Talking Heads' Best Songs

Rough Trade Records

April 24th, 2024


share the music

Ahead of their festival debut at Wide Awake, the team behind Byrne’s Night curate a list of the American new wave band’s best songs, with contributions from some of the London independent scene’s finest emerging musical heroes.

Founded by Maddy O’Keefe and Dundee native Lola Stephen, Byrne’s Night is a celebration of Scotland’s two greatest poets – Robert Burns and David Byrne brought to life with an all-star line-up playing Talking Heads covers and performing poetry under the glittery, heady heavens of Hackney’s Moth Club. Debuting in 2023, the project was so popular that a 2024 edition soon followed and now Byrne’s Night is taking the show to the big stage with a prime slot at South London’s Wide Awake festival this May.

On the 40th anniversary of Talking Heads‘ famed Stop Making Sense concert film, we catch up with Lola and Maddy (Dancing Barefoot) to dig into the logistics of a successful tribute, the enduring appeal of the American art-punks and the best tracks of the band’s adored repertoire.

Rough Trade Exclusive
Stop Making Sense – Everyone’s Getting Involved – A Tribute Album

Spanning the tracklist of the original album, the fresh, exciting, and utterly surprising reinterpretations create new content for longtime Talking Heads fans and introduce a new generation to the magic of the music.

READ NOW: A full ranking of Talking Head’s idiosyncratic catalogue.

Can you tell us about the concept and how the idea for this unique tribute night was born? 

Lola was on tour in Glasgow with PVA and somewhere between explaining Robert Burns night to them and looking up Scottish musicians and finding out David Byrne makes that list – that the two (naturally) met in the middle. She took it back to Maddy where both agreed MOTH Club would be the ideal venue and “Byrne’s Night” was born, our now annual celebration of Scotland’s two greatest poets.

You’ve had an incredible line-up of artists taking part in the now annual event, including members from some of the finest alternative and independent bands the capital has to offer. What was the process of matching artists to songs and how difficult was it coordinating such a breadth of individual talent?

For sure, and we’re very lucky! We were definitely surprised that so many people were so open to the idea initially – but mostly everyone we asked were. It’s the combination of the shared love for Talking Heads‘ music, and that we hit a very sweet spot as it’s every January where people’s schedules are a bit more clear and everyone is up for something fun to help get out of the mid winter slump.

Process-wise, we have various house bands, or “super groups” where we mix up people who wouldn’t normally play together or may not even know each other prior and then have a different singer come on for each song. It’s part asking people what they’d like to perform, part feeling what people would be really good at and we’re always so blown away by everyone on their takes of the songs. Usually with very little to no rehearsals too.

A couple of new bands have been born out of Byrne’s Night too, The Itch are the first and there’s a couple of works in progress. That feels really special to us.

Byrne’s Night, photo by Beth Knight
Byrne’s Night, photo by Beth Knight

There’s definitely an enduring adoration for the music of Talking Heads, why do you think it connects with so many people?

We both agree that they have written some of the best songs ever. They combine so many different influences, married with Byrne’s great lyricism, humour, and incredible vision – there’s something for everyone in their music and think that’s so evident in how many people love them across different generations. It’s timeless. 

Taking the project to Wide Awake is obviously on a much bigger scale. What are the main challenges in translating the magic of an intimate night at Moth Club to the Brockwell Park festival stage?

We definitely want to make it more of a production worthy of a big festival stage while still maintaining the charm of the night.

For this Wide Awake edition too, we’ve struck a nice balance of people who have played in previous editions of the night, while pulling in some new people that we’d love to work with – some who are playing the festival and others that we reached out to, it feels like the family keeps growing. Our house band this time round includes members of Fontaines D.C, Squid, Los Bitchos, PVA, The Golden Dregs, Been Stellar, The New Eves, The Itch, Fräulein and more, and then our special guest singers we’re keeping a secret for now – you’ll have to come and see! 

Byrne’s Night, photo by Beth Knight

If you could choose any band or artist to take part in the 2025 edition, who would it be and which song would you love them to cover?

Lola: Rick Astley ignored our DM and I will be trying again next year. The dream is Once In A Lifetime but Rick, it’s your choice at this point.

