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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Alexis Petridis

Paranoia and polyrhythms: Talking Heads’ greatest songs – ranked!

Talking Heads’ frontman, David Byrne, in 1981
Talking Heads’ frontman, David Byrne, in 1981. Photograph: Alamy

20. Dream Operator (1986)

No one seems to care much for the album True Stories – critical reception was muted and David Byrne has expressed regret that it was released – but that doesn’t stop its highlight, Dream Operator, from being a lovely song. It’s straightforward Americana-influenced rock, miles away from the band’s groundbreaking experimentation, but beautiful.

19. No Compassion (1977)

In attitude, at least, No Compassion might be Talking Heads’ punkiest song. A lengthy, funny complaint about what would now be called oversharing – “what are you, in love with your problems?”; “talk to your analysts – isn’t that what they’re paid for?” – it still feels scabrously pertinent 47 years on.

18. (Nothing But) Flowers (1988)

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Hailed on release as a return to form, the final Talking Heads album, Naked, hasn’t aged well – its horn-assisted funk sounds a bit straitened compared with Remain in Light. (Nothing But) Flowers is the exception that proves the rule: its Latin-American-inspired rhythms are buoyant and its wry take on environmental issues funny.

17. Found a Job (1978)

Is there a more bizarrely prescient song in Talking Heads’ catalogue? A bored couple make their own television show – “inventing situations” involving “all their family … all their friends”. What must once have sounded like a typically quirky Byrne fantasy now seems to predict reality TV. Also: great chorus, exciting crash-straight-in opening.

16. Road to Nowhere (1985)

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A huge hit in the UK, Road to Nowhere was intended by Byrne to be “a joyful look at doom”, which seems as good a way of describing it as any. The vaguely military rhythm keeps marching on relentlessly; the melody and gospel- and Louisiana-influenced sound – which features accordion and a washboard – makes merry.

15. Love > Building on Fire (1977)

A bold debut that set Talking Heads apart from their contemporaries at the New York club CBGB. Poppy, strange and compelling, it’s effectively post-punk released at the height of punk. The live version on The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads – with the guitarist Jerry Harrison – is tougher, the play between the two guitars reminiscent of Television.

14. And She Was (1985)

Little Creatures might be the album on which Talking Heads started veering a little too close to the mainstream for their own good, but it’s still laden with great songs. And She Was – the story of the teenage Byrne’s “hippie-chick” friend who felt the sensation of flying while on LSD – is its perfect pop moment.

13. I Zimbra (1979)

No track from Fear of Music pointed towards Talking Heads’ future direction as clearly as I Zimbra, its itchy funk overlaid with Afrobeat-influenced polyrhythms. It was released as a single, which is bold, given that the lyrics are adapted from a dadaist poem by Hugo Ball and contain not a single recognisable word.

12. Houses in Motion (1980)

Byrne’s oblique monologue is fascinating, but Houses in Motion is all about the music. Slowing down the frantic rhythms that consume side one of Remain in Light, it sounds humid, like music emerging from a heat haze. The trumpet-playing of the late Jon Hassell is just fantastic.

11. Slippery People (1983)

There is a compelling argument that the definitive version of Slippery People isn’t the one on Speaking in Tongues, but the live version on Stop Making Sense, which amps up the funk and the gospel influence and adds a dramatic a cappella coda. In fact, the cover version by the Staples Singers – with Byrne on guitar – might be better still.

10. Born Under Punches (the Heat Goes On) (1980)

Remain in Light’s opening track throws the listener straight in at the deep end of Talking Heads’ dense new sound, influenced by Fela Kuti. There are layers of clattering rhythms, retorts of slap bass and backing vocals that shriek and chant, with Byrne in particularly wild-eyed mode. The effect-laden guitar solo that erupts at 2:50 is extraordinary.

9. Once in a Lifetime (1980)

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It’s the Talking Heads song everyone knows, but Once in a Lifetime is a deeply odd recipe for a hit single: preacher-style sermonising about an existential crisis, off-kilter polyrhythmic funk, a climax inspired by the distorted organ of the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. Weird ingredients, but they work together magically.

8. Girlfriend Is Better (1983)

The perfect demonstration of how Speaking in Tongues pared down the propulsive clatter of Talking Heads circa Remain in Light. Girlfriend Is Better is streamlined, taut funk – driven by chicken-scratch guitar and an absolute monster of a bassline – albeit strafed with noises that one critic compared to a sink backing up. (Apparently, it’s about infidelity.)

7. Heaven (1979)

You could read Heaven as The Big Country’s smartarse narrator turning his attentions to matters spiritual – the afterlife, he suggests, resembles a popular but boring bar – but Byrne’s echo-drenched vocal and the band’s ragged performance sound impassioned rather than sarcastic. The melody is sweet but sad, the end result weirdly moving.

6. The Big Country (1978)

More Songs About Buildings and Food saves its best track until last: it’s punchy but expansive music that approaches a new wave take on country, with lyrics that view the US midwest from a aircraft window. Byrne’s possibly self-mocking but certainly none-more-New-York conclusion? “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”

5. Crosseyed and Painless (1980)

Crisscrossing vocal patterns, a rap-inspired bridge, a chorus that seems to pre-empt criticism (“isn’t it weird? Looks too obscure to me”): you could easily swap the positions of this and Born Under Punches. Indeed, you could include The Great Curve in this list, too, because side one of Remain in Light is that incredible.

4. Burning Down the House (1983)

Another track from Speaking in Tongues that is bested by the (faster, funkier) live version on Stop Making Sense. That said, both versions are magnificent, hitting a sweet spot between commerciality and experimentation. Anthemic without sacrificing an iota of Talking Heads’ idiosyncratic otherness, it could only be them.

3. Psycho Killer (1977)

Psycho Killer live at CBGB in 1975.

There is a great video of the original three-piece Talking Heads playing live in 1975. The performance is shaky, but their definitive early song is already fully formed: the twisting, hook-laden bassline, the unnerving vocal, the section in French. Every element that makes it sound great nearly 50 years on is in place.

2. Life During Wartime (1979)

The ominous mood of Fear of Music at its peak: lyrics sung from the point of view of a holed-up terrorist, the most famous of his imprecations – “This ain’t no party! This ain’t no disco!” – at odds with the supremely funky music. Paranoia has rarely sounded so danceable.

1. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (1983)

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In a sense, This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) is an atypical Talking Heads track. It’s a straightforward love song, at odds with Byrne’s remote, geeky public persona. It’s placid, gentle and powered by directness and simplicity: Byrne and Tina Weymouth swapped instruments in search of the naivety of the title. There are hypnotic instrumental passages, including a full minute before Byrne’s voice appears, that feel as striking as the vocal. But, atypical or not, it’s wonderful, glowing with inviting warmth. It’s not just about falling in love – and “I came home / She lifted up her wings / I guess that this must be the place” is a beautiful way of putting it – it sounds like falling in love.

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