drum) and Assane Thiaim (percussion), along with congas courtesy of Gene Wilder (not that one) and the mononymous Ari, who Bryne and producer Brian Eno had seen busking in New York City’s Washington Square. Meanwhile, Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp unleash fretboard pyrotechnics over the heaviest of grooves. Bryne’s gleeful cries might be utter nonsense – the lyrics are based on Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poem Gadji Beri Bimba – but they sound fantastic.

18: The Big Country (from ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food’, 1978)

This melancholy marvel closed Talking Heads’ second album on a stately note, Jerry Harrison’s lilting lead guitar parts giving a feeling of swooning weightlessness – appropriately so, given the lyrics: the narrator of the song is flying above an undisclosed area of agricultural America, blankly noting the things happening beneath him in the countryside (“A baseball diamond, nice weather down there/I see the school and the houses where the kids are”) before he adopts a judgemental, venomous tone for the choruses: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me/I wouldn’t live like that, no sirree/I wouldn’t do the things the way those people do, I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.” The derisory tone is at odds with the graceful music, suggesting that the listener shouldn’t be so sure who exactly is being parodied.

17: The Great Curve (from ‘Remain In Light’, 1980)

The first Talking Heads album made after David Byrne and producer Brian Eno’s innovative and hugely influential collaboration, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (which was eventually released in 1981, following issues clearing samples), Remain In Light saw the group pursue radically different methods. Rather than work up Byrne’s songs, they embarked upon extended jam sessions which were then cut and looped by Eno, and then overdubbed. Propelled by polyrhythmic percussion and rapturous backing vocals that speak of a divine creation goddess, The Great Curve is one of the best Talking Heads songs to draw upon Byrne and Eno’s African-inspired sojourn. It’s breathless stuff, brimming with excitement and ideas – just check out the convulsing elephant-like noises that Adrian Belew wrestles from his guitar just after the two-minute mark.

16: Making Flippy Floppy (from ‘Speaking In Tongues’, 1983)

Nearly six minutes’ worth of robo-funk, with Tina Wemouth’s endlessly inventive bass to the fore, Making Flippy Floppy shows that Talking Heads were paying attention to the fresh sounds emerging from hip-hop, borrowing them to make something as danceable as it was idiosyncratic. Lyrically, it weighs up the ways in which individuals compromise to fit into society and ponders the consequences of stepping out of line: “Snap into position, bounce till you ache/You step out of line and, you end up in jail.” Hardly typical fodder for a funked-up dancefloor filler, but by this point, the best Talking Heads songs made up their own rules.

15: Take Me To The River (from ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food’, 1978)

Written by Al Green and guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges for Green’s 1974 album, Explores Your Mind, Take Me To The River was, on the surface, a plea for spiritual cleansing, but – typically for Green – had more earthy concerns bubbling beneath the surface. This conflict of interests gave some sizzle to Green’s gospel-indebted cries, while the Hi Rhythm Section cooked up a snappy, sophisticated R&B track behind him. Come 1978, Talking Heads slowed it right down – it slinks, rather than struts – letting the song simmer away until it reaches a fevered crescendo, allowing for ever more frenzied ad libs from Byrne. It takes a brave band to cover Al Green, but Talking Heads made the song enough of their own to get away with it.

14: Cities (from ‘Fear Of Music’, 1980)

Fading in accompanied by the sound of sirens (which, naturally, makes the listener wonder exactly how long the band had been cooking this this jam up out of earshot), Cities is a showcase for Frantz and Weymouth’s unrelenting disco chops. Being Talking Heads, though, it’s anything but straightforward or smooth. There’s a tenseness here, thanks to the scratchy rhythm guitar; or the gonzoid instrumental break just before the two-minute mark, where a conventional guitar solo appears to have been replaced by a mic’ed-up and seasick vacuum cleaner; or the increasingly frantic vocal from Byrne as he delivers a lyric about the relative benefits of various cities while working himself up into a hysterical state, again suggesting a sense of underlying anxiety, even when discussing something as mundane as where to live.

