The highest-charting single of the Talking Heads’ career came about because drummer Chris Frantz attended a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Madison Square Garden. Energized by the propulsive sound he heard coming from the stage — and the enraptured reception to it of his fellow concert-goers — Frantz figured a similar sound could be created by his own group, then more typically characterized by a restrained, almost icy type of post-punk.
Talking Heads had recently finished an extended tour that included musicians Bernie Worrell and Busta Jones, provided a more funk-driven undercurrent to the music. That gave Frantz confidence the main quartet — also comprised of bassist Tina Weymouth, guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and guitarist and lead singer David Byrne — could effectively push into similar territory on their own. In a jam session that was an integral part of the band’s creative process, Frantz drew inspiration from the thunderous concert and drove his cohorts to a fuller, more soulful sound. The sonic exploration gave the band the basic instrumental track that would become “Burning Down the House.”
“We gradually get the musical structure of the song set, so that when we went into the recording studio we just play about four-and-a-half, five minutes of it,” Byrne told NPR around the time of the song’s release. “We think, ‘Well, that’s enough. That’s long enough for a song.’ We leave it at that.”
When it came time to add the words, Byrne sang improvised lyrics, intuitive finding sounds and verbal rhythms that seemed to work with the music. That could lead to some odd steps along the line, including a little stretch in which the main repeated line was “Foam Rubber, U.S.A.” He eventually settled on “Burning Down the House,” a loose interpretation of the “Burn down the house” chant Frantz carried over from the P-Funk show. Despite the improvisational development process, the lyrics were built upon pure randomness.
“I’d have loads and loads of phrases collected that I thought thematically had something to do with one another, and I’d pick from those,” Byrne noted in the NPR interview.
Still, the lyrics remained abstract enough that plenty of listeners decided they were just plainly nonsense, an instinct compounded by the fact that the track appeared on an album Speaking in Tongues, released in 1983. The album title’s borrowing of a term describing people so moved by religious experience that they shout out jagged, basically indecipherable syllables led to a suspicion that Byrne was basically doing the same.
“The words in this particular instance don’t mean anything, do they?” David Letterman asked after Talking Heads played “Burning Down the House” on Late Night.
“They do, but not if you try to figure them out,” responded Byrne.
In the NPR interview, Byrne distinguished that a lack of an explicit expression of intellectual intent isn’t the same as offering no deeper thoughts in the song.
“I felt the meaning, but it wasn’t put in in a conscious way,” he said. “I think the meaning was put in in a more intuitive way. My assumption was that it might have a deeper meaning, or a meaning that was more universal, or spoke to more unconscious feelings in people, than one in which I just told a story.”
More specifically, Byrne saw the burning of the house as symbolic of the personal reinvention process people often go through.
“It symbolized rebirth and destroying oneself or destroying some sort of transitory personality, and shedding a shell and coming out with a new one,” Byrne told the BBC.
If some might be confused by the song, Byrne realized he had a new tool to convey his artistic intent. Other musicians chafed at the sudden influence of music videos, but Byrne was all for it. For one thing, he quickly figured out that the new form provided an avenue to get his music heard while radio programmers were perplexed by it.
“MTV and they were starving for content; they’d play pretty much any decent material they were handed,” Byrne wrote in his book How Music Works. “Not too many had cable TV back then, so mTV had no hesitation about playing the same videos over and over. Hard to believe, but at the time, if you made almost any halfway interesting video you possibly could have it up and running on cable TV almost instantly. For me it was a godsend — a way to reincorporate my art-school roots into the music side of things.”
The themes of the song were underscored by the music video, which found the band members being sporadically replaced by others as they performed. MTV gave it saturation airplay, helping to elevate the single into the Billboard Top 10. And it’s endured as a staple of the rock radio stations that were originally reluctant to play the song.
“I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today,” Frantz later told Rolling Stone. “Hey, it was a classic title…. What we really wanted to do was rock the house.”
As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.
The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.