So, yesterday, I covered ranked the albums of one of my all-time favorite artists, Tom Petty. If you think about it, Prince, Cheap Trick and Tom Petty seem to be cut from the same cloth: some meat and potatoes rock and a penchant for a little experimentation mixed to keep things fresh, though their initial perspectives began in different environments. A a music fan, while those artists are three of the all-time greats, I o get fidgety for music that comes more from left field that anything else. That’s were artists such as Devo, The B-52’s, Frank Zappa, Parliament/Funkadelic, Talking Heads and the like. That’s why, today, I want to get my new wave clothes on, figuratively speaking since the real things would NEVER fit today.
No, today I present to you my Top 25 favorite songs by a band with 3/4 of its members were students of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, while the fourth member once attended that “Hilton of the Hicks”, Harvard. Initially, back in 1976, the band began as the trio from RISD. It wasn’t until a year later in which the band added the multi-instrumentalist from Harvard, who had just completed a stint in the influential punk/new wave band the Modern Lovers. So, when the trio of singer/guitarist David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and her future husband, drummer Chris Frantz hooked up with Jerry Harrison, the modern line up of the Rock & Roll Hall Fame Inductees Talking Heads. This band was one of first artists to be signed from the fertile grounds of the famous New York City punk night club of the ’70s and ’80s, the CBGBs.
Surprisingly, Talking Heads only had one Top 10 single, “Burning Down the House” back in 1983. But, many more singles that over time have become classics. So, today, I bring you, My Top 25 Favorite Talking Heads Songs.
25. “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” (1977). This song is the first one on Side 1 of the band’s debut album, Talking Heads:77. It delivers all the nervous energy that will become associated with the band over the years, as well as the love of solid funk and bubblegum music that can be heard in much of their early stuff.
24. “Love —> Building on Fire” (1976). This is the first single released independently by the original trio. The basic sound is present, along with the odd lyrical structure.
23. “Making Flippy Floppy” (1983). I just loved it, when in 1983 the band took the lessons learned from their foray into African rhythms on their previous album, Remain in Light, and stripped things back to the basic funk on the songs like this one on 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. Talking Heads made it cool to be a white nerd who was into funk music, like myself.
22. “Crosseyed and Painless” (1980). What Brian Eno and Talking Heads did on 1980’s Remain in Light was monumental by introducing the world to the funkiness of actual African rhythms. This song is definitely the next step of the funk/rock sound developed by Funkadelic. Listen to guitar whiz Adrian Belew’s guitar solo and compare it to Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel’s solo on “Maggot Brain” and tell me they aren’t related.
21. “(Nothing But) Flowers” (1988). In 1988, David Byrne was done with Talking Heads, though the other three wanted to remain together. Working together one last time, after taking a two album break from the funk, the band dove head first in their most straight forward funk album yet. This song was the first single released from the 1988 Naked album. This time the band lightens the funk, almost to a Caribbean beat with breezy lyrics set to that sound. Lyrically, Byrne spoke to the rising consciousness toward the degradation of the environment that unfortunately peaked back then and, now, sounds quaint to some and overly optimistic to others. Yet, there was a time in the late-80s and throughout the 90s when a majority of Americans believed we were harming Mother Nature.
20. “Girlfriend Is Better” (1983). Going back to Speaking in Tongues, we find this next song that is furthering the dance sound once associated with The B-52’s, of course not as stripped back as the Athens band.
19. “And She Was” (1985). After two albums in which the band developed its funk side, Talking Heads turned back toward their original two-to-three-minute pop songs brimming with the sound of bubblegum with the funk lying under the surface. On their first single from Little Creatures, the band reclaimed their original sound by adding more well-developed obtuse lyrics.
18. “Artists Only” (1978). This is a perfect example of the early sound of the band in which they pitted a funky dance-ability against the pop perfection of bubblegum music. This is the sound of new wave being defined.
17. “Blind” (1988). They finally did it. Talking Heads found their inner James Brown, making a song that the Godfather of Soul probably wishes he had made. The music is pure funk, while David Byrne does his best James Brown imitation, which was the best since Eddie Murphy on SNL.
