Chris Frantz has stated that he thought of the eponymous chorus after seeing a Parliament-Funkadelic show in 1979 where group leader George Clinton chanted "Burn down the house." (Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic appears on the song playing synthesizer, a clavinet.) The initial lyrics were considerably different, however. In an interview on NPR's "All Things Considered" aired on December 2, 1984, David Byrne played excerpts of early worktapes showing how the song had evolved from an instrumental jam by Tina Weymouth (bass) and Chris Frantz (drums). Once the whole band had reworked the groove into something resembling the final recording, Byrne began chanting and singing nonsense syllables over the music until he had arrived at phrasing that fit with the rhythms—a technique influenced by former Talking Heads producer Brian Eno: "and then I [would] just write words to fit that phrasing... I'd have loads and loads of phrases collected that I thought thematically had something to do with one another, and I'd pick from those."
According to Byrne in the NPR interview, phrases he tried but ultimately didn't use in the song's recorded "verses" included "I have another body," "Pick it up by the handle," "You travel with a double," and "I'm still under construction." As for the title phrase in the chorus, one early attempt (as heard on a worktape) had him singing a different line, "What are we gonna do?", and at another point in the process, "instead of chanting 'Burning Down the House,' I was chanting 'Foam Rubber, USA.'"
The house used in the "Burning Down the House" video is located on Myrtle Street in Union, New Jersey. Max Illidge, vocalist of the band 40 Below Summer, is featured as a young boy in the video. This was revealed on an episode of Headbangers Ball. Rockets Redglare was also in the video playing Jerry Harrison's part.
- A section of the song was covered by "Weird Al" Yankovic on his "Polkas on 45" polka medley.
- Tom Jones with The Cardigans, first single release from Jones's 1999 album Reload
- Bonnie Raitt on her live album, Road Tested
- DJ/producer Tiga on his 2006 album, Sexor
- John Legend on his album Live at SOB's
- Vienna Boys' Choir on their 2002 album Vienna Boys' Choir Goes Pop.
- Dave Matthews Band has covered the song during its concert tours, debuting the tune at Louisville Slugger Ballpark on August 1, 2008. They released a version of the song on their live album Live Trax Vol. 15 and played it withTrombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins at the NFL 2010 Season Opening Kickoff pregame show.
- Heather Luttrell sang this song on Rock Star: INXS
- Toby Rand sang this song on Rock Star Supernova
- The Radiators have been covering the song since 2003, and it has become one of their most frequent and popular covers.
- The Used also covered the song in 2009 that was featured in the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen soundtrack and in the end credits to the True Blood episode, "Burning Down the House"
- Phish covered the song during a concert on August 12, 1998 in Vernon, NY, initially replacing the words in the first refrain of "burning down the house" to "Vernon Downs the house;" a reference to the venue at which they were performing.
- In 2001, bassist Marcus Miller covered the song from his album M².
- Alternative-rock band Walk the Moon covered the song for their Tightrope EP in 2013.
"Burning Down the House" became Talking Heads' highest-charting hit single in North America, becoming their lone top ten single on the US Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #9, as well as reaching the top ten in Canada. Despite this success, the song was not a hit outside of North America.In Australia it peaked at a very modest #94, while in the UK, where Talking Heads would release 14 charting singles, it failed to make the charts at all (although a cover version of the song by Tom Jones and The Cardigans would make the UK Top 10 in 1999).
|Australian Singles Chart||94|
|Canadian Singles Chart||8|
|New Zealand Singles Chart||5|
|US BillboardHot 100||9|
|US BillboardMainstream Rock Tracks||6|