Tom Jones Covers Talking Heads “Burning Down the House”–and Burns Down the House (1999)

It was sup­pos­ed­ly “the album that final­ly oblit­er­ates the thin line sep­a­rat­ing arty white pop music and deep black funk,” as David Fricke wrote on the release of Talk­ing Heads’ Speak­ing in Tongues. The praise maybe over­sells music that is more arty white pop than “deep black funk.” But there’s nev­er been any deny­ing the funk­i­ness of Talk­ing Heads, either, just as there’s nev­er been any deny­ing the soul­ful­ness of Tom Jones. Not that they’re musi­cal­ly com­pa­ra­ble artists, but both have incor­po­rat­ed Black musi­cal styles into their own idioms, win­ning respect on either side of the indus­try’s seg­re­gat­ed line for self-aware re-inter­pre­ta­tions of the blues, funk, soul, and R&B, as well as Ghan­ian high life and Niger­ian Afrobeat.

Jones’ late-career rein­ven­tion involved show­ing up on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, cov­er­ing Prince, work­ing with Wyclef Jean, and mak­ing music one might char­ac­ter­ize as gen­er­al­ly good-humored pop that show­cased his still-got-it vocal abil­i­ties. In 1999, he took on Speak­ing in Tongues’ P‑Funk-inspired sin­gle “Burn­ing Down the House” in a cov­er that can be called a slick dance-pop inter­pre­ta­tion of an art-rock re-inter­pre­ta­tion of funk music.

Joined by the Cardi­gans, Jones belts it out with his typ­i­cal swag­ger, while Cardi­gans’ singer Nina Pers­son acts as the “foil” writes Patrick Garvin at Pop Cul­ture Exper­i­ment in a roundup of the song’s many cov­ers: “She sound­ed as monot­o­ne as he sound­ed mani­a­cal. And he sound­ed pret­ty damn mani­a­cal.”

But Jones doesn’t sound mani­a­cal like David Byrne sounds mani­a­cal. The orig­i­nal track came togeth­er from a jam ses­sion, with lyrics impro­vised by Byrne, who shout­ed ran­dom phras­es until he found those that best fit the song, chang­ing the Par­lia­ment-Funkadel­ic audi­ence chant “burn down the house!” into “burn­ing down the house,” a line which could mean any­thing at all. (At one point, he tells NPR, it changed to “Foam Rub­ber, U.S.A.”) Is it a threat? A pan­icked out­cry? A cel­e­bra­tion? A man­ic lamen­ta­tion? In Byrne’s anguished yelps one can nev­er tell.

Jones makes “burn­ing down the house” sound like a come-on, set against the ici­est of tight­ly syn­co­pat­ed arrange­ments, in the most 90s of music videos ever. (Con­trast it with the live ver­sion above, with P‑Funk’s own Bernie Wor­rell on key­boards, from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Mak­ing Sense.) Every cov­er of the song, and there are many, does its own thing. “The one con­sis­tent aspect,” Garvin writes, “is Byrne’s weird lyrics… because they don’t tell a sto­ry in a lin­ear sense, they can take on any vari­ety of mean­ings.”

Accord­ing to Byrne him­self, the song did take on added res­o­nance for him, per­fect­ly in keep­ing with the 90s rebirth of Tom Jones. “I didn’t real­ly know at the time,” he said in 1984, “but to me… it implies ecsta­t­ic rebirth or tran­scend­ing one’s own self…. In clas­sic psy­chol­o­gy, the house is the self. And burn­ing it down is destroy­ing your­self… And the assump­tion is you get reborn, like a Phoenix from the ash­es. See? It’s all there.” Indeed.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Tom Jones Per­forms “Long Time Gone” with Cros­by, Stills, Nash & Young–and Blows the Band & Audi­ence Away (1969)

Janis Joplin & Tom Jones Bring the House Down in an Unlike­ly Duet of “Raise Your Hand” (1969)

Talk­ing Heads Live in Rome, 1980: The Con­cert Film You Haven’t Seen

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Marco Romano says:

    David Byrne said that he came up with the title after attend­ing a hip-hop con­cert.

  • Phil Schifley says:

    Tom Jones cov­er is pret­ty atro­cious. It sucks all the funk out of the song and replaces it with your dad singing along to the radio dur­ing car­pool. Embar­rass­ing for all involved.

  • MadMaven says:

    I agree! Trashed that song.
    Every­body needs to come up with their own songs and stop mak­ing s*** out of some­body else’s!

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