Talking Heads' David Byrne presents his Christmas playlist The singer-songwriter and Talking Heads frontman presents some of his favorite holiday music — including songs by The Pogues, James Brown, LCD Soundsystem and Paul Simon.

Whether you're merry or miserable, David Byrne's holiday playlist will resonate

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I interviewed David Byrne in November, I enjoyed it so much that when the interview was over, I asked if he'd consider returning before Christmas to play some of his favorite Christmas recordings. I am very grateful that he said yes. He's brought his list of songs, and he's here to play and talk about them. He included a holiday song he wrote and recorded, and I can't wait to play that for you.

I consider David Byrne's return to our show a great Christmas gift for all of us who are about to hear him and the music he's about to play. Byrne is, of course, a founder and frontman of Talking Heads, which was a seminal new wave band in the '70s and '80s, although calling the band new wave or punk doesn't describe how unique they were or how they expanded out from the stripped-down music they began playing. Byrne also founded the music label Luaka Bop, which releases music of different genres from the U.S. and around the world. The restored version of the Talking Heads 1983 concert film "Stop Making Sense" was released earlier this year. It's widely considered to be one of the best concert films ever made. Byrne has also created the Broadway shows "American Utopia" and "Here Lies Love."

David Byrne, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Happy holidays. So...

DAVID BYRNE: Happy holidays.

GROSS: ...Great to have you back.

BYRNE: Good to be back.

GROSS: So I want to start by asking you what are the criteria that you used to compile this list?

BYRNE: I wanted to not take it too seriously. Not too seriously - the Christmas list - and have fun. So when I'm putting together these kind of playlists for friends or whatever, I'm thinking I want them to just have fun. Let's give them something that will bring a little joy to the holidays, 'cause the holidays can be stressful for a lot of people.

GROSS: Yeah. And we got some songs about that, too, that you've chosen.

BYRNE: Yeah. We have that, too. We do have that.

GROSS: Fear not, there will be some sad songs. All right. I want to start with something from your list that I really love that I hadn't heard before, 'cause I wanted to get off to a really strong start. So we're starting with a song that you wrote and recorded called "Fat Man's Coming." Now, most Santa Claus songs are so ho-ho-ho cheery. This one is, like, high drama. It sounds like the theme song for an opening, like, dramatic film. Tell me how and why you wrote this song.

BYRNE: Well, continuing on from our previous...


BYRNE: ...Conversation, I sometimes have a tendency to take things a little bit literally. So I looked at the whole Santa phenomenon and said, well, what if I just describe this exactly as what's happening. Here's a stranger who's sneaking, breaking into your house, basically, and leaving packages and dressed in a rather strange outfit. And I thought, what if I just write that - do that? The arrangement is by a guy named Jherek Bischoff that I'd worked with before, and his arrangement is pretty incredible. Really kind of catches the flavor of when I'm getting this sort of slightly ominous. Yeah. Despite my description of what Santa is up to as being pretty accurate...

GROSS: It sounds more like a home invasion.

BYRNE: Yes, yes. The arrangement gives it the appropriate mood.

GROSS: Absolutely. Let's hear it. This is David Byrne's "Fat Man's Coming."


BYRNE: (Singing) Coming from the land of the ice and snow, a roly-poly man in the dark, he's riding. Everybody knows that he's out there now. Everybody knows that the fat man's coming. His hair is white as the snow. That [expletive] man with the fur-trimmed collar coming in from the cold. Everybody says that you can't be real. People say it's just my imagination. Everybody claims that they don't believe, but everybody knows that the fat man's coming. Wearing boots and a belt of leather, he'll be creeping into your home, leaving packages unattended. Before you know it, he's come and gone.

GROSS: So that was David Byrne's song "Fat Man's Coming," with David, of course, singing lead and an orchestration by Jherek Bischoff. I really love that. I hope you do more of that kind of, like, high drama song with Jherek Bischoff orchestrations. OK. So the next song we should play from your playlist is The Pogues' song "Fairytale Of New York." And the frontman of The Pogues, Shane MacGowan, died very recently, so we should just acknowledge him and play this song. It's a great song. I know it's a favorite of a lot of people. Tell us why you chose this and what the song means to you.