Maddy: Lana Del Rey singing Heaven please.

Of course, the project also celebrates the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Do you have a favourite line from his output that holds any special meaning to you? 

“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion has broken nature’s social union”
– To A Mouse 

Lola: This one has always stuck out to me in how disconnected humans are from animals, and the belief that we are somehow above them. We disrupt nature all the time, and most often than not think nothing of it. It’s also the poem I recited and got my very treasured Burns certificate at 9 years old aka one of my life’s greatest achievements…

And finally, what’s a fun fact about David Byrne that most people won’t know?

That he was born in Dumbarton!


Talking Heads’ Best Songs

In no particular order, with contributions from Byrne’s Night stars past and present.

Making Flippy Floppy 

Alastair Shuttleworth (LICE) 

The best Talking Heads album is Speaking In Tongues, and the most quintessentially Speaking In Tongues track is quietly (it wasn’t a single or included on the ‘Best Of’ compilations in 1992 or 2004) Making Flippy Floppy, so to argue this isn’t among the band’s finest moments is to deny cold logic itself. Synths squelch and fizz over vivid, lithe funk. Verses and choruses run breathlessly into each other. Byrne’s scattershot lyrics are punchy, surreally funny and strewn with playfully barked ad-libs (“open up!” “kill it!”). It is all technicolour, ludicrous fun. Conventional wisdom is that this album was so popular partially because the band were taking themselves a bit less seriously, and this is the best example: they summon up their full musical faculties, “and then give it away.”

Seen and Not Seen

Rubie

Byrne’s lyrics yank you out of your pre-concieved ideas of the world, disarming you with their silliness before showing you the mirror. Seen and Not Seen seems like a totally silly sci-fi story on first listen, following a character who can physically change their face by spending decades concentrating on an ideal from a magazine; but then I think of schoolmates who were already primed for their corporate careers, to friends faces lit up in the months after leaving the city, to trans siblings who spent decades believing what they were told about who they were before correcting course. We owe it to ourselves not to wallow in what’s expected of us but live with intention, curiosity and imagining about who we might want to become, and that it’s never too late to change path.

Air 

Maddy O’Keefe (Byrne’s night co-organiser)

It’s so hard to pick a favourite. Whenever I try, I remember there’s another one I’m obsessed with. This track going into Heaven has to be one of Talking Heads’ most sublime moments. Fear Of Music sounds constantly on edge and this song is brilliantly anxious, with Tina Weymouth and her two sisters, credited as “The Sweetbreaths” providing beautiful, almost spooky-sounding backing vox. As a hypochondriac and someone who finds having a body and being alive generally pretty scary, the hysteria of this song resonates a bit in that sense. Air can hurt you, air can break your heart… what is happening to my skin?! There’s no resolution, no answers, just stating that this is how life is. Yet there’s no tragedy in this song, it’s dramatic but ultimately uplifting, musically it’s full of light and feels like floating even if the lyrics are spiked with paranoia.

Girlfriend Is Better

Lola Stephen (Hank / Byrne’s night co-organiser)

The most David Byrne way to contemplate cheating on your partner – weighed up in pure logic and fun, “I got a girlfriend shes’s better than that / And nothing is better than this (is it?)”. The instrumentation is pretty insane with guest Bernie Worrell of Parliament / Funkadelic providing strange zig zagging synths throughout, and coupled with a classic Tina Weymouth groove – it’s up there for tracks that make me want to instantly get up and dance. One of its most recognisable lines is Byrne’s repeated “Stop Making Sense”, which spawned the title for the 1984 concert movie (that I’ve watched more times than I can count), and its version in the film not only elevates the track even further with additional backing vocals percussion, and synth moments, but made space for perhaps Byrne’s most iconic moment ever – the big suit. If my partner made this 5min 42secs masterpiece about his thoughts of me vs. someone else I’d honestly be like… fair enough. 

This Must Be The Place

Joni Samuels (Fräulein)

When you deep-dive into Talking Heads, you’ll find that David Byrne‘s lyrics can be surreal, they can tell a story. But above all, they’re direct, and cut straight to the point. In This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody), this directness makes for one of the most sincere and heartfelt love songs of all time. No frills, no fancy metaphors. It’s catchy, it’s beautiful. Like a lot of Talking Heads songs, the live version on Stop Making Sense somehow sounds even better than the studio recording. The band in a living room set, David dancing with a standing lamp… it never fails to put a smile on my face. Endlessly repeatable, this song feels like home – and that’s where we wanna be.

