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Talking Heads - Burning Down the House (1983)

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  • 80's Score 80's score: 1.32
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"Burning Down the House" is a song by new wave band Talking Heads, released in July 1983 as the first single from their fifth ...

"Burning Down the House" is a song by new wave band Talking Heads, released in July 1983 as the first single from their fifth studio album Speaking in Tongues.

Inspiration and composition

"Burning Down the House" is a new wave and funk song. "This song started from a jam," says bassist Tina Weymouth in the liner notes of Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. "Chris [Frantz, drummer] had just been to see Parliament-Funkadelic in its full glory at Madison Square Garden, and he was really hyped. During the jam, he kept yelling 'Burn down the house!' which was a P-Funk audience chant, and David [Byrne] dug the line, changing it to the finished version, 'Burning down the house'." (Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic joined Talking Heads' live incarnation.)

The initial lyrics were considerably different, however. In an interview on NPR's All Things Considered aired on December 2, 1984, David Byrne played excerpts of early worktapes showing how the song had evolved from an instrumental jam by Weymouth and Frantz. Once the whole band had reworked the groove into something resembling the final recording, Byrne began chanting and singing nonsense syllables over the music until he arrived at phrasing that fit with the rhythms—a technique influenced by former Talking Heads producer Brian Eno: "and then I [would] just write words to fit that phrasing... 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."

According to Byrne in the NPR interview, phrases that he tried but ultimately did not use in the song included "I have another body," "Pick it up by the handle," "You travel with a double," and "I'm still under construction." As for the title phrase in the chorus, one early attempt (as heard on a worktape) had him singing a different line, "What are we gonna do?", and at another point in the process, "instead of chanting 'Burning Down the House,' I was chanting 'Foam Rubber, USA.'"

Music video

The video, produced and directed by Byrne, alternates primarily between footage of the band performing the song in an empty ballroom, Byrne playing while facing a projection screen that displays a concert crowd or a wall of flames at different times, and images projected on the outside wall of a house. A young boy resembling Byrne takes his place from time to time; eventually, younger counterparts start moving the arms of all four band members to play the music. After the screen goes blank, both young and adult Byrne leave the stage, and the video ends with an extended close-up of Byrne's face projected on a highway at night.

The house used in the video is located on Myrtle Street in Union, New Jersey. Max Illidge (credited as Max Loving), vocalist of the band 40 Below Summer, and Rockets Redglare appear as the younger selves of Byrne and Jerry Harrison, respectively.

Chart performance

"Burning Down the House" became Talking Heads' highest-charting hit single in North America, becoming their only top ten single on the US Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 9, as well as reaching the top ten in Canada. Despite this success, the song was not a hit outside of North America. In Australia it peaked at a modest No. 94, while in the UK, where Talking Heads would release 14 charting singles, it failed to make the charts at all (although a cover version of the song by Tom Jones and The Cardigans would make the UK Top 10 in 1999).

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