Album: More Songs About Buildings and Food
. . .
While Talking Heads did covers in their early live shows — in Chris Frantz’s recent book, Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina, he helpfully sprinkles in early set lists so you can see that they covered things like “96 Tears” and the Troggs’ “Love is All Round” (later covered by R.E.M.) — the only song they ever covered on record was, of course, Al Green’s “Take Me to The River,” making it an outlier in their recorded output.
How much of an outlier, we shall soon see, but I want to point out that, at the time, one of the fun things about the CBGB bands was the cover versions. Ramones led the pack, of course, sprinkling covers on pretty much all of their albums and in 1993, doing the all-covers Acid Eaters. Patti Smith & Blondie not only did covers, but had hits with them, the biggest being Blondies cover of the Paragons “The Tide is Hight” Closer to Talking Heads was Television, who released zero covers on their three albums, but were known for their wild versions of the 13th Floor Elevators “Fire Engine” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
And then there’s Talking Heads doing Al Green. One of the things to realize about “Take Me to The River” was that it was an album track from 1974’s Al Green Explores Your Mind — the single was the #7 “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)”, his last top ten hit of the 1970s — that he gave to labelmate named Syl Johnson to release as a single, using many of the same musicians as Green. And while Johnson’s cover only made it #48 on the Billboard pop charts (though it did make it to #7 on the R&B charts), for some reason, it was open season on covering “Take Me to The River” by white folks.
I don’t know why I love her like I do
All the changes you put me through
Take my money, my cigarettes
I haven’t seen the worst of it yet
The first to get there was Foghat, who covered it on 1976’s Night Shift. Let me repeat that: Foghat covered “Take Me To The River” before Talking Heads. And I would have heard that Foghat cover in something resembling real time as my deep love for 1977’s Foghat Live! would have sent me back to hear at least the album prior, Night Shift. But I don’t remember it at all.
And either because of or despite Foghat’s cover, 1978 was open season in regards to “Take Me to The River,” as both Levon Helm and Bryan Ferry covered it that year as well. But here’s the thing: everybody else covered it as essentially the same near almost uptempo speed as Green’s original version, where — as per a suggestion by old sourpuss himself, Brian Eno — Talking Heads slowed it down. Not slow enough to make it a ballad or even a slow jam, but slow enough to to give you time to luxuriate in it. And also, making it an outlier a different way: a cover by a punk-identified band that was slower than the original.
I wanna know, can you tell me?
Am I in love to stay?
Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Push me in the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down, washing me
It’s also sparse as all hell: Chris Frantz doesn’t do any rolls, and he only breaks the beat for a few builds; Tina Weymouth plays a swampy bassline, and David Byrne and Jerry Harrison pop in and out at random intervals. Even with Eno’s treatments, there’s not a lot of instrumentation, making it an outlier on the otherwise dense More Songs About Buildings and Food. It also basically finds its groove and sticks with it, making it even more of an outlier on an album where very few songs ended up in the same place where they started.
I’m not going to even remotely suggest that David Byrne is as good as a singer as Al Green, but he does sing the fuck out of “Take Me To The River,” holding the long notes on “Am in love to staaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy?” and utterly killing it on the bridge, especially on “squee–eeeze meee!”
Hug me, squeeze me, love me, tease me
Till I can’t, till I can’t, I can’t take no more
That bridge, man. Even though I’ve heard this song a zillion times, it’s still an absolute shock when it kicks in, adding both gorgeousness and grandeur to the song, which then drops right back into its normal groove, like, nothing to see here, keep moving forward. Which they do. In the end, Byrne is reduced to singing nonsense syllables while Jerry Harrison does some cool fills on the organ until “Take Me to The River” crashes into the ocean.
“Take Me to The River” is seen as the Song That Broke Talking Heads Into The Mainstream, which, yes and no: on one hand it made it to #26 on the pop charts and landed them on American Bandstand — the interview portion is hilarious — but it wasn’t everywhere in the same way “Heart of Glass” was a year later, and More Songs About Buildings and Food only made it to #29 on the album charts, though it did make it to #5 on the 1978 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll in between Give ‘Em Enough Rope and Darkness on the Edge of Town.
But it didn’t make them household names or anything, either. That was still a half-decade in the future.
“Take Me To The River”
Talking Heads on American Bandstand, 1979
“Take Me To The River” Live in Rome, 1980
“Take Me to The River” Live at Montreux, 1982
“Take Me to The River” from Stop Making Sense
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