Happy Wednesday! It’s time to prepare for another imaginary desert island trip. As usual, this means I need to figure which one song to take with me.
In case you’re new to this weekly recurring feature, there’re a few other rules. My pick needs to be by an artist or band I’ve only rarely written about or not covered at all to date. I’m also doing this exercise in alphabetical order, and I’m up to “t”.
There are plenty of artists (last names) and bands whose name starts with the letter “t”. Some include Taj Mahal, Tears For Fears, Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Temptations, Thin Lizzy, Pete Townshend, Tina Turner, Toto, Traffic, T. Rex and The Turtles. And then there’s the group I decided to pick: Talking Heads. My song choice: Burning Down the House.
Burning Down the House, credited to all four members of the band, David Byrne (lead vocals, guitar), Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass, backing vocals) and Chris Frantz (drums, backing vocals), first appeared on their fifth studio album Speaking in Tongues released in June 1983. It also became the record’s first single and the group’s highest-charting song in North America, climbing to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 8 in Canada. It did best in New Zealand where it peaked at no. 5. In Australia, on the other hand, it stalled at no. 94.
The origins of Talking Heads go back to 1973 when Rhode Island School of Design students David Byrne and Chris Frantz started a band called the Artistics. The following year, fellow student and Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth joined on bass after Byrne and Frantz had been unable to find a bassist. At that point, all three had relocated to New York.
In early June 1975, the group played their first gig as Talking Heads, opening for the Ramones at renowned New York City music club CBGB. After signing to Sire Records in November 1976, Talking Heads released their first single Love → Building on Fire in February 1977. The following month, Jerry Harrison joined, completing the group’s lineup ahead of recording their debut album Talking Heads: 77.
While Talking Heads: 77 enjoyed moderate chart success, it was voted the year’s seventh-best album in The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Subsequently, it was ranked at no. 291 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It didn’t make the most recent revision published in 2020. Until their break-up in December 1991, Talking Heads released seven additional albums. Also noteworthy is the acclaimed concert film Stop Making Sense shot over three nights in December 1983 during the tour that supported the Speaking in Tongues album.
After their disbanding, David Byrne launched a solo career, while the three remaining members toured in the early ’90s, billed as Shrunken Heads. In October 1996, they released an album, No Talking, Just Head as The Heads. Byrne wasn’t amused and took legal action to prevent the band from using the name The Heads. Talking Heads reunited one more time in March 2002 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hame of Fame. During an induction performance, they were joined on stage by former touring members Bernie Worrell and Steve Scales.
Following are a few additional tidbits on Burning Down the House from Songfacts:
Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz and bass player Tina Weymouth, married since 1977, are big fans of funk. When they went to a P-Funk show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the crowd started chanting, “Burn down the house, burn down the house” (this is before “The Roof Is on Fire”), which gave Frantz the idea for the title...
…With a lot of help from MTV, who gave the video a lot of play, this song became Talking Heads’ biggest hit. It didn’t get a great deal of radio play at the time, but has endured as an ’80s classic and is often used in movies and TV shows, including Gilmore Girls, 13 Going on 30, Six Feet Under, Revenge of the Nerds and Someone Like You…
…The music video was directed by David Byrne and was the first Talking Heads video to show the full band – their famous “Once In A Lifetime” video is just Byrne. The house seen in the video was located in Union, New Jersey, but it was shot at a New York City club called The World…
…The Talking Heads original recording failed to reach the UK charts. The song only became a British hit in 1999 when Tom Jones teamed up with The Cardigans for an entirely different version. Released as a single from his album of collaborations titled Reload, it peaked at #7.
There is also a cool cover of Burning Down the House by Bonnie Raitt, which she included on her live album Road Tested that came out in November 1995. Here’s a great clip of her rendition from December 2010. In my completely unbiased opinion, I think Bonnie is stealing the show, truly burning down the house! 🙂
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify