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.'"
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.
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 BillboardHot 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).