a Project of the Mockingbird Foundation

Performances Song History Lyrics Jamming Chart


Music/Lyrics: David Byrne

Vocals: Trey

Original Artist: Talking Heads

Original Album: Fear of Music (1979)

Albums: Slip Stitch and Pass, Colorado '88, Live Phish 04, Live In Utica, Ventura

Debut: 1984-12-01

Historian: Chris Bertolet (bertoletdown)

Last Update: 2013-12-20

Talking Heads released this sideways paean to urban life on their third album, 1979’s Fear of Music. Like each of the early Heads albums – up to and including 1980’s Remain in LightFear of Music fused infectious rhythm, ambitious melody and surreal lyrics to create something undeniably unique. “Cities” stands as a wonderful example of that vision.

"Cities" – Talking Heads, Rome, Italy 1980

Phish played their debut cover of “Cities” at Nectar’s, nearly twelve years before they’d tackle Remain in Light in its entirety. The song appeared occasionally at Phish gigs in the late 1980s before dropping out of the play list entirely for almost six years, then resurfacing a single time in Ottawa on 7/5/94. “Cities” immediately took another long hiatus before reappearing in Hamburg, Germany on 3/1/97 (see Slip, Stitch & Pass). On 7/30/97 in Ventura, CA, the first “Cities” on American soil in nearly nine years bubbled up from the disco dregs of “David Bowie.”  

Though “Cities” made seven appearances in 1998, it has since settled back into lighter traffic pattern, surfacing once or twice a tour. This furtiveness is possibly what makes fans mistakenly hear teases of the song in random jams, as its main riff is simply a repeated D-chord. Errant setlists from ‘97 and ‘98 were rife with claims of “Cities” teases. The most dastardly example of this is on recordings of the 4/16/99 Phil & Phriends gig, where some Phish fans, not as familiar with the Dead as others, labeled the breakdown jam in “St. Stephen” as a “Cities” tease.

As with many covers, Phish takes generous artistic liberties with “Cities.” Most late 90s versions were far slower and wah-drenched than the Talking Heads standard – far more cow-funky than avant-garde. Trey also plays fast and loose with the lyrics, omitting an entire verse about getting lost in El Paso and tweaking other lines at whim (“find yourself ” instead of the actual “find myself”). Such creative license helps keep the tune fresh and just a little different each time out. Go sample the super-goopy Great Went “Cities” from 8/16/97 (“Fishman sleeps... sleeps in the daytime... build yourself a city to live in”); the aforementioned Hamburg breakout (“Are those things real? ... nein!”); the 9/29/99 Memphis encore (“Home of Elvis and the Rendezvous Bar-BQ”); the 6/14/00 version from Fukuoka, Japan (“It’s only the noodles”); and the 9/24/00 second set opener into “Free.” Phish 2.0 and 3.0 versions have been relatively restrained but prominently placed, including a show-opening performance at Deer Creek on 7/21/03, a late second set slot at the 20th anniversary gig on 12/2/03, and during the instant fan-favorite performance in Miami on 12/30/03.

"Cities" – Phish, 5/28/11, Bethel, NY

Extended jams on the tune are rare, which makes the undisputed Gotham of “Cities” – the 8/10/97 Deer Creek behemoth – that much more special. The second set opener delved into licentious grooves for nearly a half-hour, setting the funky standard by which the jams of that summer would be judged. Other standout “Cities” include the 8/5/88 Colorado sandwich (“YEM” -> “Cities” -> “DEG” -> “Cities”) the Lemonwheel version from 8/15/98 (with vertigo-inducing delay loop jam and dedication to those on the Ferris wheel), and the towering Greek Theatre reading from 8/6/10 (check out the crackling energy the band gets back from the crowd).

Fans even casually interested in Talking Heads must seek out the Stop Making Sense DVD that features a splendid “Cities” as a bonus track.

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Recommended Versions: 1988-08-05, 1997-07-01, 1997-08-10, 1997-08-16, 1998-07-31, 2000-09-24, 2010-08-06, 2011-12-28

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dr_strangelove Reply
my first experience with cities, or even the talking heads, was at my first phish show (2004-06-24). I had just gotten into phish, I knew a lot of their songs but not nearly enough, and I had no idea what this song was but I distinctly remember it (I remember very little from that night....) This song left a clear impression on my memory, however. I just remember sitting on the lawn and hearing trey sing "i'm checking em out"and thinking "this is so f***ing funky and bad @$$". That was the beginning of my talking heads obsession, and but one of several peaks in my continuing phish obsession. Thanks be to phish, for introducing me to so many great bands, including the talking heads!
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you_enjoy_myself Reply
you_enjoy_myself one of my favorite songs i've seen live
Score: 0
DanceTheJig728 Reply
DanceTheJig728 ^Two more great versions are 7/1/97 and 7/31/98!
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parrott56 Reply
parrott56 The next update of the "Cities" song history really MUST include 7/1/97 Amsterdam -- easily one of the all-time greats -- along with (probably) 5/28/11 Bethel.
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GitDown Reply
I just left a comment on the Timber (Jerry) page that asked why they omitted the third verse of that one. Why DO they skip the verse about El Paso? And you want to talk about hearing a Cities where one didn't emerge? Try the jam out of Theme on 7/21/97 just before Leroi Moore came out for the spectacle that was the Multiple Instrument Jam (glad I was there to see it, but it sure is unlistenable later, especially when I was so ready for that Cities bustout)
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SkyBallz Reply
Please please please don't forget 7-31-98. Amazing epic jam.
Score: 0
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