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During a long-forgotten episode of American Bandstand in the late '70s, Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth told Dick Clark, "We want to change the face of music" -- something even Clark's plastic surgeons might have considered a stretch. It was a bold declaration for anyone to make on national television, let alone an obscure, rhythm-backing female in an art-punk band full of preppy nerds in sweater vests. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Weymouth reflects on days long past from the comfort of a sprawling, barnlike home in Connecticut -- a cozy layout on a man-made peninsula known as "Cock Island" that she shares with two teenage sons and husband/drummer Chris Frantz, the other core member of the newly revitalized Tom Tom Club. She is quick to respond when reminded of her forecast and asked whether or not it actually panned out.
"Yeah, sure. Why not?" she laughs. "First of all, I've brought all these cute girl bass players to the front. 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 that I had a higher profile than any of those people."
Indeed, Weymouth stood out in a male-dominated rock world as a legitimate bandmember who actually played an instrument besides the tambourine -- and played it incredibly well. Following drummer Maureen Tucker of the Velvet Underground and preceding Joan Jett and scads of plucky, low-end rumblers -- Kims Gordon and Deal for starters -- Weymouth did more than just empower her gender.
"I think Chris and I had a great idea -- 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 Talking Heads' blue-eyed hybrid sound, Weymouth and Franz fused dense, heavy polyrhythmic patterns that were as exotic-sounding as they were complex. Pooling from 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 more than eight years. Breezy and light, the pair's longtime pet project offers the same reliable charm it always has, melding '60s girl-group harmonies with beachcombing ease and a variety of lead singers: The Good The Bad and The Funky features skafather Toots Hibbert (of Toots and the Maytals) and soul crooner Charles Pettigrew, late of Charles and Eddie, among others. The Club's current seven-piece touring incarnation includes original percussionist and keyboard player Bruce Martin; choppy, psychedelic guitarist Robby Aceto, Jamaican-born Mystic Bowie, background singer Victoria Clamp, and Senegalese percussionist Abdou M'Boup. "He's 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."
The rootless offspring from base-hopping military families, Frantz and Weymouth met at the Rhode Island School of Design, where they shared common interests in 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 and the Israelites on 45."
A mutual friendship with photography student David Byrne resulted in a short-lived punk duo with Frantz called the Artistics -- something in which Weymouth didn't participate. "As much as I loved them, I wouldn't have fit in," she says. "Their idea of having a girl in the band was having a sexy chick in a black bra, fishnets and stilletos singing, you know, 'My baby must be a magician.' Which is cool. I liked what David Bowie was doing with androgyny. I wanted my role to be far more androgynous."
Sporting collar-length hair like a shaggy Prince Valiant, Weymouth took up the bass, and she, Frantz and Byrne began playing as a kind of experimental troupe; after graduation, they all 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," Weymouth recalls. "The Byrne tends to thrive on problems."
Despite these conflicts, the band debuted in 1975 at CBGB and became a steady club staple, sharing bills with the Ramones, Blondie and Television. Ex-Modern Lovers keyboardist Jerry Harrison joined a year later, and with producer and Roxy Music veteran Brian Eno, the group entered into an astounding, hyper-creative period during which they located the common ground between black and white audiences -- uniting soulful '60s 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 the architecture itself moved with abandon; it was an unsettling universe where nothing ever reportedly happened in heaven, but here on earth you could at least count on the animals laughing at you. And while the once and future Time-anointed "Renaissance Man" branched out further with the brilliant 1981 Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the other bandmembers followed their own muses as well.