Time to Bounce
Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz Keep Their Tom Tom Club 'Funky'
During a long-forgotten episode of American Bandstand in the late Seventies, Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth told Dick Clark, "We want to change the face of music," something even Clark's plastic surgeons might've considered a stretch. It was a bold declaration for anyone to make on national television, let alone someone from an obscure art-punk band of preppy nerds in sweater vests.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Weymouth reflects on days long past from the sprawling, barnlike home in Connecticut she shares with two teenage sons and husband/drummer/fellow Head Chris Frantz, the other core member of the newly revitalized Tom Tom Club. Despite the isolation that living on a man-made peninsula dubbed Cock Island might entail, Weymouth responds quickly, and affirmatively, when reminded of her long-ago forecast.
"Yeah sure. Why not?" she laughs. "First of all, I've brought all these cute girl bass players to the front. I mean, Suzi Quatro had been doing it. The great Carol Kaye did all the bass playing on Pet Sounds and virtually dozens of Motown albums. But I think I had a higher profile than any of those people."
Indeed. Weymouth stood out in a male-dominated rock world as a legitimate band member who actually played an instrument besides the tambourine. Following Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, and preceding Joan Jett and scads of plucky low-end rumblers (i.e. Kims Gordon and Deal), Weymouth has done more than just empower her gender.
"I think Chris and I had a great idea," she insists. "You know, putting the punk and the funk together. I don't think anybody was really doing that before us."
Regarded as the more Afrocentric element of the Talking Heads' blue-eyed hybrid sound, Weymouth and Frantz fused dense, polyrhythmic patterns as exotic as they were complex. Seasoned assimilators of Caribbean, ska, R&B, soul, reggae, and hip-hop, they continue this tradition on The Good the Bad and the Funky, the first Tom Tom Club offering in over eight years.
Breezy and light, the pair's longtime pet project offers the same reliable charm as ever, melding Sixties girl-group harmonies with beachcombing ease and a variety of lead singers like ska father Toots Hibbert and soul crooner Charles Pettigrew, late of Charles and Eddie. Their current seven-piece touring incarnation includes original percussionist and keyboard man Bruce Martin, choppy psychedelic guitarist Robby Aceto, Jamaican-born Mystic Bowie (who provides high-energy toasting), background singer Victoria Clamp, and Senegalese percussionist Abdou M'Boup.
"[M'Boup] is from the griot family," Frantz points out. "They're predominantly drummers entrusted with keeping African oral traditions and histories alive. You can't become one. You have to be born into it like a gypsy."
Both rootless offspring of base-hopping military families, Frantz and Weymouth met at the Rhode Island School of Design, where they shared a passion for painting and music.
"Who knows why, but both of our parents had huge collections of calypso music," Weymouth notes. "I remember one of the first records I bought when I was six or seven was Desmond Dekker & the Israelites on 45."
A mutual friendship with photography student David Byrne resulted in the short-lived Byrne/Frantz punk duo called the Artistics, which temporarily left Weymouth out in the cold.
"As much as I loved them, I wouldn't have fit in," she says. "Their idea of a girl in the band was having a sexy chick up at the front with a black bra, fishnet stockings, and stilettos, singin', 'My baby must be a magician.' Which was cool, but I was much more into soul like Hot Chocolate, Ohio Players, James Brown, Kool & the Gang, K.C. & the Sunshine Band. I liked what David Bowie was doing with androgyny. I wanted my role to be far more androgynous."
Resembling a shaggy Prince Valiant with collar-length hair, Weymouth took up the bass, and she, Frantz, and Byrne began playing as a kind of experimental troupe; after graduation, they moved into a New York City apartment together and formed Talking Heads.
"Chris realized it was a good idea to have me in the band, but that was always a problem for David," recalls Weymouth. "[Byrne] tends to thrive on problems."
Despite such conflicts, the band debuted in 1975 at CBGB, ground zero for America's fledgling punk scene. Soon they were a staple, sharing bills with the Ramones, Blondie, and Television. Ex-Modern Lovers keyboardist Jerry Harrison joined a year later, and with producer/Roxy Music veteran Brian Eno, the group entered an astounding, hypercreative period where they located the common ground between soulful Sixties funk and puritanically structured art rock.
Jittery frontman Byrne offered lyrics of a bleak and cross-eyed world where the very elements of earth, wind, fire, and water displayed threatening personalities and architecture itself moved with abandon. It was an unsettling universe where nothing ever happened in heaven, but here on earth you could at least count on the animals laughing at you.
When the once and future Time-anointed "Renaissance Man" branched out further with the brilliant 1981 Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Weymouth and Frantz saw a good time to indulge their funkier sides. Vacationing in the Bahamas, the couple dreamt up six unforgettably sweet notes that would become the signature riff of their newly formed band: 1981's Top 40 single "Genius of Love." With Monty Brown and Stephen Stanley, they formed the nucleus of what would later become an ever-shifting group of players.
