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Taken from Far Out Magazine (May 19, 2021)

From Pearl Jam to Tom Jones: The 8 best Talking Heads covers of all time

by Jack Whatley

Talking Heads. Credit: Alamy
Talking Heads. Credit: Alamy

After they arrived on the music scene, it quickly became painstakingly clear to all who witnessed them; there is no band quite like Talking Heads. Three friends, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who had graduated from art school with a dream of bigger and brighter things, made their way to the Big Apple. They rented a dirt-cheap loft just around the corner from CBGB's and went about plying their trade in the grime-covered rock Mecca. Soon enough, the group were cutting away from the rest of the punk herd that drank at the watering hole and making music that would not only shake the foundations of the music industry but catapult the band into icon status.

"Say something once, why say it again?"

- David Byrne

Ever since then, Talking Heads have been one band you can assess somebody's musical taste by. If for some ludicrous reason, they don't care for a single shred of what Byrne and the band did, then you can wave them a brief goodbye and get on with your life - there is no hope for them. For, to miss out on the marvellous spectacle of funk, punk and pop that is Talking Heads is unforgivable. Luckily, this set of artists all knew what was up.

The group may well flirt with the edges of punk rock, pop music and worldbeat charm, but they never fully settle on one or the other. Instead, they float between the lines of categorisation and reside permanently in the steam that emanated from any crowd who watched them perform live. It's a useful selling point if you're in the band, and it also means that when they did achieve their iconic status, they influenced a huge range of artists from all walks of the music industry life.

David Byrne and Chris Frantz may have toiled away at the idea of becoming a rock band, but it wasn't until Frantz girlfriend, Tina Weymouth, got involved that things really kicked up a notch in the spectrum of Talking Heads. Frantz and Byrne encouraged Weymouth to pick up the bass and become their new member, throwing away opportunities to take to the stage as a duo but championing a member they knew would work well with them. When they eventually arrived as the support act for the aforementioned heroes of punk, the Ramones, as their first-ever show, the band were nearing full fruition. They soon picked up Jerry Harrison from Modern Lovers fame and completed their band; when one then adds the production power of Brian Eno, you have an accurate view of Talking Heads at their prime.

It was this group that helped to create a catalogue of albums that are so utterly unique and singular that they require their own classification. Their sound would not only challenge the norms that surrounded them but also push their own narrative, never comfortable with the idea of being a usual rock band. It meant the band were a hugely influential force.

Below, we're looking back at some of those artists influenced by Byrne and co. and picking out our eight favourite Talking Heads cover of all time.

Best Talking Heads covers:

Eddie Vedder - 'Love - Building on Fire'

Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder is a self-professed Talking Heads obsessive and, while there seemingly isn't a wealth of correlation between his work and that of the new wave icons, the fierce cover of their track 'Love - Building on Fire' is nothing short of sublime.

'Love - Building on Fire' is one for loyal Talking Heads fans. The 1977 stand-alone single was the first to track the band released after signing to Sire records and was one of the first bricks put down in the wall by the New York new-wave outfit to create their legacy.

It says something about the strength of their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, that they could afford to leave a track off the album that oozes as much class as this but, if there was one thing that Talking Heads never lacked, it was artistic courage.

Tom Jones ft. The Cardigans - Burning Down the House

I'll be honest; there isn't much Tom Jones can do that would upset me. The legendary music man has never shied away from his role as an entertainer, and with this cover of the Heads' track 'Burning Down The House', he put his shimmying hips in front of the speeding bullet of the music industry doldrum.

Sharing the cover with indie heroes of the day, The Cardigans, the Welsh crooner provides the deep boom to Cardigans' singer Nina Persson's angelic vocals. There's a confidence that swells through the track, and it has a nostalgic swagger that makes it feel far removed from the cringefest it was initially perceived as after its first release.

Enjoyable if not necessarily the coolest number on our list, but, Talking Heads were never about being cool.

Florence & The Machine - 'Wild, Wild Life'

Sometimes covers can be crafted from the very souls of the artist. Lovingly whittled from a block of emotion they carry for the original into something pure and honest. Sometimes, though, they can emerge as part of a promo for a now-defunct music festival. That's exactly what happened with Florence & The Machine's cover of 'Wild Wild Life'.