13: Nothing But Flowers (from ‘Naked’, 1988)

For their final album, 1988’s Naked, Talking Heads looked to shake things up. As Chris Frantz later told Billboard, “We all went back there [in his and Tina Weymouth’s Long Island City loft, where Fear Of Music was recorded] and recorded these improvs on cassette. We were all very happy, including David, about the direction it was going. We did about 20 of these little musical snippets; not exactly songs, but more starting-off points, and took those with us to Paris.” Once the group arrived in France, they invited 30 or so musicians from all over Europe to work with them on fleshing those ideas out, most successfully on Nothing But Flowers. A guitar cameo from Johnny Marr and backing vocals from Kirsty MacColl earns its place among the best Talking Heads songs, while it is an irresistible slice of shimmering, Afrobeat-infused pop, while the lyrics are written from the perspective of a character horrified by a world in which nature has reclaimed the planet from rampant capitalism – another example of Byrne’s ironic use of untrustworthy narrators.

12: Heaven (from ‘Fear Of Music’, 1980)

Among the taut, edgy music and uneasy lyrics of Fear Of Music, Heaven feels like a balmy oasis of simplicity and beauty. And it almost didn’t happen. Legend has it that Byrne was humming the melody to himself – at this point it was from a discarded song – while washing dishes and was overheard by Eno, who heard something in it and insisted it was worked up into a new song. In the Heaven Byrne is singing about, almost deadpan, “Nothing ever happens” – whether you interpret that as a none-more-zen way of coming to terms with mortality, or a comment on the futility of looking for perfection (in Heaven, Byrne suggests, “They play my favourite song/Play it once again/Play it all night long” – what could be more maddening?!) is up to the listener.

11: And She Was (from ‘Little Creatures’, 1985)

Showing that, should the mood take them, the best Talking Heads songs could be peppy and effervescent earworms, And She Was saw the group lay the arty jangle-pop foundations for R.E.M.’s more radio-friendly numbers (Stand, Shiny Happy People). Of course, there was a twist – the lyrics concerned themselves with a girl having an out-of-body experience and floating over her hometown.

10: Slippery People (from ‘Speaking In Tongues’, 1983)

For a group as in thrall to R&B as Talking Heads, having a song covered by The Staple Singers would have been the ultimate seal of approval – and that’s exactly what happened when Slippery People was given the Staples’ treatment in 1984, reaching No.22 on the US R&B chart. While it might have seemed an unlikely cover, the song was the most obvious manifestation of David Byrne’s interest in gospel – a spirited call-and-response with powerhouse guest vocalist Nona Hendryx over a pulsing minimal funk backing with deft synth flourishes. But the lyrics take a left turn from traditional gospel, with a critical look at religion (the slippery people of the title can be interpreted as those in positions of power). The song remains a barnstorming highlight of Mavis Staples’ live shows, and has only gained in soulful intensity through the years.

9: Psycho Killer (from ‘Talking Heads: 77’, 1977)

The only Talking Heads song credited to Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth, and, incredibly, the first song Byrne wrote, Psycho Killer remains one of the best Talking Heads songs, and surely the best-loved song to inhabit the headspace of a serial killer. It was apparently written as joke, as Byrne later said: “I had been listening to Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies, I think – and I thought it was really funny stuff. I thought, Hey, I can do this!… I thought I would write a song about a very dramatic subject the way [Alice Cooper] does, but from inside the person, playing down the drama… It seemed a natural delusion that a psychotic killer would imagine himself as very refined and use a foreign language to talk to himself.” Byrne’s extraordinary performance – in which he inhabits the persona of the narrator with a convincing nervous energy – paired with one of the most recognisable of all basslines and captivated audiences worldwide.

8: Found A Job (from ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food’, 1978)

Only David Byrne could write a song about creativity and predict the reality-TV phenomenon of a few decades later along the way. Found A Job begins with a couple taking their frustrations about the quality of TV out on one another (“fighting over little things and wasting precious time”, as Bryne puts it). He goes on to explore what may happen if that energy was channelled in a more positive way – in this instance, making their own TV programmes. The couple’s relationship is saved and they’re having too much fun to worry about the TV anymore. Byrne wraps it up by suggesting that we can all learn from them when it comes to placing creativity at the centre of our lives: “So think about this little scene, apply it to your life/If your work isn’t what you love, then something isn’t right.” The whole thing is set to a relentless, tightly-wound funk-dance backdrop.