BYRNE: It's a great song. He's a great songwriter. It's a duet with Kirsty MacColl, somebody that I've worked with on a couple of records, and it's incredibly moving. It kind of brings you to tears every time you hear it. He paints a picture of this bickering couple that actually love one another very much - immigrants who've come to New York and are finding a hard time of it, getting their footing.

GROSS: And she's accusing him of all these promises that he made to her about how great New York would be. And they're all broken promises. It's not been great.

BYRNE: But it's - the way he's telling this, the things she's accusing him of, he's sort of singing about himself and his, you know, unreliability and drunkenness and everything else. So it's - yeah, it's very moving.

GROSS: So let's hear it. This is The Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York," recorded in 1987.


SHANE MACGOWAN: (Singing) It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank. An old man said to me, won't see another one. And then he sang a song, "The Rare Old Mountain Dew." I turned my face away and dreamed about you. Got on a lucky one. Came in 18 to 1. I've got a feeling this year's for me and you. So happy Christmas. I love you, baby. I can see a better time when all our dreams come true.

KIRSTY MACCOLL: (Singing) They got cars big as bars. They've got rivers of gold. But the wind goes right through you. It's no place for the old. When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me. You were handsome.

MACGOWAN: (Singing) You were pretty, queen of New York City.

SHANE MACGOWAN AND KIRSTY MACCOLL: (Singing) When the band finished playing, they howled out for more. Sinatra was swinging. All the drunks, they were singing. We kissed on the corner, then danced through the night. The boys of the NYPD choir were singing "Galway Bay." And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day.

BYRNE: Oh, my God. It's, like, heartbreaking from the first verse.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause he's in jail because he was drunk in public. Yeah. So I don't think there were, like, bitter Christmas songs like this when you were growing up. I know there wasn't when I was growing up.

BYRNE: No. No (laughter). It was during the '60s and '70s, I think, that I remember there being songs that sort of criticize Christmas as far as talking about inequality and the emphasis on consumerism and things like that. You started to hear those kind of songs.

GROSS: Was Talking Heads ever asked to do a Christmas album?

BYRNE: No, no, no. No one thought of that.

GROSS: And did you ever release a Christmas album on your label, Luaka Bop?

BYRNE: No, no. I'm - on one hand, Christmas songs are perennial. If you do one that people like, as we all know, every year you hear it again. It starts getting played again and again and again for a few weeks, and then it's gone again. But it comes back. So you're kind of - you're set for your song royalties or whatever. But if it doesn't click, you've just got this embarrassing thing.

GROSS: That will only be viable for a month.

BYRNE: Yes, only viable for a month and then will be completely forgotten.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. OK, so moving on. We've got another song about Christmas in the city. And this is a classic. This is one of those songs that does get played every Christmas. And it's James Brown's "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto." Tell us why you chose this.

BYRNE: It's a classic. And this was during the period where James Brown was actually starting to make some social commentary in some of his songs. But even though he's making this kind of pointed commentary about economics and inequality and - he can't help but put it to a funky beat. So he - there's a joy in the funky beat and how danceable it is that, in a way, is a response to the criticism in the lyrics.

GROSS: Yeah. You could easily dance to this.

BYRNE: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. All right, so here's James Brown's "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto."


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto. Hitch up your reindeer and go straight to the ghetto. Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto. Fill every stocking you find. The kids are going to love you so. Leave a toy for Johnny. Leave a doll for Mary. Leave something pretty for Donnie, and don't forget about Gary. Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto. Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto. Tell them James Brown sent you. Go straight to the ghetto. You know that I know what you will see 'cause that was once me. Hit it. Hit it.

