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Vinyl Ventures #2: Talking Heads - Speaking in Tongues (1983)

Welcome back!

For the second episode of Vinyl Ventures, we are (finally) taking a look at an actual vinyl record. The album in question today is the Talking Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues; it is the band's fifth studio album and therefore is right in the middle of their discography. The band was eight years old at this point, while five years later they disbanded after the final album, "Naked". "Speaking in Tongues" marked their absolute breakthrough into the pop mainstream, especially due to the wildly popular single "Burning Down The House", which is the very first track on this album.

Image: Album cover and insert in question. The cover art consists of a yellow square with colorful decoration as a frame, and a blue vinyl disk as a centerpiece. The inlet is a scan of various handwritten notes, which are the lyrics of the songs.


So, let us get into it!

According to the inlay, it has five songs on side A, and four songs on side B, each side tallying up to about twenty minutes of playtime:

Side A

  1. "Burning Down the House" (4:01)
  2. "Making Flippy Floppy" (4:34)
  3. "Girlfriend Is Better" (4:22
  4. "Slippery People" (3:31)
  5. "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity" (4:07)

Side B

  1. "Swamp" (5:12)
  2. "Moon Rocks" (5:03)
  3. "Pull Up the Roots" (5:08)
  4. "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (4:53)"

The band's members should be pretty widely known, but for the sake of clarity, here is the quartet as it forms the Talking Heads. Remember though that most if not all of these songs will have additional artists attached that played various additional instruments but do not belong to this core group.


As always, I took my time to listen to the entire album in one go, noting down my thoughts and impressions, and then wrote this piece. I hope you enjoy reading this episode as much as I did listening to this album!


The A side starts off with the track "Burning Down The House", which really needs no introduction. It is the most commercially successful track on this entire album and went on to become a period hit. Still, I was much more familiar with the band's debut album's hit "Psycho Killer", so I ended up listening to "Burning Down The House" almost for the first time.

Almost unnoticeabely, the track begins with a quiet arpeggiated guitar and various . A few seconds later, it then kicks off properly with a simple-and-bold reverbed drum beat that almost forces you to move along with it; a common sensation while listening to this album. Immediately apparent is the stylistic choice to 'cut off' nearly everything: short form vocals that separate every syllable and sound like the singer is shouting or chanting individual bits and pieces at the top of his lungs. The same thing also continues into the instrumentals: short notes in simple patterns on both keys and bass. In a nice contrast to this is the spacey synthesizer solo that covers the latter half of the track, which weaves in and out unlike any of the instruments we have heard before. All individual instruments finally team up as the solo comes to a close to deliver a satisfying end.

The short form nature of the vocals is probably one of the reasons for its success: no matter whether you know the lyrics, anyone can shout "Burning Down The House" when it happens. It is memorable and fun to join in with, shaping this into the expected hit that it ended up being.

Lyrically, the track seems to be about an "ordinary guy" cutting ties with his life in one way or another: burning down the house, so to speak. There is trouble and he does not know how or whether to deal with it, so he is metaphorically speaking burning bridges. He does not expect anything to get better from this, but it seems like there is no other option. The resolved nature of both the song and the lyrics make this a rather sullen track once you listen to what it might mean, contrary to the funky, laid back aesthetics of the instrumental parts.

Overall, it is no wonder that this ended up being the big hit from the album, however it did not stick with me the way that "Psycho Killer" did. It is a pattern that repeats through this album: good tracks that unfortunately do not stay in memory for long and are rather consumed as part of the whole album.


The second track begins with a very short bit of dialogue and immediately communicates that the funky influence is continuing, just more hectic than funk usually tend to be. Once again the voice sounds pretty tight and choppy, but this is intentional and supports the track's overall atmosphere. In many ways, this sounds a bit like slightly slower, non-offbeat ska. The destructive effect that these songs have on your ability to resist moving your shoulders back and forth to their rhythm is once again remarkable. The use of more experimental synthesizers is pretty cool here and distinguishes it from tracks of the decades before; it is new and yet familiar. Especially the solo, which sounds like a synthesizer is imitating something between passing cars on highways, wind instruments and strings squarely puts this track into the "new wave" category - as expected.

