When Talking Heads Were "Burning" the Pop Charts

David Byrne of Talking Heads, 1983
Photo Credit
Luciano Vitti/Getty Images

After putting out four critically-acclaimed albums in just over four years, art-rockers Talking Heads took a well-deserved break, during which they parted ways with longtime producer Brian Eno. When they came back two years later - either thanks to pent-up demand or plain luck - they scored their first and only Top 10 single, the propulsive jam "Burning Down the House."

READ MORE: Same As It Ever Was? Talking Heads' Top Tracks

Sure, the New York combo weren't exactly strangers to the pop charts: in 1978, their cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" was a Top 40 hit, and classics like "Psycho Killer" and "Once in a Lifetime" haunted the lower reaches of the charts. But "Burning Down the House" - a spacious jam propelled by drummer Chris Frantz's and bassist Tina Weymouth's hypnotic rhythm section, Jerry Harrison's burbling synthesizers, and guitar chops and surreal lyrics from David Byrne - was something totally different. And had the band given into their endless penchant for experimentation, the song could have been even more totally different.

"Burning" began sparking from a band jam that was energized by Frantz's activity shortly before: he'd caught a performance of P-funk icon George Clinton leading Parliament-Funkadelic through some monster jams. Influenced by the tempo and the spirit, Frantz began yelling the song's title from behind the kit. Once the track fully came together in the studio, Byrne set about writing lyrics to go with the rubbery jam. "I thought it would be a challenge to write words that in a literal sense, don't make any sense," he explained to NPR in 1984, "but that hold together according to some other rationale." The result: a series of surreal images that fit the tempo and rhythm of the song like a glove without necessarily saying anything monumental. (And a handful of them were left on the cutting room floor: Byrne at one point substituted the phrase "Foam Rubber USA" for the title refrain.)

And perhaps that's all audiences wanted, something fun and catchy to enliven things up on radio or in clubs or the fledgling MTV (who played the "Burning Down the House" video frequently, featuring the full band and several children acting in place of its members - including Max Illidge, future lead singer of metal band 40 Below Summer, taking Byrne's place). Ultimately, though, Talking Heads were never content to give any less than their all. After "Burning Down the House" hit its chart peak, the band took their act on the road - incidentally recruiting Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell into the live line-up - and taped a few concerts in Los Angeles for the film Stop Making Sense, considered to be one of the most groundbreaking concert films of all time.

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David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Macmillan, Brett Hemmings/Getty Images, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
In the words of Elton John, "It's an apocalyptic absolute disaster."
(Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns)
"In some ways, you kind of think it’s God’s way of telling everybody, ‘Slow down. Everybody get back with your families.’"
Warner Records
He was nearly an out-of-the-gate smash in England.

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