As spinoffs go, Tom Tom Club came with a remarkable schematic for success. Jettisoning the intellectual elitism that had a grip on their full-time group, Talking Heads, drummer Chris Frantz and his wife, bassist Tina Weymouth, founded their side project on the premise of funky, beachcombing fun. It worked, too: The bright, bouncy dance tunes proffered by the Tom Tom Club continue to inspire smiles twenty years later.
Still a lingering malaise remains from the bitter breakup of Talking Heads in 1989. David Byrne has publicly compared his relationship with Frantz and Weymouth to an abusive marriage, while the couple (and former Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison) seem unwilling to forgive the big-suit man for breaking up the band. Speaking on a cell phone as Frantz pilots their car through traffic, Weymouth bristles: "Every time somebody says, Oh, let's talk about Talking Heads,' it's really boring to us! We've had Tom Tom Club together for twenty years, and Talking Heads stopped performing almost seventeen years ago."
But Talking Heads, one of the most influential outfits of the late Seventies and early Eighties CBGB's-birthed scene, is arguably one of the greatest groups in the United States ever. Sometimes its ugly implosion threatens to cast a gloom over the legacy of both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. "We can never get away from it," continues Weymouth. "It's relentless. But whenever possible we try to rise above it."
A case in point is the brand-new Tom Tom Club album The Good the Bad and the Funky, which like the band's 1981 debut was recorded in the couple's favorite vacation destination, the Bahamas. Thankfully light on the bad, the sprawling, ambitious fourteen-song work careens madly between Sixties ska, Seventies soul, and Eighties reggae and hip-hop with seafaring flair. Vocal duties were parceled out to a crew of old-school veterans, including Charles Pettigrew and Toots (of the Maytals) Hibbert. Pettigrew -- originally half of the soul duo Charles and Eddie -- passed away in April, after recording three tracks for the album, Weymouth notes sadly. "It's made an impact on us. We appreciate every second that we have."
In fact Frantz and Weymouth's assessment of their current album and tour is nothing short of exuberant. "Oh, they're wonderful," Weymouth boasts of the band that includes Mystic Bowie, a young Jamaican toaster; singer Victoria Clamp; keyboardist Bruce Martin; Senegalese percussionist Abdou M'Boup; and guitarist Robby Aceto. "They're all great to look at; they're real," she says, "and they have amazing personalities."
Similar good vibes inspired the founding of the Club. "There was a time when we felt Talking Heads was beginning to take itself a little too seriously," Frantz relates. "Tom Tom Club was a reaction against that overseriousness, and it seemed like the timing was right. We sold a lot of records, and we continue to sell a lot of records for people who have sampled that record."
Frantz refers of course to "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love," the hits from the debut album sampled extensively on hip-hop records during the Eighties and Nineties. In 1995 Mariah Carey's song "Fantasy" borrowed (or stole) so heavily from "Genius" that Weymouth and Frantz actually received songwriting credit. The good-humored Frantz doesn't mind. "It costs a lot of money to take a seven-piece band on the road in the year 2001, and it enabled us to have the budget to make The Good the Bad and the Funky, so we're grateful to Mariah," he says. "I don't care what anybody says -- that's my favorite Mariah Carey song! In fact we hope her movie Glitter is a major sensation!"
Followup albums Close to the Bone (1983) and Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom (1988) met with less success but did not dampen the Club's enthusiasm for the road. An impressive stadium tour in 1990 known as Escape from New York -- featuring Harrison and his erstwhile band the Casual Gods along with NYC compatriots Debbie Harry and the Ramones -- laid the conceptual tracks for Lollapalooza.
The grunge revolution distracted from the fun-filled funkiness of Dark Sneak Love Action (1992), leading Frantz and Weymouth to spend the next several years raising a family on their rambling Connecticut estate and tanning in the Bahamas. There they undertook an ill-fated production with Happy Mondays, the infamous Manchester band too addled with Ecstasy, heroin, and copious marijuana to be of much help. Yes Please, the resultant album that was the Mondays' last, suffers from the apparently chaotic situation.
Reborn as The Heads in 1996, the trio released No Talking, Just Head to an unprecedented critical backlash. The Heads tour with ex-Concrete Blonde vocalist Johnette Napolitano left an unpleasant aftertaste as well. "I thought it was going to go somewhere, but it crumbled," Weymouth says. "[Johnette] was losing track of her medication, how much she'd taken, mixing it with booze, et cetera. And we couldn't use any of the material we recorded with Johnette; it was sent to digital heaven -- or hell."
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All those bad memories are blown away by the balmy Caribbean breeze that permeates The Good the Bad and the Funky. Surprisingly the former Deadhead crowd has even warmed to the sound, including Tom Tom Club at the Gathering of the Vibes and the Jammy Awards festivals. "We've been getting a lot of love from what they call the jam-band scene," Frantz explains. "They're great kids -- they support live music."
"If only they would buy the records, too!" Weymouth laments. "Everyone would like to be on the radio and selling records because there's a security in it. You have to elicit the interest of the pedophiles now to do that. It's a cliché to say video killed the radio star, but video is killing the video star, too! It's killing everybody."
Even the past is not safe: Only the first and the most recent of Tom Tom Club's five albums are in print; the other three are in limbo. Close to the Bone has never had a release on compact disc, and nothing from Dark Sneak Love Action or Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom is included in the group's live show. A Tom Tom Club "best of" had to be scrapped in 1999 because none of the master tapes could be located. Even the original 24-track masters for "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love" are missing, eliminating the possibility of remixing them.
The current Tom Tom Club tour (which brings the band to Florida for the first time) may well be Tom Tom Club's last stand. "We may never come back again," cautions Weymouth. But the group plans to go out grooving. "In a live situation, this is a beautiful band," she adds. "It's very tight, with a funky, loose feeling at the same time. It's gonna feel good."