5 Essential Songs to Start Your Talking Heads Playlist

Talking Heads’ art pop has shaped multiple generations of artists, from Radiohead to St. Vincent to Lorde. During New York’s nascent punk years, they were part of the culture-shifting scene at CBGB with Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, and the Ramones.

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Thirty-six years ago, Talking Heads released their final studio album. However, their music has endured in film and television, as well as star-studded covers like those on the recently released tribute album Everyone’s Getting Involved: A Tribute to Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense. Included on the album are covers by Miley Cyrus, Lorde, Paramore, The National, and others.

The album is part of a project to restore their 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, which was recorded the previous year at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Frontman David Byrne recently spoke with Rolling Stone about the group’s enduring influence. “A lot of younger people are exposed to [Talking Heads songs] at a really early age when it seems to mean a lot to them. It says that being a little bit weird and odd is all right,” he said.

Here’s a primer to begin your Talking Heads playlist.

“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” from Speaking in Tongues (1983)

Byrne described “This Must Be the Place” as a love song made up of non sequiturs. He said each line may resonate emotionally, but they don’t fit a particular narrative. “Naive Melody” refers to the music Tina Weymouth explained as “truly naive” experimentation. Talking Heads’ mix of Afrobeat and post-punk was a blueprint for Vampire Weekend, another New York band borrowing rhythms from the late King of Afrobeat Fela Kuti.

The less we say about it, the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It’s okay, I know nothing’s wrong, nothing

“Take Me to the River” from More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

Written by Al Green and Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, the R&B cover was recorded at a much slower tempo than Green’s original. “Take Me to the River” is body and soul, lust and redemption, and perhaps the need to purify stems from guilt. Who knows? But as Byrne once wrote, it’s all “part of the same stew.” Producer Brian Eno turned Green’s baptism into new wave soul.

I don’t know why I love her like I do
All the changes you put me through
Take my money, my cigarettes
I haven’t seen the worst of it yet

“Burning Down the House” from Speaking in Tongues (1983)

Inspired by P-Funk, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz created the instrumental jam that became “Burning Down the House.” According to Weymouth, Frantz kept shouting, “Burn down the house” during the jam. To complete the lyrics, David Byrne used a technique he learned from Brian Eno, singing gibberish over the music. Then Byrne found words to fit the phrasing, which explains the nonsensical lines seemingly pieced together at random.

Ah, watch out
You might get what you’re after
Cool babies
Strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

“Once in a Lifetime” from Remain in Light (1980)

The song is delivered like a sermon, and many interpret it as a criticism of consumerism. But Byrne told NPR the lyric can be taken at face value. Said Byrne, “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, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’” Same as it ever was.

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

“Psycho Killer” from Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

Byrne envisioned Alice Cooper singing a Randy Newman ballad. He thought seedy characters like the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were “more fascinating than the good guys.” The French lyrics came from bassist Tina Weymouth, whose mother is French. Talking Heads performed “Psycho Killer” in December 1975 at CBGB before Jerry Harrison joined the band. (They had played their first show in July, opening for the Ramones.) “Psycho Killer” is driven by Weymouth’s pulsing bass line and became a defining hit for Talking Heads.

You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed
Say something once, why say it again?

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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