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Music / Speaking in Tongues

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"Home: it's where I'd like to be, pick me up and turn me 'round..."
Click to see the limited-edition cover, designed by David Byrne and Robert Rauschenberg 
Speaking in Tongues, released in 1983, is the fifth album by American Post-Punk/New Wave Music band Talking Heads. Their follow up to the massively-acclaimed Remain in Light, the album continues its direct predecessor's blend of Post-Punk and New Wave Music rhythms and Afrobeat riffs, orienting them in a more electronic, mainstream-friendly direction while still remaining decidedly weird. It was also both the band's first self-produced album and their first since Talking Heads: 77 to not be produced by Brian Eno, who had ceased working with Talking Heads after the Troubled Production of Remain in Light in 1980. Still, several members of the touring band for the previous album returned for Speaking in Tongues and its associated tour, including Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, backing vocalists Dollette McDonald and Nona Hendryx (album only), and percussionist Steve Scales.

The album marked something of a turning point for Talking Heads. Previously, their albums had gotten progressively more experimental, in no small part due to Eno's production work; somewhat telling is the fact that Eno had just gotten back from working with David Bowie on "Heroes" when he met Talking Heads, and the emphasis on artsy, Progressive Rock-tinged experimentation that permeated Bowie's work in the late 70's carried over heavily into Talking Head's second, third, and fourth albums. While Speaking in Tongues carried on with the funky worldbeat style of Remain in Light, it instigated a shift to a more accessible direction that would continue with the band's later output, a trend that wouldn't be broken until the band's final album, Naked. Despite this, the band wouldn't outright abandon the weirdness that made them stand out, but later albums would definitely be a world away from their work with Eno.


On a more trivial note, this album was one of the first to take advantage of the larger capacity and rising sales of the Compact Cassette format, with cassette releases of the album featuring extended versions of the tracks "Making Flippy Floppy", "Girlfriend is Better", "Slippery People", "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity", and "Moon Rocks", resulting in this version running approximately 6 minutes longer than the LP release. Curiously, the shorter version of the album would also be used for initial Compact Disc releases of the album despite the CD having an even greater capacity than the Compact Cassette (Warner Music Group in general seemed to have cold feet towards CDs for a good chunk of the 80's), with the full version not arriving on the format until 1990 (albeit only in North America); this longer version would also be used for the 2005 remaster campaign of Talking Heads' back-catalog in all regions, which would also carry over to digital versions.


Speaking in Tongues was another commercial success for Talking Heads, becoming the band's highest-charting album on the U.S. Billboard 200, peaking at number 15, and their fastest-selling, going double-platinum in the United States in just three years; it was also certified platinum in Canada and New Zealand. Lead single "Burning Down the House", meanwhile, was the band's biggest commercial hit: peaking at number 9, it was their only single to reach the U.S. Billboard Top Ten. The tour conducted to support the album, a tour which turned out to be their last, was documented in the concert film Stop Making Sense in 1984.

Speaking in Tongues produced three singles: "Burning Down the House", "Swamp" (released exclusively in the Netherlands, Australia, and South Africa), and "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)".


Side One
  1. "Burning Down the House" (4:01)
  2. "Making Flippy Floppy" (5:54)note 
  3. "Girlfriend is Better" (5:44)note 
  4. "Slippery People" (5:05)note 
  5. "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity" (5:15)note 

Side Two

  1. "Swamp" (5:12)
  2. "Moon Rocks" (5:44)note 
  3. "Pull Up the Roots" (5:08)
  4. "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" (4:53)