7: Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (from ‘Remain In Light’, 1980)

The first track on Remain In Light quickly establishes the mood of the record – wired-sounding, claustrophobic and fidgety funk, with Byrne barking strange and evocative phrases like a street preacher. Here, he gets inside the skin of a “government man” as he ponders the relationship between the politically oppressed and their oppressors. As ever, though, it’s ambiguous – as the music becomes denser with wild instrumental interludes, the identity of the narrator and their motivations blur, and the listener loses themselves to the rhythm.

6: Girlfriend Is Better (from ‘Speaking In Tongues’, 1983)

Speaking In Tongues saw Talking Heads let a little light back in after the dense and tetchy soundscapes of Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, with the spry sci-fi funk of Girlfriend Is Better standing as one of the best Talking Heads songs to edge into pop territory. While Byrne contemplates romantic temptation, the band kick up a storm behind him, with synth wizard Bernie Worrell (a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic) contributing witty and weird musical embellishments that add a cartoonish dimension to proceedings. The coda, in which Byrne implores us to “stop making sense”, would provide Jonathan Demme’s peerless 1984 concert film of the band – where you’ll find fantastic performances of many tracks in our best Talking Heads songs list – with its title.

5: Crosseyed And Painless (from ‘Remain In Light’, 1980)

There’s a palpable sense of urgency here as Byrne’s lyric, seemingly from the perspective of a person on the verge of a breakdown (he begins, “Lost my shape, trying to act casual/Can’t stop, I might end up in a hospital”), is set to a galloping and unstoppable groove. As the band keep pushing, Byrne attempts a tongue-twisting, robot-like rap, again suggesting that the group were open-minded and adventurous enough to embrace new forms of music as they emerged.

4: Burning Down The House (from ‘Speaking In Tongues’, 1983)

Talking Heads’ highest-charting single in the US (it reached No.9 on the Billboard Hot 100), Burning Down The House explodes into life with a thwack of Chris Frantz’s drum and doesn’t let up from there, with powerhouse performances all round. The title was inspired by a P-Funk show that Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth attended at Madison Square Garden, in which the crowd started chanting “Burn down the house! Burn down the house!” in response to Parliament’s Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker).

3: This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) (from ‘Speaking In Tongues’, 1983)

Given that Talking Heads fans had become accustomed to David Byrne’s oblique lyrics and detached delivery, This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) was a genuine shock that. Here Byrne appeared to be singing a simple and direct love song – granted, he sounded like a newly sentient robot exploring these strange things called feelings, but that makes it all the more affecting addition to the best Talking Heads songs. To begin with, Byrne’s neuroses linger (“I feel numb, born with a weak heart/I guess I must be having fun”) but as the song progresses with a bittersweet and flat-out gorgeous electro-pop backing, he accepts the comfort that love can bring (“Home is where I want to be/But I guess I’m already there”.)

2: Life During Wartime (from ‘Fear Of Music’, 1980)

How many other songs written from the point of the view of an undercover vigilante can you dance to? Life During Wartime evolved from a bass riff that Tina Weymouth came up with at sessions at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans. By the time it reached our ears it had mutated into an insistent, horn-laden and deadly groove, the perfect musical foil for Byrne’s lyrics, which predict a dystopian future – something that fascinated him, as he suggested to NME in 1979: “There will be chronic food shortages and gas shortages and people will live in hovels. Paradoxically, they’ll be surrounded by computers the size of wrist watches… I think we’ll be cushioned by amazing technological development and sitting on Salvation Army furniture. Everything else will be crumbling. Government surveillance becomes inevitable because there’s this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage. A lot of it is for your convenience – but as more information gets on file it’s bound to be misused.”

1: Once In A Lifetime (from ‘Remain In Light’, 1980)

That hypnotic bassline, the crystalline and bubbling synth line, David Byrne’s radio evangelists-inspired performance – it all adds up to something transcendent. Topping our list of the best Talking Heads songs, though some have seen Once In A Lifetime as a tirade against the increased consumerism that the 80s ushered in, Byrne himself has suggested the song implores the listener to take stock of their lives, “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half-awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else. We haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’” In urging us to appreciate life, rather than let it pass by without stopping to think, Byrne and Talking Heads created something utterly vital for the ages.

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