Talking Heads Songs Become Midcentury Pulp Novels, Magazines & Advertisements: “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and More

Do you like Talk­ing Heads? Writer and visu­al artist Dou­glas Cou­p­land once pro­posed that ques­tion as the truest test of whether you belong to the cohort named by his nov­el Gen­er­a­tion X. Cou­p­land’s con­tem­po­rary col­league in let­ters Jonathan Lethem summed up his own ear­ly Talk­ing Heads mania thus: “At the peak, in 1980 or 1981, my iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was so com­plete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clear­ly seen by those around me.” What makes the band that record­ed “Psy­cho Killer,” “This Must Be the Place,” “Once In a Life­time,” and “Burn­ing Down the House” so appeal­ing to the book­ish, and espe­cial­ly the both book­ish and visu­al, born after the Baby Boom or oth­er­wise?

What­ev­er the essence at work, screen­writer and “graph­ic-arts prankster” Todd Alcott taps into it with his lat­est round of pop­u­lar songs-turned-mid­cen­tu­ry book cov­ers, posters, mag­a­zine cov­ers, and oth­er pieces of non-musi­cal graph­ic design. You may remem­ber Alcot­t’s pre­vi­ous adap­ta­tions of the Bea­t­les, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Radio­head appear­ing here on Open Cul­ture.

The cul­tur­al­ly lit­er­ate and oblique­ly ref­er­en­tial cat­a­logue of Talk­ing Heads, how­ev­er, may have pro­vid­ed his most suit­able mate­r­i­al yet: “Burn­ing Down the House” becomes a “a 1950s pulp nov­el,” “Life Dur­ing Wartime” a “1950s men’s adven­ture mag­a­zine,” “This Must Be the Place” an “adver­tise­ment for a 1950s sub­ur­ban hous­ing devel­op­ment,” and “Take Me to the Riv­er” the “cov­er of a 1950s-era issue of Field & Stream, with the four mem­bers of the band enjoy­ing a day on the lake.”

Amus­ing even at first glance, these cul­tur­al mash-ups also repay knowl­edge of the band’s work and his­to­ry. “Psy­cho Killer,” with its French lyrics, becomes an issue of Cahiers du Ciné­ma fea­tur­ing David Byrne on a cov­er dat­ed March 1974, “the ear­li­est date the song ‘Psy­cho Killer’ is known to have been per­formed by David Byrne’s band The Artis­tics.” “Once in a Life­time,” quite pos­si­bly the band’s most impres­sive piece of songcraft, becomes an equal­ly lay­ered Alcott image: a “a mag­a­zine adver­tise­ment for the 1962 clas­sic The Man in the Gray Flan­nel Suit, based on the best-sell­er by Sloan Wil­son” — in oth­er words, an ad designed for a mag­a­zine meant to sell a movie based on a book, and a book as tied up with the themes of alien­ation in post­war Amer­i­ca as “Once in a Life­time” itself.

Talk­ing Heads fans will rec­og­nize in Alcot­t’s graph­ics the very same kind of genius for resound­ing lit­er­al-mind­ed­ness cou­pled with sub­tle, some­times obscure wit that char­ac­ter­izes the work of Byrne and his col­lab­o­ra­tors. You can buy prints of these images at his Etsy shop, which also offers many oth­er works of inter­est to those for whom music, books, mag­a­zines, media, and his­to­ry con­sti­tute not sep­a­rate sub­jects but one vast, dense­ly inter­con­nect­ed cul­tur­al field. To those who see the world that way, Alcot­t’s design­ing the cov­er for an album by Byrne or anoth­er of the ex-Heads — or indeed a Jonathan Lethem nov­el — is only a mat­ter of time. Enter Todd Alcot­t’s store here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bea­t­les Songs Re-Imag­ined as Vin­tage Book Cov­ers and Mag­a­zine Pages: “Dri­ve My Car,” “Lucy in the Sky with Dia­monds” & More

David Bowie Songs Reimag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: Space Odd­i­ty, Heroes, Life on Mars & More

Clas­sic Radio­head Songs Re-Imag­ined as a Sci-Fi Book, Pulp Fic­tion Mag­a­zine & Oth­er Nos­tal­gic Arti­facts

Clas­sic Songs by Bob Dylan Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall” & More

Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers & Vin­tage Movie Posters

How Talk­ing Heads and Bri­an Eno Wrote “Once in a Life­time”: Cut­ting Edge, Strange & Utter­ly Bril­liant

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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