Slippery People: Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues at 40

Looking back on the band’s most successful album

Speaking in Tongues poster signed by the band (Image: eBay)

It was 40 years ago today that Talking Heads released Speaking In Tongues, their fifth album featuring the group’s biggest hit “Burning Down The House.”

“Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads’ first studio release in three years, is the album that finally obliterates the thin line separating arty white pop music and deep black funk,” wrote David Fricke in Rolling Stone at the time. “Picking up where their 1980 Afro-punk fusion Remain in Light left off, this LP consummates the Heads’ marriage of art-school intellect and dance-floor soul. Imbued with an adventurous spirit that’s as close to Television’s Marquee Moon as it is to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Grand Master Flash’s ‘The Message’ and Nigerian high-life music, Speaking in Tongues gives new meaning to the word crossover.”

Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues, Sire Records 1983

Writing for his Consumer Guide in the Village Voice back then, Robert Christgau gave the album an A-.

“With Eno departed, the polyrhythms no longer seem so portentous,” he wrote, “this funk is quirkily comfortable, like the Byrne-produced B-52’s or the three-piece of Byrne’s earlier primitivist period.”


VIDEO: Talking Heads “Burning Down The House”

Consequently, Tongues often gets overshadowed by Stop Making Sense, the Johnathan Demme film and soundtrack capturing the band in concert on the album’s accompanying tour. And when you listen to those kick-ass live versions of “Burning Down The House” and “Swamp” and “Girlfriend Is Better,” it starts making sense to know why this is so. Yet dig deeper into Tongues to get to the dub reggae-kissed “I Get Wild”/”Wild Gravity,” the Arthur Russell-evoking “Moon Rocks” and the impossibly funky “Pull Up The Roots,” and relish in the band’s own production savvy. With that in mind, you might even consider the studio versions of “Slippery People” and “Making Flippy Floppy” over their SMS counterparts in future listens.

“This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody), meanwhile, might not have been a hit in the sense that “House” was in the ’80s. But the tune has seen a lot of action in recent years, especially in the last two decades. It has been covered by artists such as folk musicians the Lumineers and Iron & Wine and Arcade Fire. The song was also featured in the movies Wall Street and its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Crazy, Stupid, Love., He’s Just Not That Into You, Lars and the Real Girl, and TV shows including Little Fires Everywhere and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..


VIDEO: Talking Heads “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)”

Listening to Tongues 40 years later, I can hear the sound of a band freed from someone else’s idea of what Talking Heads should sound like. And having been sprung from Eno’s artful little box, they sounded richer, fuller and more confident, coming closer to a feel that floats between David Byrne’s music for his 1981 stage collaboration Twyla Tharp collaboration The Catherine Wheel and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s first album as the Tom Tom Club. 

Talking Heads would go on to create three more fantastic albums in 1985’s Little Creatures, 1986’s True Stories and 1988’s Naked before ultimately calling it quits in 1991. But with Speaking in Tongues, the band achieved peak joy on the most successful album of their collective career. 




Ron Hart

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Ron Hart

Ron Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Rock and Roll Globe. Reach him on Twitter @MisterTribune.

One thought on “Slippery People: Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues at 40

  • June 2, 2023 at 11:29 am

    SUCH a great album. I just recently introduced my two-year-old granddaughter to the T-Heads: the American Utopia version of “Slippery People.” She was trying to sing along to the “ba-ba-baaa-ba-baa-bababa-baba-ba-baaaa” section. She has the rhythm!”


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