Mar 292018

‘The Best Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

talking heads covers

Let’s start by defining our terms: This list concerns the best covers of the Talking Heads. Because the best covers by the Talking Heads is a very short list.

Here is that list, in its entirety:

That’s right, the Talking Heads only recorded one cover in their entire career (and delivered one of history’s all-time great covers in the process). This was no accident. When I interviewed David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison about “Take Me to the River” (here), they told me Byrne was reluctant to record even the one. “There’s always a little bit of resistance to recording a cover like that because it’s kind of a crowd pleaser,” Byrne 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. Something that’s already familiar to their audience is less risky. So then a band gets known for covering somebody else’s song as opposed to writing their own material.”

This is, of course, exactly what happened. “Take Me to the River,” on the band’s second album More Songs About Buildings and Food, became the band’s breakthrough hit, reaching #26 on Billboard charts (the first album’s “Psycho Killer” never passed #92). And Byrne refused to ever record another cover with the band. “You want to make sure you don’t fall into that trap” of being known as a cover artist, he said.

Byrne did indeed become known for his own songs eventually, and covering those songs is no easy feat. Talking Heads tracks tend to be instantly recognizable, some combination of offbeat and danceable, arty and poppy. And above all: idiosyncratic (though not so much so they can’t also be iconic). Many bands take the safe route, sticking close to original template; judging by YouTube videos, “Psycho Killer” is really fun to fa-fa-fa live. But the really great covers, the ones that stand out, work the same way the Talking Heads did their entire career: a little bit differently.

[Update: Hear discussion about this list and selected highlights – including an exclusive “Psycho Killer” medley – at SiriusXM]

Honorable Mention: The Fools – Psycho Chicken

The song parody is the evil fraternal twin of the cover, usually keeping the music and changing the lyrics. “Weird Al” Yankovic is one of the few to have made a career in this genre; his success is predicated on cleverness of his versions, but it is more than that. A great parody finds something in the song that just cries out to be lampooned. The Fools, a band from the Boston area, worked up a profane version of “Psycho Chicken” which turned into a local favorite in 1979. A single with the naughty bits “clucked out” became a novelty hit and led to a major label signing. Yes, the song is silly, but it is hard to argue that David Byrne’s singing, especially in the Talking Heads’ early days, doesn’t have more than a little cluck in it. The Fools rode the “Psycho Chicken” wave (and a bunch of other catchy, well-executed New Wave tunes including a great cover of “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan) to opening slots for bands such as Van Halen, The Knack, Kansas, Joan Jett, Katrina and the Waves, J. Geils, The Doobie Brothers, The Ramones, Cheap Trick, Toto, and The Plasmatics. But they never really were able to duplicate their poultry-inspired success, although they have continued to release music and tour. – Jordan Becker

25. Local Natives – Warning Sign

Local Natives have the rare distinction of having performed this cover in front of not one, but two separate Talking Heads. The Guardian reports that Jerry Harrison brought his daughter to see the band years ago. And the second? “I looked up while we were playing our version of Talking Heads’ ‘Warning Sign’ and I saw David Byrne standing in the balcony and singing along” guitarist Ryan Hahn told SPIN about a 2010 show. We’ve embedded the studio version heard on the band’s breakthrough 2009 album Gorilla Manor, but if you head to NYC Taper, you can listen to the very “Warning Sign” that David Byrne heard (a certain audience member’s backing vocals not included). – Ray Padgett

24. Young@Heart – Road to Nowhere

Presenting a positive image of aging through music is a noble pursuit. It’s the stated mission of the Young@Heart Chorus, the octogenarian purveyors of pop and classic rock. The 2008 DVD release of the critically acclaimed British documentary about the group of the same name included “Road to Nowhere” as a bonus feature. Besides the visual appeal, the short but unique “choral” arrangement stands on its own. The track chugs slowly through the introduction while retaining the signature accordion. But it’s not until the pace picks up with a nod to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” that this version separates itself and makes you wish it didn’t end so soon. – Frank Minishak