  • All There in the Manual: The back cover on CD releases contains a lengthy expository blurb detailing the creation process of the album.
  • Audible Gleam: "Swamp" mentions the Japanese onomatopoeia for this trope, pikapika, in reference to the flash from an atomic bomb.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The opening line to "Burning Down the House":
    Watch out! You might get what you're after
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Swamp" contains the phrase pikapika, the Japanese onomatopoeia for an Audible Gleam. Combined with the prior mentions of how "when they split those atoms, it's hotter than the sun," it acts as a subtle reference to the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: If the lyrics of "Moon Rocks" are to be taken literally, the narrator isn't one to shy away from eating the eponymous material.
  • Breather Episode: "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)", which unusually for this trope is placed at the end of the album. In hindsight, its significantly Lighter and Softer tone ends up foreshadowing the band's later direction.
  • Broken Record: Done intentionally with the guitar and bass parts in "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)", which simply repeat one phrase ad infinitum throughout the song. According to David Byrne's commentary for Stop Making Sense, this choice was made simply because that manner of songwriting is considered somewhat taboo among professional musicians, making it the naïve melody that the song's subtitle refers to (though it's actually more of a counter-melody).
  • Concept Video: The music video for "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" is partly one, depicting the band and session musicians watching home movies before performing in the basement, after which a housekeeping lady serves them some snacks.
  • Cover Version The Staple Singers had an R&B hit with a cover of "Slippery People" which Byrne played guitar on. Pops Staples later appeared in True Stories.
  • Cut-and-Paste Translation: The LP edit of "Girlfriend is Better" shortens the song's runtime by jumping from the first half of the first verse to the second half of the second verse, and not exactly seamlessly either. Curiously, the lyrics from the cut portion are still present in the liner notes, indicating that this was probably a last-minute edit compared to the more planned-out and seamless edits on the other four songs cut down on the LP release.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The limited-edition packaging for the album, a collaboration between David Byrne and Robert Rauschenberg that reinterpreted one of the latter's earlier sculptures. The general release's cover also counts, being an abstract reinterpretation of the limited-edition cover painted by Byrne.
  • Epic Rocking: The extended versions of "Making Flippy Floppy", "Girlfriend is Better", and "Moon Rocks" are just seconds shy from the six-minute mark.
  • Four More Measures: Happens midway through "Pull Up The Roots," as the song's breakdown comes to a close.
  • Funk: A prominent influence on the album, though in this case it's based more closely on African-American funk than Remain in Light's Afrobeat.
  • Gratuitous Panning: The guitar that opens "Burning Down the House" comes in through the left channel alone. Later, during the song's outro, the guitar part plays exclusively in the right channel.
  • In the Style of...: "Swamp" is a John Lee Hooker-esque blues piece. When the members of ZZ Top heard it on the car radio, they heard the announcer saying "And here's Talking Heads doing their imitation of ZZ Top." According to Billy Gibbons, the three of them stopped the car and danced with joy because they felt that they'd finally got taken seriously by the media.
  • Lampshade Hanging: The album title refers to Byrne's penchant for Word Salad Lyrics.
  • Lighter and Softer: While still retaining the anxious tone of Fear of Music and Remain in Light, Speaking in Tongues is nowhere near as dour lyrically, instead opting to embrace the quirky side of David Byrne's personality. The grooves are also less dense and more danceable.
  • Musical Squares: An odd variation; the general release's cover features four monochrome photos, each in a different color, of a lounge chair positioned at different angles.
  • New Sound Album: Sorta. While furthering Remain in Light's blend of Post-Punk/New Wave Music and Afrobeat, the album is poppier, less musically dense, and features greater use of synthesizer embellishments, somewhat evocative of the Minneapolis sound popularized by artists such as Prince. The blurb on the back of the CD case acknowledges these differences, summarizing them as follows:
    This album retains the fluidity, the rhythmic emphasis, the ethnic (predominantly African) influences, and some of the same guest musicians [as Remain in Light] ... but the essence is more compact and the basic tracks were worked out by fewer musicians.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The "naïve melody" referred to in the title of "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" actually refers to the song's counter-melody.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The hooks for "Burning Down the House" indulge in this.
    "I'M! AN! OR! DI! NA! RY! GUY!"
    "THERE! HAS! GOT! TO! BE! A! WAY!"
