Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
There were so many geniuses in the 80s. Outstanding and multifaceted talents who have sometimes driven the careers of entire groups. And there hasn’t been a better time for genius: from the talents of Steve Strange, Peter Gabriel and Midge Ure in the very early 80s (think of very original masterpieces such as Fade to Grey, Games Without Frontiers or Vienna), then passing through iconic characters like Falco in the central part of the decade, or Terence Trent D’Arby in the final years, and surely there were many others.
Among these, we must certainly mention David Byrne, the thinking leader of the Talking Heads (who often wrote their name as “T∀LKING HE∀DS”, in capital letters and with the reversed A).
We are in the first days of July 1983. In the United States the album Speaking in Tongues had been out for about a month, and from this album Talking Heads launched a fantastic single that would surely have marked their career, and we are naturally talking about Burning Down the House.
Where does this aggressive title come from? The bassist of the group, Tina Weymouth, told about it. Earlier, she and her husband (Chris Frantz, the group’s drummer) had gone to Madison Square Garden for a funk concert, a genre they were passionate about. They saw a concert by a group called P-Funk (the full name was Parliament-Funkadelic) and well, during this concert the crowd started cheering on the group by yelling “Burn down the house! Burn down the house!”
Some time later, during one of the recording sessions for the new album, Frantz himself on the waves of euphoria began shouting the same scream, and caught the attention of David Byrne, who saw enormous potential in this sentence, so much so that he built a whole song around it. Since the circles of life often tend to close, Talking Heads had the support of some additional musicians on the tour following the album, and among these they also invited a member of P-Funk.
The song is not really about fires or vandalism. Actually, it’s quite difficult to tell what the song is about, because as David Byrne often said, the words or lines were chosen because they sounded good in that part of the song, and not because there was a whole story to tell. And in fact we could say that the song is not about anything, even if it is certainly full of impactful verses that tend to be remembered.
However, David Byrne didn’t stop at the song, but also decided to make a video for it. Not only, he also decided that he would personally direct the video, and so it happened. Obviously, given the title of the song, at least a house was needed to show. He chose a house located in a town in New Jersey called Union, not far from newark airport, and in fact that house became very famous among Talking Heads fans, so much so that for many years it was often visited by fans who went there specifically (I would not exclude that someone can do it again; for example I would go there!)
The video is very particular and contains several interesting scenes, for example the one in which a child is playing … David Byrne as a child. The young man was twelve years old, his name is Max Illidge, and ironically he also became the frontman of an American group active at the turn of the 2000s, which was called 40 Below Summer and played new-metal music (although they were not completely happy of this classification).
Burning Down the House was probably Talking Heads’ biggest hit, but when it came out it wasn’t all that successful. In the United States it obviously got the best results, but in the United Kingdom and in general in Europe it didn’t even enter the charts. However, it managed to climb the charts about fifteen years later, in 1999, thanks to a memorable psychedelic cover by the great Tom Jones together with the Cardigans, the group of singer Nina Persson. The success of Tom Jones’ version also brought the original Talking Heads’ version back to life, with much better results than in the 1980s.
Burning Down the House also has another peculiarity. After the Speaking in Tongues tour, David Byrne decided that Talking Heads would never play any more concerts, just studio music. They made three more albums, but no tours. They met live once, in 2002, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and on that occasion they played live together again, the first and only time in over eighteen years.
Well, the concert ended with a memorable interpretation of their most famous song, of course Burning Down the House, which thus became the last song ever played live by Talking Heads. A song and a group that really made history thanks to a scream heard at a concert!
Talking Heads on Wikipedia