GROSS: That was "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto," one of the recordings - the Christmas recordings that David Byrne has brought with him today to play for us. So, yeah, that's a great recording. So before we hear more music, we have to take a short break. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is David Byrne. He'll play more of his favorite Christmas recordings after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Byrne, who co-founded and fronted the band Talking Heads. He's here today to play some of his Christmas recordings for us, and I'm so glad to have him here.

You brought several songs that are pretty sad and depressing Christmas songs.

BYRNE: (Laughter).

GROSS: So...

BYRNE: The holidays are hard.

GROSS: Yeah. What's hard for you about the holidays, or what was hard for you about the holidays?

BYRNE: I've had holidays where I've been completely alone.

GROSS: By choice or by...



BYRNE: Not exactly by choice. It wasn't like, oh, I don't want to see anyone. It was just like everybody was gone, and I was left eating a turkey TV dinner. It's sounds like I'm really pulling at the heartstrings there. But, yeah, and that happens to quite a lot of people. But also, I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the year end. Maybe it's just this kind of enforced joy that we're supposed to feel that people kind of feel like, wait a minute, you're not going to - you can't tell me to be happy. And we have James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem doing a song called "Christmas Will Break Your Heart," which, in some cases, is very, very true.

GROSS: Yeah. This is a great recording. I hadn't heard it before, so I'm really glad you brought it. So here's LCD Soundsystem with James Murphy, "Christmas Will Break Your Heart."


LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: (Singing) Christmas will break your heart if your world is feeling small and there's no one on your phone you feel close enough to call. Christmas will crush your soul like that laid-back rock 'n' roll. But your body's getting old. And it's much too tired to be so bold. Christmas can wreck your head like some listless, awkward sex. So you refuse to leave your bed and get depressed when no one checks. Yeah, Christmas will break your heart like the armies of the unrelenting dark once the peace talks fall apart. But still I'm coming home to you.

BYRNE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Not many Christmas songs have Christmas will crush your soul in the lyrics.

BYRNE: Yeah.

GROSS: But it's a great song. I really like it a lot.

BYRNE: And James doesn't sing that often, so it's - yeah, it's a nice thing.

GROSS: Do you often feel like everyone else is having a better time than you are on Christmas? I mean, I certainly...

BYRNE: Not so much anymore, but I used to feel like that.

GROSS: I've certainly felt that way.

BYRNE: I used to feel like, oh, there's this - look, they really are getting the kind of all the joy, and they're going to parties and whatever they're doing. Yes - thought, I'm not sure I'm totally down with all this.

GROSS: Do you ever perform on Christmas?

BYRNE: I think I have. And then on New Year's Eve, I've done that. Those are - especially New Year's Eve - can be a very lucrative performance date.

GROSS: It gets you off the hook of having to have a good time.

BYRNE: Yes. You just go, OK, that's done. I provided the entertainment.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

BYRNE: And now, yes, I'll have a drink and go home, yeah.

GROSS: The next song I want to play, David, is, I think, the saddest Christmas song I've ever heard. It doesn't get much sadder than this. And this is a Prince Christmas song called "Another Lonely Christmas." You want to tell us about why you chose this one? Oh, to cheer us up.

BYRNE: Yeah. This is to cheer everyone up. Wow. Yeah, Prince is amazing.


BYRNE: And I - yeah, I thought, wait a minute. Didn't he do a Christmas song? But it's - yeah, but he gave it the twist of being, like, incredibly sad Christmas song, echoing LCD Soundsystem and some of the others. It's kind of like, if you're alone for the holidays, it is - yeah, it is deeply sad.

GROSS: And he's alone because his girlfriend died on Christmas Day several years ago.

BYRNE: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: And you find that out deeper in the song.

BYRNE: Yeah. Yes. He's milking it there.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. But he sounds so good on this.

BYRNE: Yeah. Yeah. He really gives it a - it's a real vocal workout.

GROSS: OK. So if you're in the mood for a sad Christmas song, David Byrne has one for you. And here it is - Prince's "Another Lonely Christmas."