The repetitive motifs, the wobbly synths and the slightly unusual song structure emerging from that draw comparisons, for me personally, to electronic acts like Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode. The theme of "hypnotic funk" is interesting and the Talking Heads pull it off way better than it rightfully should have been. The use of repetition and choppy instruments and vocals make for a robotic vibe which is well interrupted by the more wavy and spacey synthesizer parts to relieve tension.

Once again, the lyrics are much darker than the music would suggest. Although the writing style of most of these tracks is pretty opaque and full of non-sequiturs and metaphors, it seems to me like Making Flippy Floppy is a track about living an ordinary life in a world full of corruption and injustice, especially if you don't fit in or conform, which is according to what I know about David Byrne probably somewhat autobiographical.


Track three starts off a little bit more electronic than the ones before; a welcome addition to the repertoire. The music is regularly interrupted by zigzag synthesizer wiggles, exciting slides and more experimental sounds. It is clear that they had a lot of fun experimenting around with the synthesizers in this one, and the fusion between funk and these more electronic influences make this one of my favorite tracks on the entire album. There is definitely a bit more tension in this track's mood, a bit more anxiety involved; especially in the synthesizer parts which with a different vocal and instrumental backing could just as well be part of thriller soundtracks like Carpenter's Christine. Weird comparison, I know, but it is what comes to mind for me.

The industrial noises close to the end of the track were really unexpected callbacks or foreshadowings of industrial music. You can trace the development here to the latter developments of new wave; if this had a different, more monotonous vocal track and fully electronic synth instrumentals instead of funk guitars, this could have easily been an industrial band's output. Lyrically, I have to admit I am having difficulties understanding the tracks at this point. Perhaps the song's moral of the story is the outro: stop making sense, stop making sense.


Slippery People starts off more traditionally, and develops to be way slower and laid back than the tracks before. This is also the first track that prominently features call and response choir vocals and soul-y harmonics. Despite the more traditional nature of this track, the voice remains largely the same, with similar strained vocal style working - almost. I wish they had brought in the voice from side B (spoilers!) for this one, because I feel that one fits traditional, less experimental tracks way more. For some odd reason, they decided to also put multiple synthesizer solos into this track, which I found odd and off-putting because those fit much more into the other tracks. It almost sounds like a vocoder or a voice filter too, definitely a bit grating in my opinion. From my experience playing in a band, there is this phenomenon where sometimes you fit an instrument or element into an already quite decent song just because the artist who plays that instrument needs to be included in some way. This feels like that kind of situation.

Slippery People is so far definitely my least favorite song on the album.


We have arrived at the end of side A with the fifth track, I Get Wild/Wild Gravity. This is actually a pretty significantly different style than what we have heard before; a very cool dub-ish slow track that works plentifully with its off-beat. Very cool. Its atmosphere is noticeably dark and anxious, even moreso than Girlfriend is Better, which makes for an interesting contrast to more up-beat tracks like the first or second one. The synthesizers are definitely the main drivers here, and the pattern of them interrupting individual lines with alarm-sounding noise continues on from the aforementioned Girlfriend is Better. The drums are really present in this track in a very good way while the vocals often take the back seat. This is a stylistic change from the first few "typical" tracks for this album. Call me crazy, but parts of this song really remind me of Gotye's masterpiece "State of the Art" from 2011's Making Mirrors; there is some early influence here one way or the other.

Lyrically, this track is pretty transparent to me (although I do not assume to be "correct" on this interpretation). It seems to describe the feeling of letting go of an ordinary life for a while and consuming psychedelic substances; from the beginning of the trip where he apparently leaves work to the very end where he somehow luckily arrives at home again after a reality-bending experience on drugs. This is, at least, how I interpret it.

Image: Cutout of a record player with the yellow-labelled record at hand on it.


Welcome to Side B! Having flipped the record and reset the needle on the vinyl, I am greeted with a stark contrast to what came before. Hello there, four-on-the-floor beat! A cheery vibe flows through me as the room is filled by very different vocals, this time not strained or high pitched at all. The singer is occasionally talking and occasionally singing in a cool, deep voice that is reminiscent of country, blues and rock and roll more than anything else. The sections where the vocals team up to sing the "hi, hi, hi" are very catchy and memorable. This is unlike anything we have heard before. It also almost sounds like straightforward rock! The synthesizers have a way less noticable role here (in a way that would have benefitted Slippery People). So far, this is now my favorite track on the album; and I can imagine it being very fun to listen to while driving.


