Oct. 6 2010 10:09 AM

In one fell swoop, Tom Tom Club breathed new life into dance music

Chris Frautz and Tina Weymouth, the Talking Heads vets behind “Genius of Love”
Nearly 30 years ago, Tom Tom Club tore disco a new one with the infectious dance hits “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Genius of Love”—a track that’s still widely popular to this day.

“They were heady times,” percussionist Chris Frantz says.

“One show that sticks out in my mind from the very early days is when we first played in Paris, opening for The Ramones at a theater called the Bataclan,” he reminisces. “It’s a very famous historic theater, and it was the first time punk music was ever played there, and we were the support band.”

Wait—it gets even better. “Shortly after that, we played the Roundhouse in London. Same bill. That was pretty awesome. The Clash were in the front row, and the Sex Pistols came backstage.”

When Tom Tom Club released their self-titled debut in 1981, Frantz was no newcomer to the scene. He and his wife, bassist / vocalist Tina Weymouth, were two of the founding members of Talking Heads, along with fellow Rhode Island School of Design alum David Byrne.

Tom Tom Club started as a side project.

“We always kept the Tom Tom Club and its sound very separate from Talking Heads,” Frantz explains. “We didn’t want to be in competition with our own band.”

From the get-go, Tom Tom Club—named for a dancehall in the Bahamas—had a different approach to musical eclecticism than the Talking Heads, despite an overlap in influences.

“Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club were both bands that loved soul music and reggae music and African music and rock music—even a little bit of jazz.”

Tom Tom Club—which recently released Genius of Live, a double album that includes one disc of live tracks and another of remixes by Latin American alternative artists—managed to make dance music edgy after a decade of cringe-worthy disco beats. Take a listen to the track “Genius of Love,” which is still an ass-shaker today, and you’ll hear a pileup of funk, reggae and even primitive hip-hop behind those blasts of new-wave synth-pop.

It was fresh, and some of Frantz’s contemporaries barely knew what to make of it. “The music was so dreary at the time,” Frantz says. “Not dreary—that’s the wrong word. Overly serious. Stuff like Joy Division.

“A lot of people talked about how they were so pleasantly surprised that Tina and I were able to come up with what we came up with,” he adds. “That was funny to us: What’s so surprising?” Tom Tom Club caught the attention of record exec Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records in Jamaica and brought Bob Marley and Grace Jones to the masses. At Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, the band worked with the likes of legendary production team Sly and Robbie, who pioneered several reggae beats.

Blackwell “understood the value of a good rhythm section,” Frantz says. “A lot of people think it’s all about the singer or lead guitar player, but it’s the rhythm section that drives a good song.”

He adds: “We sold well at what were then called ‘black record stores.’” The rhythm track of “Genius of Love” has been sampled too many times to count. Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” is probably the most famous. (“The high point of her career,” observes Frantz wryly.) It’s also a hip-hop standard, with everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Tupac and 50 Cent lifting lines.

“We only turned one request down,” Frantz admits.

“It was at the beginning of ‘gangsta’—you know that style of hip-hop? It was for a song about murder. We’re not prudish, but it was ugly.”

Prudish? Not with such heady times behind them, but Frantz and Weymouth do seem like a fairly ordinary couple—married 30 years with two kids—if you didn’t know, they also happened to be groundbreaking rock stars.

“Tina and I are very fortunate to have found each other,” says Frantz, who met his wife at art school. “I can’t say on Tina’s part that it was exactly love at first sight. She had another boyfriend and I had to really work on her hard, but eventually I prevailed.”

And so did their music.

Tom Tom Club play with Rafter and DJ Atari & Junior the Discopunk at The Casbah on Tuesday, Oct. 12. tomtomclub.net

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