PRINCE: (Singing) Last night, I spent another lonely Christmas. Darling, darling, you should've been there 'cause, you see, of all the ones I dream about, you are the one that makes my love shout. You see, you are the only one I care for. Yeah. My mama used to say, always trust your lover. Now, I guess that only applies to her ‘cause, baby, you promised me, baby, you promised me you'd never leave. Then you died on the 25th day of December. Oh, baby, last night, oh, I spent another lonely, lonely Christmas. Darling, baby, you, you should've been there 'cause you're the one I dream about. You are the one that makes my love shout. You see, you are the only one I care for, yeah. Your father said it was pneumonia. Your. Mother said it was stress But the doctor said you were dead, and I say it’s senseless. Every Christmas night for seven years now, I drink banana daiquiris till I'm blind. As long as I can hear you smilin', baby, you won't hear my tears. Another lonely Christmas is mine, yeah, mine, yeah. Another lonely Christmas is mine. Last night, yeah...

GROSS: Let's take the short break, and then we'll be back and hear more of the songs on David Byrne's playlist of his favorite Christmas songs. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


PAUL SIMON: (Singing) From early in November to the last week of December, I got money matters weighing me down. Oh, the music may be merry, but it's only temporary. I know Santa Claus is coming to town. In the days, I work my day job. In the nights, I work my night. But it all comes down to working man's pay. Getting ready, I'm getting ready, ready for Christmas Day.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with David Byrne, the co-founder and frontman of the band Talking Heads. He's put together a playlist of his favorite Christmas songs for us, and he's here to play and talk about them. So I asked him about one of the songs he chose, "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas" by The Staple Singers.

BYRNE: The Staples are basically a gospel group that managed to blur the line between gospel songs and secular songs. They had secular hits, but they come out of the gospel and the civil rights tradition. And so here they're talking about who took the merry out of Christmas, but I think they're also talking about who forgot about the real meaning of Christmas.

GROSS: Yeah.

BYRNE: And sometimes when I hear this song, I think instead of merry, M-E-R-R-Y, they're singing M-A-R-Y, they're talking about the biblical story.

GROSS: Yeah. No, that's right. That's right. That's right. So this is "Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas," and it's The Staple Singers, one of the songs that David Byrne put on his Christmas playlist. Here we go.


THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Who took the merry out of Christmas? People all over the world forgot about merry. Too busy fighting wars, trying to make it to Mars, searching for light and can't seem to find the right star. Oh, searching for light and can't seem to find the right star. Who took the merry out of Christmas? People all over the world forgot about merry. Too busy buying toys, learning about Santa's joys, making believe he's just another baby boy. Oh, making believe he's just another baby boy. Searching for light and can't seem to find the right star. Making believe he's just another baby boy. Well, who took the merry out of Christmas? People all over the world forgot about merry.

GROSS: That is really catchy. Yeah. Thank you for bringing that. Did you spend any Christmases in church?

BYRNE: Well, I probably did. My parents went to church when I was young.

GROSS: What kind of church was it?

BYRNE: At one point, I remember they went to a Methodist church, which didn't have a lot of singing. And then they switched over to Unitarian. I asked my dad, why did you all switch? And he said, the music's better.

GROSS: And what was the difference? What music was it? Was it, like, guitar (laughter)?

BYRNE: No, it wasn't - it could've been (inaudible).

GROSS: There was that period in church when it was, like, very folky.

BYRNE: Yes, there was that period. This was not that. This was going the other way. They had, like, full-on choirs and classical musicians playing. I mean, it was kind of incredible.

GROSS: So we have another, like, Christmas heartbreak song here. And this is Alexander 23 and Laufey, who I am not familiar with. So tell us about them and why you chose this song.

BYRNE: I don't know Alexander 23. I'm familiar with Laufey, who's having quite a moment at the moment. She's Icelandic and does songs that sound like they were written before the rock 'n' roll era, and this is kind of almost one of them. It's kind of like the - a throwback to the kind of older school of Christmas songs.

