Two years before R.E.M. proclaimed "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
," Talking Heads shared the sentiment on their single "Road To Nowhere," a deceptively upbeat pop-rock tune about facing a dire future with optimism. "I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom," Talking Heads singer David Byrne recalled in the liner notes of Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads
. "At our deaths and at the apocalypse… (always looming, folks). I think it succeeded. The front bit, the white gospel choir, is kind of tacked on, 'cause I didn't think the rest of the song was enough… I mean, it was only two chords. So, out of embarrassment, or shame, I wrote an intro section that had a couple more in it."
Byrne told Q magazine in 1992 how the chorus came first and the rest of the song fell together: "It was just the four lines of what became the chorus that started the whole thing:
We're on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Takin' that ride to nowhere
We'll take that ride
That pretty much laid out the whole song. It's this little ditty about how there's no order and no plan and no scheme to life and death and it doesn't mean anything, but it's all right."
Drummer Chris Frantz tells a different origin story, saying the song started with a marching cadence he recorded alone in the studio (without a click track). He and Byrne often butt "heads" over contributions and songwriting credits - Byrne is the only writer credited on "Road To Nowhere."
After the band put down their tracks, they felt it needed more to flesh it out, so got some help, notably Jimmy Macdonnell of the Cajun group Loup Garou, who played the accordion. Additional personnel include former Tower of Power member and Saturday Night Live musical director of Lenny Pickett on the saxophone; washboard player Andrew Cader (who played it with spoons); and percussionist Steve Scales, who is one of the touring musicians they used in 1983 - he plays a big role in the concert film Stop Making Sense.
Singer Lani Groves put together the team of backing vocalists, which included Diva Gray, Gordon Grody, Erin Dickens and Kurt Yahijian. Little Creatures engineer Eric Thorngren told Sound On Sound: "When I told her the configuration we were looking for, she put together that whole thing. They did real gospel, and the blend of that with Talking Heads really took the song to another place. I was just floored."
As the closing track on the album, this posed a particular challenge for Thorngren. "Don't forget, there were a lot of unique issues in those days because you had to get the whole album jammed onto a 12-inch record, and of course everybody wanted to close with their biggest song on the worst-sounding groove on the record," he explained. "You had to do all kinds of things to massage it so that the last song could have some power... but you didn't want the record to be too soft. It was always like a game, and so I'd sit in on the mastering to make sure I got the most out of it."
At #6, this was Talking Heads' highest-charting single in the UK. It also peaked at #25 on the US Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
In 2010, former Florida governor Charlie Crist used this without permission during the Republican primary for the Florida Senate seat. In a campaign video, Crist alleged his opponent, Marco Rubio, was on "the road to nowhere." David Byrne sued Crist for copyright infringement to the tune of $1 million and won an undisclosed settlement.
The music video, directed by David Byrne and Stephen R. Johnson (Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer
," "Big Time
"), features seemingly random images of a couple growing older, masked businessmen pummeling each other with briefcases, a runaway shopping cart, and boxes revolving around David Byrne's head. Meanwhile, a shirtless man walks down a deserted road with an inflatable pool raft. Pool scenes were shot in the backyard of actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who was co-writing Byrne's 1986 film, True Stories
The video was nominated for Best Video Of The Year at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost to Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing
Talking Heads never played "Road To Nowhere" live because David Byrne had them stop touring in 1984 following the release of their concert film Stop Making Sense
. "We hoped that David would change his mind, but he was really not into touring anymore," drummer Chris Frantz told Songfacts
. "He thought Stop Making Sense
would tour for us, which it sort of did for a while."
The alt-rock band Release the Sunbird, a side project by Rogue Wave's Zach Rogue, recorded this for their 2012 EP, Imaginary Summer. This version was used on the Gossip Girl series finale, "New York, I Love You XOXO," that same year.
A cover by the French band Nouvelle Vague, from their 2009 album, 3, was used on the TV show Fringe in the 2011 episode "Immortality."
This was used during the end scenes and credits of the 1989 movie Little Monsters, starring Fred Savage and Howie Mandel. It was supposed to be released on the movie's soundtrack, but the album was shelved as the film's production company, Vestron Pictures, was facing bankruptcy. The song also showed up in the 1994 movie Reality Bites, starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke.
This was one of many apocalyptic-themed tunes to resurface in 2020. The world really felt like it was on a road to nowhere as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, shuttering businesses and forcing people into quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.
When Byrne appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on February 19, 2020, he appeared in a sketch about the perils of New York's LaGuardia airport. Playing a baggage carrier, he sang part of this as "we're on a plane to nowhere" about delayed take-offs.
System Of A Down members John Dolmayan and Serj Tankian covered this for Dolmayan's These Grey Men side project in 2020. "'Road to Nowhere' is a song that I've enjoyed for decades now," he told Songfacts
. "I thought that David Byrne being an eccentric singer worked very well dichotomy-wise with Serj, who is also an individual who is particular in his vocal tone and rhythmic selection."
Hamilton Leithauser of the indie-rock band The Walkmen covered this in 2017 for Amazon Music's "Open Road" - a multi-artist playlist of road-trip songs. Leithauser told Entertainment Weekly of his contribution: "When I was doing this song, I realized there really isn't any other band in the world that I've tried to rip off more than the Talking Heads in my career - and had basically zero success… There's been more four-tracks in my life that have been called 'Talking Heads Ripoff 1,' 'Talking Heads Ripoff 2,' or 'Talking Heads Guitar,' 'Talking Heads Drums,' and it's never worked out. I've never sounded a thing like them. But there's no band I've tried to sound like more."
David Byrne used this as the closing number of his American Utopia stage production, with ran for five months on Broadway starting in October 2019 and the following year was made into a movie directed by Spike Lee. In the production, all the music comes from the performers, who carry their instruments around the stage. For "Road To Nowhere," they venture into the audience.