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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 through Sire Records, 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.
  • Alternate Album Cover: The original packaging, designed by David Byrne and Robert Rauschenberg and used for the limited-edition LP release, consisted of an elaborate plastic clamshell with rotatable color wheels inside depicting a collage of urban imagery, based on one of Rauschenberg's earlier pieces. For cost reasons, the wider general release used a new cover across formats consisting of a painting by Byrne that provides an abstract reinterpretation of the original, featuring a blue dot on a yellow backdrop with tinted photos of an armchair in the corners. Some CD releases in Europe invert the color scheme of the painting cover, featuring a yellow dot on a blue background.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Digital Destruction: The original CD release was audibly sourced from a multigeneration copy tape used for the LP release. Consequently, not only does it feature the shortened versions of "Making Flippy Floppy", "Girlfriend is Better", "Slippery People", "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity", and "Moon Rocks", but it also features conspicuous tape hiss and transfer errors. North American CD releases from 1990 onward and the 2005 remaster worldwide would remedy this by switching to an earlier-generation master with the full versions of each song.
  • 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, leaning into The Minneapolis Sound as a result. 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:
    • The cassette release featured longer versions of "Making Flippy Floppy", "Girlfriend is Better", "Slippery People", "I get Wild/Wild Gravity", and "Moon Rocks", expanding the album by six minutes compared to LP and CD releases. US CDs would switch over to the longer version from 1990 onward, with this configuration also being used for the 2005 remasters worldwide.
    • 8-track releases reshuffle the tracklist to account for the limitations of the four-program configuration. In such versions, "I Get Wild/Wild Gravity" is moved to track two and "Making Flippy Floppy" is moved to track four. Additionally, "Girlfriend is Better" is split into two parts thanks to it overlapping with the changeover between programs one and two.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Burning Down the House" came from a phrase shouted at a Parliament-Funkadelic concert that David Byrne and Chris Frantz attended. According to Byrne, the phrase was specifically a random interjection from George Clinton, and he felt that it would make a good hook. 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.
  • 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.