GROSS: But much sadder.

BYRNE: Yeah, but much sadder. Yes.

GROSS: OK. So this is "Ain't Christmas," and let's hear it.


LAUFEY: (Singing) I bought you a present, but you'll never get it 'cause me and you said our goodbyes this December. Oh, no. So I went to the furnace, thought maybe I'd burn it. But hard as I try, I can't even return it. Oh, no. The most wonderful time of the year is breaking my heart. So tell me this Christmas, who'll keep you warm? Who'll put your presents down on the floor under the tree that you bought with me and watch all those movies that we both have seen hundreds of times? We know every line. But it's not about that. It's about the time together on Christmas. So this Christmas ain't Christmas at all.

ALEXANDER 23: (Singing) I made cookies for Nicky like you used to do, but I got so damn sad that I ate one or two or them all. So please turn off Mariah. I'm not in the mood. 'Cause all I want for Christmas wants nothing to do with me now.

BYRNE: (Laughter).

GROSS: I really like that song. And the way they do it with a male and female singer, it sounds like they're both yearning for each other, but they've broken up. And they should get back together.

BYRNE: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. I'm going to burn your present, but you can tell she really thought, why couldn't this have worked out, you know?

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause they love the same films.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Byrne, and he is co-founder and was the frontman of Talking Heads. And he's brought with him a Christmas playlist for us. So we'll hear more Christmas songs chosen by David Byrne after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with David Byrne, and it's a special Christmas presentation. He's brought with him his playlist of his favorite Christmas songs, which he's playing for us.

Getting back to your playlist, since we've heard some songs about heartbreak and death, I thought, let's lighten it up and play a song from your playlist that's just about the enjoyment of shopping for Christmas.

BYRNE: Yes. And I don't know if this is meant to be ironic, but it really is about let's go shopping.

GROSS: Yeah. And tell us why you chose this song. It's from 1983.

BYRNE: It's a sentiment that I might view with suspicion or assume was meant ironically, but it's a song about shopping - about the joy of shopping by a man named Joseph Washington Jr., whom I'm completely unfamiliar with. But I thought, oh, my goodness, what - somebody's tackling this in a kind of unironic way.

GROSS: I'm unfamiliar with him, too, but it's a fun song, so let's hear it.


JOSEPH WASHINGTON JR: (Singing) I'm going shopping, shopping, shopping around downtown. I'm going shopping. I'm going shopping, shopping, shopping around downtown. Every time Christmas comes around, it's time for shopping. Traffic jams get longer. It's time for shopping, and I've got my Christmas list together. I'm going to buy presents for my lover, for my friends, for my family, for everyone that's been so good to me. I'm going shopping, going shopping, shopping, shopping downtown. Downtown. I'm going shopping downtown. It's Christmas time again, and I got my shopping list together. Now let me see what I'm going to buy. I'm going to buy, buy some presents for my lover, for my family, for my family, for everyone that's been so good to me. I'm going shopping.

GROSS: I'm voting for...

BYRNE: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...That it's not ironic, because he's talking about the joy of buying gifts for people who you care about.


GROSS: And...

BYRNE: And kind of going downtown, mingling with all the other shoppers who are - everybody's kind of doing - engaged in the same kind of activity.

GROSS: Do you buy a lot of gifts or have you kind of, like, signed off of that?

BYRNE: I kind of signed off on it. I - but I don't think - I want to buy something for someone when I see the thing. Like, so-and-so would love that, then get it for them.

GROSS: Also, as an adult, there's always this fear as you're opening a gift that it's going to be something you know you want to give away 'cause you don't need it and you don't have room for it.

BYRNE: And someone's looking at your facial expression...

GROSS: Exactly.

BYRNE: ...And going, hm.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. I remember a gift I gave to one of my parents, and they opened it and they said, take it back. I don't need it (laughter).

BYRNE: Oh. It's the thought that counts.

