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On Chord Fragments and Nuanced Embellishments in Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”

Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues cover and David Byrne playing guitar

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This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

Here’s a Talking Heads song I like from Speaking in Tongues:

Here’s a live version that I love, from Stop Making Sense, though the fast tempo is a bit anxiety-producing:

And here’s my favorite version, which my kids are also completely obsessed with, from David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway:

You should also enjoy this fairly astonishing cover by the Staple Singers done on television’s “Soul Train.” Stereogum says that David Byrne played guitar on it.

(If you really want a treat, check out this extended dance mix.)

Mavis Staples has kept “Slippery People” in her repertoire ever since. It makes sense: the song is essentially gospel with some funk and reggae sprinkled in.

Beyond “God help us” and “the Lord won’t mind,” there are some references to the (extremely strange) Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 1: “four living creatures” and “a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” The album title Speaking In Tongues is another biblical reference. Who are the slippery people, though?

Thanks to Google, I discovered that the phrase appears in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene II, in a speech by Mark Antony:

“No more light answers. Let our officers
Have notice what we purpose. I shall break
The cause of our expedience to the queen,
And get her leave to part. For not alone
The death of Fulvia, with more urgent touches,
Do strongly speak to us; but the letters too
Of many our contriving friends in Rome
Petition us at home: Sextus Pompeius
Hath given the dare to Caesar, and commands
The empire of the sea: our slippery people,
Whose love is never link’d to the deserver
Till his deserts are past, begin to throw
Pompey the Great and all his dignities
Upon his son; who, high in name and power,
Higher than both in blood and life, stands up
For the main soldier: whose quality, going on,
The sides o’ the world may danger: much is breeding,
Which, like the courser’s hair, hath yet but life,
And not a serpent’s poison. Say, our pleasure,
To such whose place is under us, requires
Our quick remove from hence.”

Harmonically speaking, “Slippery People” is extremely simple, staying on Am for its entire duration. The magic is in the placement of the chord fragments and embellishments in each bar.

My transcription splits the difference between the Speaking in Tongues and American Utopia versions.

Against the static A minor background, there are some nuances that stand out. Take a look at the first, second and third bars of the bass line. The note that appears the most times is D, on the “and” of two and the “and” of three. These are weak beats, and the syncopation draws attention to the D’s, making them feel central.

In the fourth and final bar of the bass pattern, the note that gets the most emphasis is G, appearing both on the downbeat and two weaker off beats. This implies a chord progression; the first, second and third measures sound like they start on Am, go to D7 for the middle part of each bar, and end on Am again. The fourth bar sounds like it starts on G, briefly jumps up to Am, and then ends on G to set up the beginning of the pattern in the next bar.

So really I should have put chord symbols through the tune, right?

Except no, the keyboards and guitar repeat Am over all of this, and the vocal melody sticks closely to A minor pentatonic. Either you’re supposed to hear the bassline as extensions of the Am chord, or you’re supposed to hear Am as voicings of D7 and G (maybe as D9sus4 and G6sus4), or I’m overthinking this and the bassline and chords don’t need to agree.

In the bridge, the guitar and synth outline clear G and D chords, but not where the bassline would lead you to expect them to be. And in the studio version, the keyboard hits Dm a few times.

It’s all very ambiguous. Usually I can identify the harmonies in a tune like this just from hearing them, but I had to sweat “Slippery People” out a measure at a time in Ableton Live (which is something I do).

Speaking of speaking in tongues, the second half of the bridge memorably includes a gibberish solo by David Byrne. On the album version, it’s restrained and mixed far in the background. In Stop Making Sense, it’s more energetic, a clear focal point. In American Utopia, it’s one of the high points of the show.

David Byrne seems to be arguing with the band, or complaining exasperatedly about them. I don’t know why it’s so funny, or where it comes from, but it’s a joy.

Don’t stop here!

Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, and more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses; including The Creative Power of Advanced HarmonyOrchestration for Stringsand our exciting new course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

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Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.