Oct 182023

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

If you haven’t been aware of the story of Talking Heads getting back together, I guess you may have been on another planet, such was the publicity. Given they didn’t even play anything, grouping only to talk and be interviewed, this shows quite the lasting appeal of this band, and gives some idea of the delight forthcoming if they actually did pick up their musical gear.

The occasion was the polished up re-release of Jonathan Demme’s concert film of the band in their prime, 1984’s Stop Making Sense. You know, the big suit and all of that. Because the break-up of the band was so famously dysfunctional, any previous talk of the foursome ever meeting up again was deemed well nigh impossible, such the apparent lasting ill-feeling between de facto band leader David Byrne and the other three, constructively dismissed at the end of the road, or as near as. Literally so, it being at the end of a tour. Many words have been spoken: drummer, Chris Frantz has said a fair bit in his memoir, Remain In Love. Yet, as they grouped around a table in Toronto this fall, all seemed sweet and contrite, even as they carefully dodged questions around any more working together. (So they didn’t deny it, shout all the fanbase! We shall see…..)

“Burning Down the House” was one of their biggies, their only Billboard top 10 single. Based on the skeleton of a studio jam between Frantz and his wife, bass player Tina Weymouth, its evolution had David Byrne chanting nonsense lyrics, designed more to fit the scan,  than to make any sense, and Jerry Harrison, the 4th Head, adding choppy synthesizer stabs. And, yes, of course it was in the film, if somewhat expanded and adapted, featuring Weymouth on synth bass. It was and remains a consummate snapshot of what the band were then doing, applying a remarkable meshwork capture of jittery post-punk new wave energy, funky dance club rhythms and emergent afro stylings.

But, are there, I wonder, any other ways of gilding this lily?

Bonnie Raitt – Burning Down the House (Talking Heads cover)

So, how does the song translate into a straight blues? The answer, I guess, is not much, Ms. Raitt deciding to maintain much the same funky backbeat, the blues more within her vocal delivery and whipcord slide guitar. A live version here, it was also included on her 1995 live album Road Tested, Grammy award nominee for rock album that year. If nothing else, this displays also the crack band of musicians that Raitt surrounds herself with, the song an effective and appropriate end of set finale. It also displays she knows well the value of the songs she chooses to cover, with, often, her audience little aware of the original versions.

Mystic Bowie’s Talking Dreads – Burning Down the House (Talking Heads cover)

“Burning Down the House” translates surprisingly well into a skanky setting. It is the brass and under burn of clavinet that give the most added extra value here, but the abundance of synthesizer is a neat throwback to the original. Mystic Bowie may not be a household name, but has form, and has been a featured lead vocalist for the Frantz/Weymouth Heads offshoot, Tom Tom Club. Indeed, look harder at the name of the “band” here: Talking Dreads. Ring any bells? Rhymes with? You got it, this being but one of a stack of Talking Heads songs covered on the parent album, called, simply, Mystic Bowie’s Talking Dreads. His “Psycho Killer” is something else!

Tom Jones & the Cardigans – Burning Down the House (Talking Heads cover)

That’s right, the Welsh valleys tonsil-swallowing song belter hooking up with Swedish rockers, the somewhat icy Nina Persson perhaps not the first duet partner you would expect to see him paired with. OK, it is a meat and potatoes rendition, one that holds together all the necessary elements, if with a touch more hushällsost than Byrne et al ever applied. It comes from an interesting experiment whereby Jones the voice teamed up with a number of more contemporary acts for a duets album, Reload. This 1999 album paired him with, besides the Cardigans, other acts varying between Portishead, Van Morrison and Simply Red, amongst a whole host more. Seemingly, with 4 million sales, his most successful record ever!

Chicks on Speed – Burning Down the House (Talking Heads cover)

An extraordinary mash-up of what sounds like Bananarama with Kraftwerk, this earns as much kudos for chutzpah as for the overall delivery, which is actually charming in its own odd way. Barely discernible from the original, unless you listen to the words, the vocal air-raid siren effect, that closes the 3 1/4 minutes, is a clever as it becomes ultimately annoying. Wiki tells me they are “a feminist music and fine art ensemble” from Munich, which essentially prevents me from making any snarky comments. Their musical style, again I read, is typical of the electroclash style beloved by our Teutonic chums. I should lighten up; it’s fun!

Marcus Miller – Burning Down the House (Talking Heads cover)

Finally, an instrumental cover from Marcus Miller, which takes the funk and takes it about as far into jazz-funk territory as you might want, or choose, to go. The onetime Miles Davis bandleader and bass man leads from the front, and gives the construction of the piece a good old rattle, with energetic drums and brass keeping an eye on the scaffolding. Sure, he goes on, just a bit too much, but that is the seance of that style of music and it can be as exhilarating as it is exhausting. The vocals aren’t even really missed, as they might take eyes off all the instrumental chicanery.

That would be it, were I not just itching to add quite the weirdest idea ever, which isn’t in any top 5 of anything, but begs a listen, so let me borrow a few extra lines. Steel yourselves…

Vienna Boys Choir – Burning Down the House (Talking Heads cover)

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  One Response to “Five Good Covers: “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads)”

Comments (1)
  1. Saw Angelique Kidjo on her Remain in Light tour and the encore was this song. They tore the place up! To my knowledge, she has not recorded it yet, but I still hope she will.

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