Born Under Punches

Zac Lawrence (DEADLETTER)

It’s 1980, October – probably been pissing it down. 2 months following this day, John Lennon will be shot and killed by a Salinger-obsessed Beatles fanatic on the way into his New York residence. You head through your front door and make your way up the stairs, having checked your quiff in the mirror at the first step. You’ve been out record shopping and spent less than a tenner on an album that was released today. The album is by Talking Heads. You’ve been spinning Fear Of Music repeatedly for over a year now. You’ve gotten high to that last song more times than you’re able to count. Quivering with anticipation, you remove the record from its sleeve, place it on your cheap but sufficient turntable, and drop the needle. The record crackles, then, a fast tom-tom rhythm, AND… welcome to one of the greatest opening tracks of any album in history. The heat will go on and on and on and on…

Heaven

Avice Caro

David Byrne’s Heaven imagines a world where you get to experience all your favourite things at once and they never leave – you can smoke eternal cigarettes and kiss forever and listen to the best music over and over again in loops and never get bored. I want to live in there. In real life, time doesn’t stand still for anyone and no matter how tightly you hold something in your hands it almost always flies away.

Book I Read

Nuha Ruby Ra 

I’ve been obsessed with this song since I first heard it, to be honest I don’t know why. Now I’m thinking about it, maybe it’s the shyness and admission of the feeling of fawning over someone, it’s done so well. It’s like restrained in the verses, explaining why. Then comes the chorus and it’s a gush, the way that obsessing makes you feel just pours out. It gets me every time and I wanna throw myself out to the feeling every time that chorus comes in. “Feel my Fingers as they touch your arms, I’m spinning around but I feel alright” I feel that melt every time.

Road To Nowhere

Patrick Fitzroy (Unlucky)

Road to Nowhere is a special song to me; there is an inherent nihilism in the lyrics which is beautifully juxtaposing the happy, major feel of the chords. I almost hear the song as an invitation, as if David Byrne is saying that the ultimate path to meaning is within “nowhere”, and that we should collectively embrace this. This concept is amplified by the inclusion of mixed choirs in the arrangement, embodying the sound of the world joyfully accepting the impermanence of it all. All of this is candy to the ear of an existentialist, and that’s why it’s one of my favourite Talking Heads songs.

Burning Down The House

Tyler Damara (Human Interest)

We’re big fans of songs that have juxtaposition; hiding dark, thought-provoking lyrics within instrumentation that is care-free and light-hearted, with the aim of making people dance their worries away. Burning Down The House is a perfect example of this in that it’s classic wonky and fun Talking Heads, but speaks about liberation and breaking free from oppression. Humanity is often looking for liberation from something, and this song encapsulates the whole idea of dancing your worries away in a way that feels very kin to Human Interest.

Slippery People 

Kate Mager (The New Eves)

Slippery People is a favourite of the moment for me. It has been stuck in my head since playing it at Byrnes Night in January with Rubie singing. It’s impossible not to move when you hear the bass and those bongos, hypnotising you into a groove. Simple and satisfying bass lines like this are what makes a great song, a solid groove foundation holding it all together. That funk guitar really scratches an itch too.

Psycho Killer

Maddy and Lola

This would not be a list of the top Talking Heads songs without the inclusion of one of the best and simplest basslines in musical history. Arguably as iconic as the screech in the soundtrack of Hitchcock’s Psycho and equally as effective in viscerality. The French lyrics, provided by Tina Weymouth (whose mother was French) make this song somewhat even more unsettling and it has some of Byrne’s best skits and howls. We always open the night with it and it gets the pulse going. Absolute classic and maybe one of the best ever written.

Byrne’s Night, photo by Beth Knight

Rough Trade will be On Tour at Wide Awake in London’s Brockwell Park on Saturday 25th of May – visit us for exclusive vinyl, merch and a solid programme of album signings in the tent.

source



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for the
Unplugged Newsletter




Random Cover