Talking Heads Recall How They Made “Burning Down the House”

The legendary group describes how Parliament influenced their 1983 hit

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne
David Byrne performs during Lollapaloosa Sao Paulo in 2018.
Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images
By Bonnie Stiernberg / July 7, 2020 1:48 pm

In 1983, Talking Heads scored their first Top 10 hit with “Burning Down the House,” and as part of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Anatomy of a Song” series, frontman David Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth and guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison spoke with the publication about its genesis and funky influence.

“‘Burning Down the House’ wasn’t a song about arson,” Byrne said. “When I wrote the lyrics in 1982, the title phrase was a metaphor for destroying something safe that entrapped you. I envisioned the song as an expression of liberation, to break free from whatever was holding you back. As for the rest of the lyrics, there are no hidden meanings. There’s no logical, linear connection. They aren’t telling a story or signifying anything. I simply combined aphorisms and nonsequiturs that had an emotional connection.”

Frantz and Weymouth recalled where the titular phrase came from, as well as its influence on the music. “The music’s inspiration began when Tina and I went to Madison Square Garden in February 1979 to see Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins and the Brides of Funkenstein,” Frantz told the Journal. “As the Talking Heads’ bassist and drummer, Tina and I were responsible for the band’s groove. We loved all kinds of music, especially funk. Before Parliament came on that night, the audience chanted things like, ‘Goddamn, get off your ass and jam’ and ‘Burn down the house! Burn down the house!’ That last one stuck with me.”

“At our earliest writing session, Chris and I started this funky groove,” Weymouth added. “David added rhythm guitar and Jerry bounced between rhythm guitar and keyboards. To get their creative juices going, Chris shouted enthusiastically, ‘Burn down the house! Burn down the house!’ as he played.”

The rest, as they say, is history. You can read the Wall Street Journal‘s complete oral history of “Burning Down the House” here.

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