Moon Rocks continues the stylistic trend set in Swamp, which makes side B have a pretty different overall identity from side A. Very funky and traditional once more; and while the vocals are again dissimilar to side A and instead keep in the deeper and more down to earth quadrants, they show more pitch range here in Moon Rocks. The guitars serve up cool bending and arpeggio effects and are most present this time with less hypnotic and repetitive patterns. This track is a good track to cheer you up and walk through the city in the rhythm of; its atmosphere is playful and a little more low key, which is a welcome change. Near the middle mark, the vocals suddenly turn very smooth with plenty of reverb, in a way that reminds me of some later Beatles tracks. Eerie, dreamy synthesizers take over for the vocals after this section and give the song an edge I did not know it needed; but it is an interesting change from the usual. Before it ends, it transitions back into how it was and then fades out on a very eerie synthesizer part.

This is once again a very good track, however it lacked a memorable hook that would have propelled this into "single" status.


It is the second-to-last track's turn now, and I have to admit that I am not a fan at all. It starts off with moany synthesizers over a funky beat once again, and we are back to the original vocals. This time around, they are way more whiney and full of complicated slides. Some parts are fun, but the synthesizer carpet that sounds like a ringing alarm clock gets on your nerves very fast. It is too busy for me, like a telephone ringtone, and genuinely unpleasant to listen to in parts. Perhaps the deeper vocals from Side 2 and a richer bass would have helped; but that is speculation. Even though it is shorter than Swamp, it still decidedly feels longer and like it is overstaying its welcome. If it ended around the three minute mark, it would have been more tolerable for me, but running on for five and a fifth minutes is too long to not get repetitive and annoying after a while.

This is definitely the first track I dislike on this album; and despite that, it is not terrible either, just decidedly not my taste.


It is almost impossible to read about this album without seeing the little tidbit of information mentioned about This Must Be The Place; David Byrne apparently always had been reluctant to write a love song because he was afraid of falling into flat clichés, until he wrote this lovely track, subtitled Naive Melody, specifically with the intention to be a naive and musically unconventional interpretation of love. He deliberately went against convention and what one would expect from a love song here, and it is noticable both in the lyrics and in the music.

It opens on an interesting and instantly memorable keys and bass opening and continues with a synthesizer that sounds very close to a little birdsong melody in both shape and sound. This will continue throughout the entire track without interruption, bringing back the typical "hypnotic" nature of this album and wrapping the theme up very well. Finally the vocals come in, and I am pleasantly surprised to hear the more down to earth and chill vocals typical for side B here. The background carpet is repetitive but this is definitely intentional as part of the naiveté theme. Because the vocals contrast so well with this repetition, it does not feel grating and rather pleasant instead.

That all said, I do not quite understand why this track out of all of them went on to become a major hit; I would have expected Making Flippy Floppy, Swamp or Girlfriend is Better to be more suitable candidates; but alas, I do not live in the times so I can only look on from the sidelines. It was by no means a bad track though; lyrically and thematically, it was perhaps the most interesting one.


Generally I think Speaking in Tongues shines best as a whole-album experience more than in its individual songs, but that is alright! After all, we are listening to a 33' LP, not a single. Some tracks are outliers that I liked very much, like Swamp, Making Flippy Floppy and Girlfriend is Better, ironically not including the two actual hits, the first and the last track. Lyrically, it is hard to look through the opaque themes and intentions, but with the context that David Byrne is autistic and communicates a lot of his personal experiences with this autism in his songs, it makes a lot more sense to view metaphors and themes through that lens oftentimes. It is an interesting character study just as much as it is a foreshadowing of and callback to various genres such as the later industrial parts of new wave and funk, disco and electronic music. The overall atmosphere of the music can be best described as hypnotic, which is definitely intentional; though it is rare to see hypnotic music outside of trance and other purely electronic genres, so I find it a pleasant addition to my internal repertoire.

I am happy to have listened to this album and will consider doing the rest of their discography at a different time.