  • Rearrange the Song: The 2005 remastered release includes a remixed version of "Burning Down the House" as a bonus track; this particular remix places greater emphasis on 5.1 surround sound, with Gratuitous Panning to show off as much of the three added channels as possible.
  • Re-Cut: Speaking in Tongues has two different versions: a 41-minute cut released on LP and a 47-minute cut released on cassette. The 47-minute version includes extended versions of the tracks "Making Flippy Floppy", "Girlfriend Is Better", "Slippery People", "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity" and "Moon Rocks", included to capitalize on the greater storage capacity of and growing market for tapes at the time. The 41-minute version is used for early US CD releases, international CD releases prior to the 2005 remaster, and non-remastered digital releases, while the extended version appears on US CDs from 1990 onwards and on the 2005 remaster (on both physical and digital formats).
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Burning Down the House" came from a phrase shouted at a Parliament-Funkadelic concert Chris Frantz attended. As was previously the case with Remain in Light, members of Parliament Funkadelic would be featured as guest musicians on this album and as part of Talking Heads' backing band on the Speaking in Tongues tour, as captured in Stop Making Sense.
    • Two to The Bible: the phrase "turn like a wheel inside a wheel" in "Slippery People" alludes to the Ophanim, and the album title derives from the concept of glossolalia, which claims that people imbibed with the Holy Spirit will gain the ability to speak fluently in languages they don't otherwise know (in practice, most alleged instances were later found to just be gibberish).
  • Silly Love Songs: David Byrne consciously sought to avert the "silly" part of this trope with "This Must Be the Place".
    "It's a real honest kind of love song. I don't think I've ever done a real love song before. Mine always had a sort of reservation, or a twist. I tried to write one that wasn't corny, that didn't sound stupid or lame the way many do. I think I succeeded; I was pretty happy with that."
  • Speaking Simlish: "Swamp" opens with David Byrne muttering indistinctly into the microphone, causing this effect.
  • Surprisingly Happy Ending: After eight anxious-sounding, lyrically offbeat tracks, the album closes out with "This Must Be the Place", a lighthearted, cozy-sounding love song.
  • Surreal Music Video: "Burning Down the House", a hodge-podge of scenes featuring Talking Heads performing in an empty club (sometimes being replaced by child lookalikes), stock fire footage being projected onto the side of a house, David Byrne and his bandmates' faces being projected onto a blank screen, Byrne performing in front of a rear projection of various bits of footage kinda-sorta related to the lyrics, and finally Byrne's slack-jawed staring face being projected onto a highway from the back of a moving car. What. The. Hell.
  • Take That!: "Making Flippy Floppy" includes a not-so-subtle jab at Ronald Reagan with the line, "Our president's crazy/Did you hear what he said?"
  • Updated Re Release:
    • North American CD releases of the album from 1990-onwards include the 47-minute version of the album that had previously been exclusive to cassette releases (the liner notes, however, are not updated to reflect this); prior CD releases used the same 41-minute master as the LP release. These releases also source the audio from earlier-generation tapes, and as a result sound noticeably clearer compared to CDs with the truncated version.
    • The 2005 remastered version includes the outtake "Two Note Swivel" and a 5.1 surround sound-oriented remix of "Burning Down the House" as bonus tracks.
  • Variant Cover: Three different versions of the album cover officially exist.
    • The first cover designed, a collaboration between David Byrne and modern artist Robert Rauschenberg, was an elaborate clear plastic case housing three rotatable transparent discs inside; printed on each disc was a cyan, magenta, and yellow component of an urban-themed collage of photographs. Rotating the discs would allow one to adjust the way the collages blend into one another, but the three prints differ just enough to prevent one from recompiling the original full-color collage. Because of the expenses involved in manufacturing these cases, they were relegated to a limited-edition release during the album's first print run.
    • The second cover, used for the wider general release and most reissues, was an abstract reinterpretation of the Byrne/Rauschenberg cover painted by Byrne himself.
    • The third cover, exclusive to some European CD releases of the album, was simply a color-inverted version of the general release cover. There's no real indication as to why this cover was put out aside from it looking cool.
    • The CD booklet in both the 41-minute and 47-minute editions used a different design for the lyric sheet and credits than the LP sleeve, with printed text rather than the handwritten notes for the LP, while using the standard cover design. The 2005 remaster would switch over to the LP liner notes.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Done intentionally on "Burning Down the House"; David Byrne didn't really care whether or not the lyrics made sense, and simply put in loosely-connected phrases that fit the rhythm of the song. The same can be said of the rest of the album as well, if the blurb on the back of the CD case is any indication. This is also lampshaded by the album title.