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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.
While vacationing in the Bahamas, Weymouth and Frantz dreamed up seven unforgettably sweet notes that would become the signature riff of their newly formed band the Tom Tom Club: 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's Bernie Worell, among others, to launch into tropical party-thong mode with music as sunny and danceable as pop culture could muster. They struck international paydirt, too, as "Genius" topped charts in seventeen different countries with a simple question that any overt intellectual need never bother trying to answer: "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 himself -- James Brown, the tune remains one of the most sampled to date. Grandmaster Flash, Ziggy Marley, Tupac Shakur, LL Cool J, Puff Daddy and Mariah Carey have all used it as a key ingredient in various arrangements. "Wordy Rappinghood," a playful typewriter-accompanied ditty, plus a cover version of "Under the Boardwalk" likewise became big singles -- bigger than anything Talking Heads had produced up to that point.
"It was a period of crossroads," Weymouth says. "We didn't know what was going to happen."
Evidently delighted with the results, the beat-happening side project reconvened two years later with the same basic cast (including Weymouth sisters Lani and Laura, aka 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 great; it prompted music scholar Robert Christgau to question the dubious merits of "when rich white people find the meaning of life in the tropics." (But what does he know?) Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, from 1989, involved both Byrne and Harrison for a curious rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" -- perhaps one last jaunt down Manhattan Lane before Talking Heads would call it quits at the close of the decade.
Weymouth and Frantz spent part of the '90s making one other Tom Tom album -- 1992's easygoing Dark Sneak Love Action -- but used the bulk of it to establish their own label, Tip Top Music. The pair handled production for Garbage canary Shirley Manson, Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and the now-deceased Yemenite singer Oprah Haza. They also joined up with Harrison in 1996 for a last-ditch attempt at convincing Byrne to reconsider a reunion. He declined -- vehemently. In what probably seemed like a good idea at the time, the three baptized themselves anew and abbreviated as the Heads and carried on without their original frontman. They recorded an album of new material with an odd collection of twelve disparate vocalists -- a glaring case of having too many cooks in the kitchen if there ever was one. Think of it: sex relics from the CBGB days like 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 in 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. "It seemed like maybe the timing wasn't right for that kind of thing. Though I think it's a very good record, and we're very appreciative to the singers involved. We recorded a whole other Heads album which is in the can, but the reaction was so..." He pauses, then continues, "We're waiting for the right time. It's all about timing."
Upon its release, critics beat No Talking Just Head like a flaming piñata. Byrne even filed a lawsuit to stop the Heads from touring and releasing albums under their new name ("Squawking Head," August 21, 1997), then subsequently dropped the suit for reasons he hasn't made public.
If their new self-produced disc The Good The Bad and The Funky is any indicator, Frantz and Weymouth made the right decision to revert to what they do best: making nonstop, butt-shakin' party jam music as the Tom Tom Club. Praise Jah. The recording is sweet and serene. It booms and zooms with seductive girlie vocals and rock-steady drumming. It's fun -- natural fun. The band playfully resurrects "Love to Love You Baby," first done by pouty Donna Summer, the sultry vixen who single-handedly brought heavy breathing to dangerous new heights in the '70s. Better yet is a cover of Lee "Scratch" Perry's "Soul Fire" (Perry was originally slated to produce the Toms' first album but never showed), as refreshing as two blunts and a bottle of Red Stripe. "He's the Brian Eno of Jamaica," Weymouth says. "In fact, he invented a style. Here's a guy who hasn't received the recognition that he's due. All hail Lee 'Scratch' Perry!"
Despite the fact that Perry never actually appears on the album, he's one of the many beacons the Toms felt like honoring. The inclusion of so many influences, however, does cause the disc to occasionally suffer from a lack of focus -- something that having one designated songwriter might have remedied. On the other hand, credit Weymouth and Frantz for adhering to their long-held belief that art -- be it in a coloring book or the Sistine Chapel -- ultimately comes from people feeding off one another's ideas. Consider the fact that a fifteen-year-old turntablist named Kid Ginseng -- who sat in on a few Funky tracks -- would have joined the tour if not for the rigors of school and a 10 p.m. curfew.
"It's all good," Weymouth says with a youthful zeal. "There's so much good art out there. We don't pretend that we created all alone. 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."
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