By Annette Hinkle
When you think about it, there aren’t a lot of bands that manage to stick around for 30 years. Changes in artistic direction, ego clashes and the public’s fickle tastes are just a few factors that can, and often do, lead to the demise of truly great bands.
But those that survive tend to have a sound that transcends pop-culture and politics. Often the longevity of a successful group can be traced to the fact it strikes a chord with successive generations through music that settles into the psyche and stays there.
That’s certainly something Chris Frantz understands.
In March 1981, Frantz, a drummer, and his wife, bass player Tina Weymouth, flew down to the Bahamas to record under the name of a new group, Tom Tom Club. Their first, self titled disc included the songs “Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood,” both of which took on a life of their own that continues to this day.
“It’s kind of a miracle,” says Frantz. “Who knew that 30 years later we’d still be grooving to ‘Genius of love?’”
Frantz and Weymouth and the rest of the Tom Tom Club (Victoria Clamp Bruce Martin, Pablo Martin and Kid Ginseng) will be among the performers taking the stage at the MTK: Music to Know Festival at East Hampton Airport on August 13 and 14. While many of the bands on the bill are likely to be unfamilar to the “over 40” crowd, Tom Tom Club is one of those groups whose fans truly span the generations.
“A lot of young fans have heard our stuff in their parents record collections — and we have parents bringing their kids to concerts,” says Frantz. “It’s clear when we play ‘Genius of Love’ and ‘Wordy Rappinghood,’ the kids know these songs. They’ve heard them — whether it’s on MTV, VH1 or local radio.”
Part of what’s kept Tom Tom Club in the forefront of popular music all these years is the fact their songs have been sampled widely by other artists. “Genius of Love” has been used in no fewer than 47 songs — starting with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “It’s Nasty (Genius of Love),” a replay which came out soon after the original. Though Tom Tom Club continues to write and record new music to this day, it’s their earliest songs that have defined their career.
“I thought it was really cool – they’re stealing our stuff,” says Frantz. “They did it through the proper channels and as long as they do it the proper way we have no problem. In 30 years, there’s only one song we turned down a sample request for — it was during the gansta era and was too vulgar.”
Ironcially, for Frantz and Weymouth Tom Tom Club was meant to be a break from their “other” gig — as members of the Talking Heads, the mega-band of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Frantz, Weymouth and Talking Heads front man, David Byrne, met in the early 1970s when all three were students at Rhode Island School of Design. The trio moved to New York, founded Talking Heads in 1975 and cut their teeth at small venues like CBGB, the legendary club in the Bowery.
But by the early ‘80s, after five years, four albums and countless tours, the band was huge. Encouraged by Byrne and the band’s fourth member, guitarist Jerry Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz set off during a break in the schedule to record in the same Bahamian studio where the Talking Heads’ fourth album, “Remain in Light” had been recorded.
Franz recalls the goals for that first recording session were specific, if modest.
“When we did the first Tom Tom Club record, we wanted to do something that would be good for dance clubs,” explains Frantz. “We wanted the singles to be the kind that would be played in clubs and people would actually dance to them. We deliberately set out to do something different from Talking Heads – with Tina being the singer — that would be a whole different sound.”
Frantz credits then 22-year-old engineer Steven Stanley, who also recorded Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” with helping to develop the flavor the Tom Tom Club was looking for.
“Basically it’s a reggae mix, but not reggae music,” says Frantz. “It has a heavy bottom end and bright highs and not so much in the mid-range.”
“We were sort of flying by the seat of our pants,” he adds. “We recorded much the way we did ‘Remain in Light,’ which was to go in, create grooves and gradually add layers of melody and vocals.”
Though Talking Heads officially split up in 1991 when Byrne went solo, with their reggae beat and catchy repeating riffs, Tom Tom Club caught a wave it has continued to ride to this day. It may have started as a side project, but Frantz and Weymouth’s music managed to cross a racial and cultural divide by giving a nod to the emeriging rap genre while embracing the fun of the early ‘80s club scene.
“We thought Tom Tom Club would be a one shot thing,” admits Frantz. “We had no idea it would be so successful. Talking Heads is like our first child — your first is always special. It was a fantastic band with an amazing sound and such great chemistry. Who knew Tom Tom Club would last longer than Talking Heads?”
To this day, the group continues to connect with audiences of all ages. Frantz says he partiuclarly enjoys seeing young faces in the crowd when they perform.
“That’s why we like the MTK lineup — we’re delighted to get in front of more young people,” he says. “We’re mature now and our audiences tend to be mature people. So we love an all ages crowd.”
And as husband and wife, Frantz and Weymouth have staying power not unlike their music. The couple has two grown sons, Robin and Egan, and on June 18, they celebrated their 34th wedding anniversary. So for Frantz, how difficult has it been to survive all these years not only as life partners and parents, but bandmates as well?
“It’s a challenge,’ he concedes. “We’ve been through a few changes in our lives, our up and downs.”
“But I still think of Tina as my girlfriend – I think she still thinks of me as her boyfriend. It’s a romantic thing you just can’t beat.”
And that truly is the genius of love.
Top: Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (Egan Frantz photo)
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