23. Dr Phibes & The House Of Wax Equations – Psycho Killer

Despite not being a big hit in its time, “Psycho Killer” is the most-covered Talking Heads song by a mile (distant runners-up: “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “This Must Be the Place”). So even aside from our off-kilter honorable mention up there, a few real covers made the list – and a lot more almost did (so much so that I compiled a 60-second medley of some of the best). Short-lived ’90s psych-rock band Dr Phibes & The House Of Wax Equations stretch the song out with spacey guitar theatrics and a rhythmic twist on the “fa fa fa” line. In a dark turn, though, the lead singer turned out to be an actual psycho killer; he was sentenced to life in jail in 1997 for murdering his mother. – Ray Padgett

22. Eddie Vedder – Love -> Building on Fire

Eddie Vedder, with and without Pearl Jam, has been covering this song for a while. His version of the song, particularly here with the horns, really taps into a goofy populism that guides a lot of my favorite Talking Heads songs. Like so many Vedder covers, his love of the song speaks to my love of the song and the three minutes feel like two old friends remembering a favorite teacher. Eddie covering a song he loves is as close to Springsteen as non-Springsteen gets. The “tweetweetweet” is especially joyful and nostalgic. – Matt Vadnais

21. kd lang and the Siss Boom Bang – Heaven

While not quite her “Hallelujah”, a rendition some consider to be the “Mona Lisa” of cover songs, k.d. Lang’s interpretation of “Heaven” brings out the beauty in an already glorious tune. – Walt Falconer

20. Guster – (Nothing But) Flowers

The final Talking Heads’ album, 1988’s Naked, is seen as rather underwhelming. As a result, its songs almost never get covered. The rare exception is Guster tackling the album’s second single “(Nothing But) Flowers” on a live album. Whether they intended to or not, they make the case that maybe Naked is underrated. In their bongo-slapping hands, “(Nothing But) Flowers” becomes as catchy and memorable as Byrne and co’s best. – Ray Padgett

19. The Bad Shepherds – Once in a Lifetime

The Bad Shepherds’ cover of “Once in a Lifetime” couldn’t be more different from the original, nor could it speak more to the heart of the cover artist. The band’s no more, alas (“Although we dearly loved doing what we did, we think we’d just be repeating ourselves if we went out again,” founder Adrian Edmondson explained), but they showed how punk and new wave songs of the ’70s and ’80s could sound timeless when infused with a little auld fiddle and mandolin. – Patrick Robbins

18. Bhi Bhiman – This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

This song is subtitled “(Naive Melody)” because the Heads switched instruments and, thus limited by their unfamiliarity with what they were playing, had to keep things as basic as possible. Bhi Bhiman isn’t stuck in a rudimentary gear, which allows his take on the song to sound relaxed, almost effortless, in a way the Heads couldn’t. Bhiman’s vocals are especially nice – David Byrne’s strained yelps are part of his charm, but hearing Bhiman sing the lyrics softly and fully add so much to what was already one of the band’s best melodies. – Patrick Robbins

17. Florence and the Machine – Wild Wild Life

Great covers can come from the unlikeliest of places. In this case, “Wild Wild Life” comes from a video Florence and the Machine recorded to promote their appearance at some now-forgotten 2012 music festival. They went well beyond their promotional duties by recording an amazing Talking Heads cover, and all in animal onesies no less. It’s a shame they never went into a studio to record a full-length version, but there is something charming about the casualness of this take. – Ray Padgett

16. Phish – The Great Curve

In our Full Album treatment of Remain In Light, we described “The Great Curve,” which closed side one of the original vinyl LP as “exhilarating . . . featuring call and response vocals and barely-controlled soloing by [Adrian] Belew, all over an irresistible dance beat.” Phish met the challenge of the original in their version, performed as part of their own full-album performance of Remain in Light in their 1996 Halloween show in Atlanta. Augmented by horns, additional percussionists and synthesizers, the band does an incredible job of recreating the excitement and complexity of the original, while adding its own individual touches. – Jordan Becker