To make everything feel even a little more ridiculous, the band performed the cover of the track while all wearing animal onesies. Still, the cover remains one of the finest Talking Heads tributes we've laid our ears on. Though not a complete reimagining of the song, there is a hopeful charm to this snippet that makes it all worthwhile.

Mavis Staples & Arcade Fire - 'Slippery People'

When you take the incredible talent of Mavis Staples and complement it with Arcade Fire, you have a recipe for success. First appearing on the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues, 'Slippery People' is perhaps the finest track for the aforementioned talents to appear on. The song was made for a cover with a simple gospel call and response built upon a rhythmic jaunt.

The Staples Singers originally covered the track on their 1984 album Turning Point, which features Byrne himself on guitar, but this version feels even grander. It may be a case of the occasion taking precedent as the recording comes from Mavis Staples' 75th birthday bash, which, amongst others, welcomed Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire to provide this encompassing and joyful cover.

Peter Gabriel - 'Listening Wind'

Taken from Peter Gabriel's And I'll Scratch Yours, a covers album from 2010, the British singer delivers one of his finest performances on this Talking Heads number. It's always particularly poignant when an artist goes off the beaten track and picks an unusual song to pay tribute to, and on 'Listening Wind', Gabriel pulls it off with aplomb.

Gabriel shows all the class of a singer who has seen and done it all before. Using not only his stunning vocal but an orchestral arrangement, he drifts the track into a legendary spotlight. Gabriel's new style of approach allows the song to flourish truly and is, arguably, the only entry on our list that supersedes the original.

Even David Byrne admitted that Gabriel's version of the track elicited more emotion. And you don't get much better than that.

Cage The Elephant - 'Psycho Killer'

Released as the B-side to their enigmatic single 'Ain't No Rest for the Wicked', the garage rockers Cage The Elephant took on the ultimate song about a serial killer with a heavy degree of youthful exuberance and dirt-under-your-fingernails grit. The song, inspired in no short amount by the spate of serial killers that erupted in the seventies, has become a unique part of the entire Talking Heads catalogue.

Of course, this track doesn't have the same push and pull of Weymouth's unique bassline but it makes up for it with a seriously debauched lead line. Matt Shultz does a fantastic job on the vocal, never swaying too close to the original but paying hopeful homage to it, especially within the French portion of the track,

If Talking Heads had arrived during the indie explosion of the '00s they may well have sounded a little like this.

Editors - 'Road to Nowhere'

There's a lot to love about the Talking Heads track 'Road to Nowhere'. Not only does it have a chorus that is bound to be lodged in your brain forevermore, but its unique rhythmic bounce belies that somewhat dark material at hand. After all, a road to nowhere is very rarely such a joyous excursion as the beats may have you believe. In the hands of Scotland's perenially morose indie stalwarts, Editors, the song's content is given the more accurate portrayal.

Shared as an exclusive clip for Napster in 2006, Tom Smith operates as the piece's voice and is as pained and poetic as ever. Smith allows the futility of the lyrics to leap forth and, accompanied only by an acoustic, provides and solemn and remorseful refrain.

It's covers like this that make covers worthwhile. Changing the pace of the song we get a brand new view of the original.

Big Daddy - 'Once In A Lifetime'

"Say something once, why say it again?" are the words that reign over every single entry in our list. Talking Heads and David Byrne didn't really agree with repeating themselves. In fact, in their career, they only ever really covered one song - Al Green's 'Take Me To The River', meaning any inclusion on this list would like have received a disdainful eye from the band. But this entry from Big Daddy may well buck the trend.

'Once In A Lifetime' is a pop masterpiece; there is no doubt about it. But I've always felt that it was missing a calypso beat. Big Daddy provide just that and turn the track into something you may hear performed at a Sandals beach resort. If that turns your stomach, and it very well could, perhaps even should, you have to remember that Byrne and co. always wanted their music to transport you to another realm.

If this cover doesn't leave you smiling, imagining a colourful cocktail in your hand and the sun beating on your face, then perhaps Talking Heads aren't for you after all.


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