"Speaking in Tongues was a lighter record," says Talking Heads singer David Byrne, referring to the band's 1983 release. "I guess we wanted to show that we weren't totally one-sided. We were in danger of being categorized as a kind of quirky, gloomy bunch of weirdos."
The band's playful side indeed shines through on the album's nine songs, which include such tracks as the wobbly "Making Flippy Floppy," the animated "Girlfriend Is Better" and the cheery "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." For all its lightheartedness, however, the album still managed to fuse the band's disparate musical interests, most notably the Afro-funk that Byrne had led the band to explore on its preceding album, Remain in Light, and the dance-oriented sounds that drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth had pursued with the Tom Tom Club. And years of touring had given the Heads a sense of how to craft songs that would appeal to their audience.
"By playing live, you figure out what it is that makes people jump up and down and what it is that makes them sit in their chair," says Frantz. "When it came time to do Speaking in Tongues, we knew we were going out on the road. It's not like everything is premeditated, but we had this feeling that it's not just about art. It's also about entertainment. When we went out on tour after that, it was the first time that the kids would go nuts for the songs off the current album. In the past they'd go for the old ones, like 'Psycho Killer' and 'Take Me to the River.'"
The band wrote the tracks at the Blank Tapes recording studio in New York.
"The writing was done by four people sitting down in a studio and just rolling the tape," says Frantz. "We'd record these long, extended grooves and then bring in people like Alex Weir to add a little bit of additional guitar and various other people, like keyboardist Wally Badarou."
Byrne sang nonsense lyrics, which he later refined. "I sang all the words in gibberish first," he says, "and then made words to fit later. I'd done that a little bit before, but it was the first time I'd done it for a whole record."
"Some of the gibberish actually made sense," says Weymouth. "Certain phrases like 'I've got rockets in my pockets,' on 'Moon Rocks,' actually remained on the record from the first improvisational takes. We didn't want to lose them, because they were so free and they fit right in."
The chorus in the opening song, "Burning Down the House," was inspired by a Parliament-Funkadelic show. "I heard these kids in the audience screaming, 'Burn down the house,'" says Frantz, "and I thought, 'Wow, that sounds like a song.'
"I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today," Frantz says now. "They won't play our new stuff, but they'll play the old stuff. Hey, it was a classic title. But what we really wanted to do was rock the house."