15. Velvet Revolver – Psycho Killer

A staple from the late-2000s Velvet Revolver shows, the late Scott Weiland burns down the house, and Slash lays it down as if he has been playing this song all his life. And, he probably has. – Walt Falconer

14. Shawn Colvin – This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

Another track from 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, “This Must Be The Place” is the rare Talking Heads love song. It is a simple melody – created as earlier noted the most part by musicians not playing their accustomed instruments – that contrasts with the more complex sounds of the rest of the album. This relative simplicity lends itself to the stripped down, mostly acoustic folk version recorded live by Shawn Colvin on her 1994 album of covers, Cover Girl. Colvin’s reimagining is more pensive, and, not surprisingly, more personal and less detached than the original. – Jordan Becker

13. Smoke Season – Psycho Killer

There are far more electronic “Pyscho Killer” covers than one might expect (see also: FAE, Black Mighty Wax, Swarf Sisters). Smoke Season execute it best. Rather than trying to turn it into a club banger like many others, they aim for dark and spooky, big and pounding in the chorus but quiet and menacing in the verses. It’s all capped off by an echoey, distorted-to-hell guitar solo that sounds like something out of David Lynch. – Ray Padgett

12. Damon & The Heathens – Life During Wartime

Damon & The Heathens hail from New Orleans. Well, maybe not literally (they live in Oakland), but spiritually. The squiggly horns and gravelly warble on this down-and-funky Heads cover reinvents “Life During Wartime” as a dark blast that might soundtrack a 3:00am a few blocks off Bourbon Street. You don’t know whether to dance… or start walking a little faster. – Ray Padgett

11. Luna – Thank You For Sending Me an Angel

Luna’s version of this song starts with a very similar opening, retaining the galloping, staccato drumbeat coupled with a softer, but no less insistent guitar riff. When Dean Wareham’s muted vocals roll in, though, it’s clear that Luna is not going to try to “out-Byrne” David Byrne. As the guitar and drums continue to build throughout the song, Wareham seems to fade further and further back in the mix, providing a dreamy counterpoint to the original. Throw in an off-kilter ’90s indie rock guitar solo for good measure and you’ve got a cover that pays tribute while standing on its own. – Mike Misch

10. Iron and Wine and Ben Bridwell – This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

This is an especially non-manic version of a song that conflates twitchy energy and earnestness; here, the slackness of the strings and fussiness of the arrangement replace chaos with attention. Sure, its pacing and forcefulness creep a bit as it goes on, but it’s a delicate cover, picking up on the intimacy and tenderness of the original, both of which are easy to ignore because of how much sonic ground gets covered and the general Byrne-ness of the whole thing. It’s no accident that this cover loses the parenthetical in the title; it feels much less naive, or at least more knowing. – Matt Vadnais

9. Jimmy Scott – Heaven

Low and slow is the way to go on this nuanced version. Jimmy Scott’s unique singing voice carry’s the day and commands attention. – Walt Falconer

8. Big Daddy – Once in a Lifetime

The best Talking Heads song (or so say I) turned into “Day-O”‘s twin brother. I like a cover that takes a song far away from its origins, and this faux-calypso arrangement surely does that (the Heads’ forays into world music notwithstanding). I also like a cover that makes me smile, and if this one doesn’t make you smile, I don’t think I want to know you. – Patrick Robbins

7. Oysterband – Road to Nowhere

Venerable British agit-folk band – “like the Levellers after a good wash” – don’t do many covers. Apart from the sort marked “Traditional, Arranged by…” that is. But the sentiment fits them well, this being the encore for their celebratory 40 years on the road tour. And they do it well. – Seuras Og