GROSS: Yeah. I know, I was going to mention that.


BYRNE: Oh, speaking of Christmas gifts...


BYRNE: ...I'm going to visit a friend in Santa Fe, a musician and artist that I have known for years, and decades ago - I guess this would be in the late '80s, '90s, whatever - we used to communicate with one another through faxes. And his, I could tell, were typed on a manual typewriter and then he'd put it in the fax machine. Mine might have been on a computer, but I'm - maybe they might have been done the same way. But you could and then add little drawings and whatever to it. So my Christmas gift to him - he doesn't know this yet - I'm bringing back to him all the faxes that he sent me for his archives.

GROSS: Oh, you're kidding.

BYRNE: It's a huge pile.

GROSS: Wow. You saved them.

BYRNE: Yep. I saved them.

GROSS: Why did you save them?

BYRNE: They're very idiosyncratic, and they're kind of funny. I mean, it's sentimental, but it's also - they're not just - hi, what are you doing today? - and whatever.

GROSS: What a great gift. Now, does he listen to our show or know anybody who does? 'Cause that would kind of give away the surprise.

BYRNE: He may - might listen to the show, yes. But it's OK. It's OK.



GROSS: All right. So I want to end with a song that's actually a song that's really about Christmas. It's one of the carols, but it's an old song. It's from, like, the 1840s. It's "O Holy Night." And this is one of those songs that - it's just a beautiful song. It's a beautiful melody. And the part that goes, fall on your knees, there's some chord behind that part that is just - it's kind of gripping. A recent version that I really like a lot is by Samara Joy, and she won, like, two Grammys this year for Best Jazz Vocal Album and Best New Artist. And this is a song with her family, 'cause her family all sang gospel music, and she's singing lead on it. And her father, who performed with the gospel star Andrae Crouch - her father both sang and played bass, I think. Anyways, he sings on it, too. Do you like this song, David?

BYRNE: Yeah. Yeah. I'm - I haven't heard this version, so I'm really looking forward to this. Usually, the versions I hear are very kind of cleaned up and very pristine, and this sounds like it's going to be - have a little bit more passion in it.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. Let's hear it. This is Samara Joy and The McLendon Family.


SAMARA JOY: (Singing) O holy night. The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear savior's birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

ANTONIO MCLENDON: (Singing) A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn, oh.

SAMARA JOY AND ANTONIO MCLENDON: (Singing) Fall on your knees. O hear the angel voices. O night divine. O night when Christ was born. O night divine. O night, O night divine. Fall...

GROSS: What'd you think?

BYRNE: Wow. That's - yeah, very moving.

GROSS: Yeah.

BYRNE: Incredibly moving, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

BYRNE: And then I noticed some little kind of musical songwriting things, like she sneaks in an extra measure when she holds out a note.

GROSS: Oh, I hadn't noticed that.

BYRNE: Yeah, little things like that when you go, oh. I just - yeah.

GROSS: That's the kind of thing you would notice.

BYRNE: I guess so, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So that Samara Joy song was a song that I chose, but other than that, the songs we've been hearing today were chosen by David Byrne. It's his Christmas playlist. And, David, I'm so grateful to you for coming back on the show and doing this. It's been so much fun and you've introduced me to songs I didn't know and performers I didn't know. I knew some of them, but not all of them. So thank you for that. I personally thank you for that. And I wish you happy holidays and...

BYRNE: Thank you. Same to you. Happy holidays.

GROSS: Thank you.

BYRNE: Hope you make it through the holidays.

GROSS: Yeah.


GROSS: You can find and listen to the Christmas playlist David Byrne put together for us at David Byrne co-founded and fronted the band Talking Heads. The restored version of the band's 1984 concert film "Stop Making Sense" was released earlier this year. He also founded the record label Luaka Bop, which releases music of different genres from the U.S. and around the world. After a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will look back on the year in television and recommend shows you might want to catch up on over the holidays. This is FRESH AIR.


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