Talking Heads only ever recorded one cover, and when I talked to David Byrne about it for my book, he seemed to have mixed feelings on the subject. “There’s always a little bit of resistance to recording a cover like that because it’s kind of a crowd pleaser,” he told me. “I’d seen it happen before, where radio DJs who pick what they’re going to play will often pick a cover song… So then a band gets known for covering somebody else’s song as opposed to writing their own material. They have to go through a struggle for years to get identified with their own songs.”
Talking Heads recorded “Take Me to the River,” it became their biggest hit up to that point, and Byrne said: That’s it. No more covers. The band never followed it up with a second.
He’s relaxed the rules a bit more in his solo career, most recently covering Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” on tour (he says he’s bringing the cover to Broadway, too). And clearly he’s been listening to covers. For his DB Radio show on his website, he just compiled a wonderfully eclectic mix of his favorite covers. The theme, he says, is artists doing the unexpected, from Sonic Youth covering The Carpenters to Miley Cyrus covering Nine Inch Nails. And when the song choice itself may not be surprising – Patti Smith covering the Rolling Stones, say – the arrangements are. Here’s what he wrote on his website:
Here is a playlist of songs covered by unexpected artists. They step outside their usual genre for material, and then personalize it. Often their interpretation gives the song a new meaning…and sometimes the cover is the version we associate with the song, even though the song may have been recorded and released previously by the artist who wrote it. One could argue that Aretha owns “respect” though Otis Redding recorded it first…and that Sinead O Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares to You” is the version of the Prince song that comes to most peoples minds.
For a lot of the artists on this playlist I suspect that their reason for covering someone elses song was not to ride the fast track to sales and success, but to show another side of themselves and to escape, briefly, from whatever it is they might be expected to do….they often do this by covering songs you might not think they’d like….this often gives the song a new meaning..we hear an overfamiliar tune with fresh ears
I can testify that covering a song outside of what might obviously be expected is liberating…I can allow myself to be sentimental in ways not very apparent in my own writing, I can make fairly direct political or social statements – also not easy for me. I can channel a different part of myself…so performing a cover changes both the singer and the song.
Hear the playlist, and see the tracklist (which we annotated with the original artist), below. I’ve been listening to it all morning and it’s great.
‘David Byrne Presents: Under the Covers’ Tracklist:
Rachid Taha – Habina (Toufic Barakat, Farid al-Atrache)
Los Ecos – Me Siento Feliz [I Feel Fine] (The Beatles)
Sigrid – Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen)
Cat Power – What The World Needs Now (Bacharach-David)
Wings – Love Is Strange (Mickey & Sylvia)
Caetano Veloso – Get out of Town (Cole Porter)
Patti Smith – Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones)
Patti Smith – Everybody Wants To Rule The World (Tears for Fears)
Bryan Ferry – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan)
Ashley O [Miley Cyrus] – On a Roll (Nine Inch Nails)
Hackney Colliery Band – Africa (Toto)
Lambchop – Give Me Your Love (Love Song) (Curtis Mayfield)
Willie Nelson – What Was It You Wanted (Bob Dylan)
The Persuasions – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan)
The Persuasions – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (U2)
Johnny Cash – Hurt (Nine Inch Nails)
Sonic Youth – Superstar (The Carpenters)
Seu Jorge – Life on Mars? (David Bowie)
Nirvana – The Man Who Sold The World (David Bowie)
Yo La Tengo – Friday I’m In Love (The Cure)
Scissor Sisters – Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd)
William Shatner – Common People (Pulp)
Obadiah Parker – Hey Ya (Outkast)
Talking Heads didn’t cover many people – but many people have covered them! Check out our countdown of The Best Talking Heads Covers Ever.