6. This Mortal Coil – Drugs

This Mortal Coil was less a band than a collective, featuring a rotating cast of performers on the 4AD label; their cover of “Drugs” sees Alison Limerick taking a turn at the microphone and delivering a vocal that’s fierce and muscular, yet full of soul. The backing track is grating, but purposely so; where the Heads’ original sounds paranoid as all get-out, TMC’s cover conveys another unpleasant side of drugs, in the way it makes you wince with its abrasive noise. Both tracks are tough listens, but very rewarding. – Patrick Robbins

5. Tom Jones ft. The Cardigans – Burning Down the House

If you’re not only casually familiar with Tom Jones, you might be hesitant to give this a spin. But as we’ve written about before, Tom Jones knows how to let loose a great cover, and the Cardigans are the perfect foil in this song. The Cardigans’ Nina Persson’s vocals sweetly open the song before Jones jumps in and starts doing his thing. He sounds confident, brash, and sings with reckless abandon. Persson’s voice is detached, almost bored, which emphasizes how big Jones’s voice is. It’s a great pairing and plenty funky. Add it to your next party playlist to spark some conversation. – Mike Misch

4. Japandroids – Love -> Building on Fire

Listening to the first Talking Heads single, “Love -> Building on Fire,” is like watching a baby eagle break out of its shell – tentative, nascent, but with hints of the greatness to come. The Japandroid duo had been together for over a decade when they recorded their cover last year, and it shows; this version feels lived in, comfortable and experienced in a way the Talking Heads (once) weren’t. The original comes across as a well-recorded demo in this company, but the cover shows the promise of the original fulfilled. – Patrick Robbins

3. Mavis Staples ft. Arcade Fire – Slippery People

“Slippery People” first appeared on Talking Heads’ 1983 album Speaking in Tongues, which grafted the polyrhythms of Remain in Light onto more accessible musical forms. In this case, the influence of gospel’s call and response (itself derived from African music) is prominent. Making the fact that The Staples Singers, whose roots were in gospel, originally covered the song on their 1984 album Turning Point somewhat less surprising in retrospect than it seemed at the time. That version, which also featured David Byrne on guitar, and lead vocals from both Mavis and Pops Staples, sounds a bit dated now, with its brittle synths. In 2014, at an all-star concert celebrating Mavis’ 75th birthday, she performed “Slippery People,” with the full house band, along with Win Butler and Règine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, and it was a pulsating, soulful thing of beauty. – Jordan Becker

2. Kishi Bashi – This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)

Violinist and bow for hire Kishi Bashi is the perfect foil to capture the uniqueness that is David Byrne and The Talking Heads. The soaring vocals and lush string arrangements take the song to a next level listen. Released first on a 7″ single and then more widely for his 2015 album String Quartet Live!, the journey this rendition takes from the New York City rock clubs to the symphony hall is well worth experiencing. – Walt Falconer

1. Peter Gabriel – Listening Wind

We named Peter Gabriel’s And I’ll Scratch Yours the best covers album of 2010. Seven years later, we were already declaring it a “Cover Classic.” And one key reason is his stunning take on the Talking Heads’ little-covered “Listening Wind.” Gabriel’s quiet orchestra-and-voice approach brings out the powerful lyrics with an emotion even Byrne admits you might not get in the Heads’ version. A few years later, Byrne responded with his own cover of Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember.” – Ray Padgett

This must be the link where you can hear even more great Talking Heads covers.

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  8 Responses to “The Best Talking Heads Covers Ever”

Comments (2) Pingbacks (6)
  1. You missed a GREAT one imo Span’s cover of Psycho Killer

  2. check out Dark Horses “Road to Nowhere”, the start is a bit odd maybe, but it takes a pretty original direction that diverges enough from the original to make it interesting, but not unfamiliar. ps., love the site, i do a community radio show of all covers and you guys are a great source of new music for me. i super appreciate it.

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