Love –> Building on Fire
Talking Heads’ first single, this song was released even before Talking Heads: 77, the band’s debut album. One of the most carefree tracks on the album, this pop song combines Byrne’s vocals (with all of his playful chirping and characteristic syllables and sounds) with a new wave, danceable beat and wistful lyrics, introducing the sound that would define the band for several years. While many punk bands shied away from singing about love, Talking Heads sang about it without using the typical lyrics and metaphors associated with romance.
The band’s ‘signature debut hit‘, Psycho Killer was the only song on the album to make Billboard’s Top 100 (reaching to #92). The album, Talking Heads: 77, also made it into the Top 100, paving the way for all of their subsequent albums to make the Top 40 in the United States. Originally written as a ballad, the lyrics are seemingly from the point of view of a serial killer, and the song contains all sounds that were unique to Talking Heads; a driving base, Byrne’s quirky vocals, the funk-inspired, new wave sound they developed even more with their next albums.
Take Me to the River
In 1974, Al Green released the R&B classic, Take Me to the River, a song that encapsulated the mixture of sex and religion that was so important to the core of rock ‘n’ roll. Talking Heads covered the song in 1978, and released it on the album More Songs About Buildings and Food. Released as a single in 1979, it became the band’s first Top 40 hit — and one that is still popular today. Though Talking Heads were faithful to Green’s original song, the characteristic synths and Byrne’s otherworldly voice and delivery give it the Talking Heads flavor with a hint of soul — apparent for the first time in their music.
Found a Job
A new wave nod to The Clash, Found a Job was recorded on Talking Heads’ album More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), which was the first of three albums produced by Brian Eno. The song, as well as the rest of the album, steers the focus away from Byrne’s vocals and concentrates more on the bass and drums duo of Weymouth and Frantz to create more danceable songs. Byrne’s lyrics comment on a couple’s relationship with the television and each other, intruding upon a domestic scene as the snarky narrator with a nuanced opinion.
Life During Wartime
Jonathan Lenthem’s book, Fear of Music, in which Lenthem picks apart every guitar riff of Talking Heads’ album of the same name, he referred to Life During Wartime as a song that was Talking Heads’ ‘pinnacle’. Life During Wartime is a pop-funk piece in four-four time about the apocalypse, with Byrne’s tenor beginning the song in a ‘paranoiac newscaster’s‘ voice, and a danceable beat that allowed Talking Heads’ audience to ‘groove’. The song was the anchor of the album Fear of Music, released in 1979, which explored international rhythms while keeping to the band’s familiar new wave sound.
Once in a Lifetime
Written by David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, Once in a Lifetime was released in 1981 as the first single of their fourth studio album, Remain in Light. Eno, who had been the band’s producer for two years, had introduced the band to Fela Kuti’s (an African-Nigerian musician who invented the Afro-beat) multiple-rhythm music to the band. For Remain in Light, the band decided to change their technique of writing and then recording a song, instead opting to improvise in the studio. To record Once in a Lifetime, Eno therefore used different rhythm counts for the various group members. He allowed each band member to record overdubs of different musical ideas independently of each other, and phased into each of the independent ideas throughout the song to create what is considered ‘one of the most important pieces of American music of the 20th century’.
Burning Down the House
Burning Down the House was released in 1983 as the first single from Talking Heads’ fifth album, Speaking in Tongues (their highest-charting album, their first album of new material in three years, and the first to win a Grammy). The song had started from an instrumental jam by Weymouth and Frantz, and the lyrics were created when Byrne began singing random syllables over the recording until he found lyrics that fit the groove — another technique influenced by producer Brian Eno. The song became their greatest hit single, and the album tour was documented and made into the acclaimed movie, Stop Making Sense.
This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)
This Must be the Place is another highlight of the album Speaking in Tongues. It is David Byrne’s first love song, written when Byrne was dating costume designer Adelle Lutz in 1982. This piece also began with an instrumental vamp that he and the group had created during a jam session, and Byrne created the lyrics by stringing together various phrases praising domesticity. The song was released as the second single of the album, and though it did not chart as high as Burning Down the House, the song marked a new direction for Byrne’s songwriting that is reflected in Little Creatures (1985).
Girlfriend is Better
There is a reason why there are three songs from the same album on this list. Girlfriend is Better, also on the album Speaking in Tongues, is an upbeat, playful song with a brilliant bass line and Bernie Worrell, a composer and keyboardist who, though never officially a member, often recorded with Talking Heads and can be heard on various recordings and in the film Stop Making Sense, on a synthesizer. Worrell’s talent is further showcased with his Mono Synth bass solo at the end of the piece. The title for the film was also taken from the lyrics of this song.
And She Was
A song on the band’s sixth album: Little Creatures (1985), Byrne’s lyrics are inspired by a girl he met in Baltimore who told him she would do acid and lie down by the Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory, according to the liner notes in Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. The song is known for its unforgettable, playful melody that reached number 54 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and 17 on the British singles chart. Its genius lies in the unusual modulation of the song and the guitar line at the very end, finishing the song with a burst of energy that forces listeners to repeat the song multiple times. The music video was directed by avant-garde filmmaker, Jim Blashfield.