16. “Don’t Worry About the Government” (1978). The lyrics sound as if they were held over from the Nixon years, but the sound is pure on-the-cusp-of-the-Eighties modern. It’s really a pop song that you can dance to, Tommy! It really is!
15. “Slippery People” (1983). Is this a fun song or what? This has is all: a slithery bass, rocking guitar work, and strange, almost Dada-istic lyrics.
14. “Road to Nowhere” (1985). This song caught me off guard because it was the first time that Taking Heads had what sounded like a choir singing the opening of the song. Then the music kicks in to a great song showing the softer side of the band.
13. “Memories Can’t Wait” (1979). Bassist Tina Weymouth was always the band’s secret weapon, constantly giving their songs a solid funky base. But, her base explodes as she finally leads the song from start to finish with a straight ahead funk bassline giving the song its personality as the lyrics about past memories resonated more strongly than anything they had written before. I may have underrated this song!
12. “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” (1978). Simply a great pop song, as only Talking Heads could do one.
11. “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” (1980). Back in 1980, when I heard this song, the first one on Side 1, I didn’t realize what was hitting me. But, the tune played I began to feel like Poindexter in Revenge of the Nerds as if he were hearing dance music for the first time. In my case, I was feeling those African rhythms juxtaposition with the blast of guitars which cause an epiphany in me. I discovered that rock music could be funky too! Unbeknownst to me, I was ready for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, ska music, Paul Simon’s Graceland and the rap music yet to come because of this album, Remain in Light.
10. “Wild Wild Life” (1986). If “Losing My Religion” was the perfect summation of the R.E.M. sound, then “Wild Wild Life” does the same thing for Talking Heads. Unfortunately, it was the only good song on the True Stories album, which happened to be Talking Heads’ takes on the song from the soundtrack to David Byrne’s movie of the same name.
9. “Heaven” (1979). This song describes Byrne’s version of heaven, in which everybody invited to his parties all leave simultaneously and early. And it only gets stranger from there. Still, the music is beautiful, almost spiritual.
8. “I Zimba” (1979). Now, this was the first inkling of what the Talking Heads would do on their next album, Remain in Light. But, in 1979, I was NOT ready for this song. But, as I played it more and more, I realized that it had a good beat and it was easy to dance to. Of course, the lyrics were nonsense, but they only added to the mysteriousness of this song. It was like aliens had dropped a song from another planet on a Talking Heads album. This was one of my first musical WTF moments.
7. “Swamp” (1983). Ooooohhhhhh buddy! Now, we are getting real swampy in our sound, like these NYC art students have been transformed into the Meters or the Neville Brothers. This is a crowd-pleaser at parties.
6. “Psycho Killer” (1977). You know, this song was kind of disconcerting the first couple of times I heard it. Now, it isn’t a scary song. But, nothing creepier than getting inside the mind of a serial killer who speaks French.
5. “Take Me to the River” (1978). So, the band covers an Al Green soul/gospel song and recasts it as a new wave classic, with another great Weymouth bassline.
4. “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (1983). What!?!?!? David Byrne is singing a straight up love song!?!? Well, not really. It’s one of the finest love songs totally consisting of non-sequitur phrases. How does he do it? This was my second choice for my wife and my first dance together. It ended up being out fourth, but my wife now realizes my choices would stand the test of time (like our marriage!).
3. “Burning Down the House” (1983). This is the band’s only Top 10 hit (that’s a crime!). But, you would not believe how the dance floor would fill up with people when I would play it. Remains a great dance song to this day.
2. “Once in a Lifetime” (1980). This is THE song on the band’s Remain in Light album. This song combined the band’s pop sensibilities with a great African funk groove over which David Byrne lays his lyrics about feeling like an outsider who does not deserve the success he has achieved.
1. “Life During Wartime” (1979). This is Talking Heads’ strongest statement forever. They depict American life after war has broken out in the States, telling us how we will need to go into survival mode. Yet, all of this is set to a quirky dance beat that will eventually epitomize the new wave sound. Remember: “This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.” Better get it straight if you gonna survive, son…or daughter.
I hope this gives you 25 reasons to either re-evaluate the Talking Heads catalog, or it makes you realize that this band is truly one of the greatest of all time! Personally, I prefer the latter.