"Chris and I have always made a record and then invited friends to come and join us," Weymouth explains. "And they're all people who are extraordinary in their own right. People who have been for one reason or another neglected."
Securing an identity separate from anything involving Talking Heads, Frantz and Weymouth enlisted Parliament-Funkadelic groove technician Bernie Worrell, among others, to launch into thong mode with tropical party music as sunny and danceable as pop culture could muster. "Genius" topped the charts in 17 different countries with a simple question any overt intellectual needn't bother answering: "Who needs to think when your feet just go?"
A delirious homage to George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Kurtis Blow, Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley, Sly Stone, and Mr. "Please, Please, Please" himself, "Genius" has since surfaced in the works of Grandmaster Flash, Ziggy Marley, Tupac Shakur, LL Cool J, Puff Daddy, and Mariah Carey. "Wordy Rappinghood," a playful typewriter-accompanied ditty, plus a reworked "Under the Boardwalk," likewise became big singles. Bigger, in fact, than anything Talking Heads had yet produced.
"It was a period of crossroads," Weymouth says. "We didn't know what was going to happen."
Evidently delighted with the results, the Club reconvened two years later with the same basic cast (plus Weymouth's sisters Lani and Laura as the Sweetbreaths) for Close to the Bone, a fanciful but less interesting collection of metronomic sing-songery about freedom, equality, a man with four-way hips, and life being indisputably great, which prompted music scholar Robert Christgau to question the dubious merits of "when rich white people find the meaning of life in the tropics."
1989's Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom involved Byrne, Harrison, and Lou Reed for a curious rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," one last jaunt through the Manhattan streets before Talking Heads packed it in to the strains of 1992's "Sax and Violins."
Weymouth and Frantz spent part of the Nineties making one other Tom Tom album, 1992's easygoing Dark Sneak Love Action, but mostly used it to build their label, Tip Top Music. The pair handled production for Garbage canary Shirley Manson, Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and now-deceased Yemeni singer Ofra Haza. They also joined Harrison for a last-ditch 1996 attempt to convince Byrne to reconsider a reunion. He declined vehemently.
Undeterred, the three baptized themselves the Heads and decided to carry on without their original frontman. The album, No Talking Just Head, featured 12 songs with 12 disparate singers, resulting in way too many cooks in the kitchen. Think of it: sex relics from the CBGB days Deborah Harry and Richard Hell alongside Live's god-squaddin' Ed Kowalczyk. Gordon Gano and Andy Partridge sharing the marquee with that dullard Michael Hutchence from INXS. Why not hold auditions at New York's Port Authority? Paging Psycho Killer!
"We were trying to avoid the inevitable David Byrne comparisons, and unfortunately, even doing that we didn't manage to avoid them," Frantz concedes. "Maybe the timing wasn't right for that kind of thing."
Upon its release, critics beat No Talking Just Head like a piñata, appalled that Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison had the nerve to think they could start over without the band's most celebrated member. Byrne even filed a lawsuit to stop the Heads from touring and releasing albums under their new name, then subsequently dropped the suit for undisclosed reasons.
So what's a poor rhythm section to do? If The Good the Bad and the Funky is any indicator, Frantz and Weymouth made the right decision: returning to nonstop, butt-shakin' party jam music. Praise Jah. Sweet and serene, the new album booms and zooms with seductive girlie vocals and rock-steady drumming. It's fun -- natural fun, from hands-in-the-air opener "Time to Bounce" to the band's playful resurrection of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby." Better still is a cover of Lee "Scratch" Perry's "Soul Fire," as refreshing as two blunts and a bottle of Red Stripe.
"He's the Brian Eno of Jamaica," Weymouth claims. "In fact, he invented a style. Brian is open to learning styles and then incorporating them and putting them together with other styles. But with Lee Perry, he actually sort of invented them, the whole Wailers sound. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh sounded like the Temptations before they got together with Scratch. He gave them that deep roots sound."
Perry never actually appears on the album to sprinkle any magical dub trails, but he's one of the many beacons the Toms felt like honoring. The inclusion of so many influences, however, causes the disc to occasionally suffer from lack of focus, something one traditional, designated singer-songwriter might have remedied.
On the other hand, credit Weymouth and Frantz for adhering to their long-held belief that art -- be it a coloring book or the Sistine Chapel -- ultimately comes from people feeding off one another's ideas. Consider the fact that a 15-year-old turntablist named Kid Ginseng, a neighborhood kid who sat in on a few Funky tracks, would've made the tour if not for the rigors of school and a 10pm curfew.
"It's all good," Weymouth says with youthful exuberance. "There's so much good art out there. This record is about picking up the pieces and starting again. Even if we have to be like Sisyphus, who has to push his rock up over and over again. I guess there's a point to that. Those myths exist for a real reason. They exist to help people."
Tom Tom Club plays the Flamingo Cantina Friday, November 3.
John G. La Briola is a regular contributor to Denver's alternative weekly Westword, where this article first appeared.