This is the 79th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
When the members of Talking Heads began working on the band’s fifth studio album, “Speaking in Tongues,” they met for jam sessions at Tina Weymouth’s and Chris Frantz’s loft. David Byrne brought his tape recorder to these sessions, recording when he thought something interesting was happening. At night, Byrne reviewed these recordings and listened for potential songs to put on the album.
The song that eventually became “Burning Down the House” began with one of these recordings. Byrne, in reviewing a tape of a jam session, started testing different chants until he found the right rhythm to sing over the track. Once Byrne found the cadence and phrasing he wanted, he tried out random phrases until he finished the song.
“Speaking in Tongues” spent 35 weeks on the Billboard Hot 200, peaking at Number 15. In 1984, “Burning Down the House” was included in “Stop Making Sense,” Talking Heads’ concert film directed by Jonathan Demme. The movie’s soundtrack album of the same name spent 118 weeks on the Hot 200, peaking at Number 41.
In previous posts, I’ve discussed how the meaning of the song can change from cover to cover, depending on the tone, inflection, tempo and so on. That’s especially true in a song like “Burning Down The House,” given that the meaning of the original is so subjective.
Paul Shaffer covered “Burning Down the House” for his 1993 album, “The World’s Most Dangerous Party.” Released under the name Paul Shaffer & the Party Boys of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the album was cast as if it were a live recording of a house party with with famous guests. Shaffer’s “Burning Down the House” was instrumental, though it had ambient noise added to it to sound as if it were actually performed at a party. Both LL Cool J and Ringo Starr appeared on the track, but only in speaking roles.
Bonnie Raitt included a “Burning Down the House” cover on her 1995 live album, “Road Tested.” She managed to both remain faithful to the original while also making it her own: Raitt’s version was bluesy where the original had been funky, and where Byrne’s delivery had been deadpan, Raitt’s was dripping with country twang.
On Tom Jones’s 1999 album “Reload,” the Welsh singer was joined by The Cardigans a horn-driven “Burning Down the House” cover. The Cardigans’ Nina Persson was Jones’ foil, as she sounded as monotone as he sounded maniacal. And he sounded pretty damn maniacal.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir, also known as Die Wiener Sängerknaben, released an album of pop covers in 2002. Besides a borderline-inappropriate version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the album featured a cover “Burning Down the House” that didn’t sound inappropriate (but sounded weird nonetheless).
“Live at SOB’s” was a live album by John Legend, comprising recordings from various 2002 shows at SOB’s in Manhattan. On “Burning Down the House,” Legend vacillated between crazed shouting and soulful crooning, applying the former to the chorus and the latter to the verses. Whereas Talking Heads let the song play out, Legend and his band burned through the song at a frenzied pace, as if they had they all had to rush so as to get home to pay the babysitter before 10.
The 2005 tribute compilation, “Up All Night: Jammin’ to the Talking Heads,” had some quirky tracks, but perhaps the weirdest was Hairy Apes BMX covering “Burning Down the House.” It was at least the hardest to listen to, as it sounded like a guy just screaming the lyrics slowly over a distorted drum track. As one does.
Canadian DJ and producer Tiga covered “Burning Down the House” on his 2006 album, “Sexor.” Recast as a dance track, Tiga’s “Burning Down the House” was faster, but low-key: The vocals were almost like a hushed whisper over the slowly-building synths.
Dave Matthews Band has played “Burning Down the House” at live shows, and the song was included on the 2008 album, “DMB Live Trax Vol. 15: Alpine Valley Music Theatre.” Shouting over bluesy guitars and funky horns, Matthews sounded like a drunk fan singing along at karaoke. But he sounded like he was having fun.
Rock band The Used recorded a “Burning Down the House” cover that appeared on two albums in 2009: “Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros. Records” and the soundtrack to “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Compared to the Talking Heads version, this cover was louder and messier, with drums that overpowered the bass and guitar.
Walk The Moon included a live “Burning Down the House” cover on its 2013 EP, “Tightrope.” The band’s rendition was faithful to the original, and didn’t push any boundaries. But in the live performance, it seemed obvious that the band members were paying homage to a band they respected and a song they loved.
Music collective Chicks on Speed covered “Burning Down the House” for its 2014 album, “Artstravaganza.” Whereas Tiga turned the song into a low-key dance track, there was nothing low-key about Chicks on Speed’s frenzied dancetastic remake. From the opening note, the song was thumping, synth-heavy banger, before a single word was sung. And when the vocals did kick it, these Chicks on Speed when from sounding like they were in pain to sounding like they were interrogating a witness.
Vancouver DJ and musician I Know Karate has teamed up with singer Bunny for at least two songs, both of which had music videos with Bunny in a pink bunny suit (as one does). But the most noticeable thing after that is how personal and accessible Bunny can sound singing over a dance track. And if you listen to her breathy vocals, you can get more than a hint of Missing Person’s Dale Bozzio.
In most of these covers, the artists kept the funky bass and guitar that served as the original track’s backbone. But a few, like Chicks on Speed, cut it out. The one consistent aspect of each of these covers is Byrne’s weird lyrics. And yet, because they don’t tell a story in a linear sense, they can take on any variety of meanings. In that regard, these covers are not that different from covers of Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” in which Bertrand sang line after line of French gibberish. As one does.
And like “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” “Burning Down The House” was not based on any poetic or lyrical concept. The lyrics were dictated by the sound of the song, rather than any deeper purpose. But in an interview with NPR’s Lynn Neary in 1984, Byrne said he didn’t think the song was meaningless:
I didn’t really know at the time, but to me… it implies ecstatic rebirth or transcending one’s own self…. In classic psychology, the house is the self. And burning it down is destroying yourself… And the assumption is you get reborn, like a Phoenix from the ashes. See? It’s all there.
Maybe? That sorta makes sense, but not completely. Same as it ever was, I suppose.