Memoirs by drummers are not a staple of the rock book world. But then, not many drummers are like Chris Frantz, which might explain why his new book is the talk of the music industry. With his wife Tina Weymouth, he forms the formidable rhythm section that underpinned Talking Heads from their foundation at the very birth of punk.
Their minimal, funk-inspired playing, while as simplistic as their white punk rock contemporaries, gave the band a unique style which remains influential to this day, and which would get deeper still into the groove over the years as they began working with legends of funk and African music. And even while Talking Heads were still in their pomp, Frantz and Weymouth would form Tom Tom Club to push their love of dance music even further. Tom Tom Club’s debut album has just been reissued on deluxe vinyl.
In the early days, Talking Heads were all more or less self-taught. “We had to work things out,” says Frantz; “everyone wrote their own parts. We didn't have a tape recorder, so if we stumbled onto something that sounded good to us, we had to repeat it over and over and over again until it was ingrained in our minds and also our muscle memory.”
Frantz had grown up on Stax and James Brown, and by the time he joined Talking Heads, was immersed in the luxurious ‘70s soul and disco of Barry White and Sylvester. “Our first producer, Tony Bongiovi, had just come from producing ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ for Gloria Gaynor,” he says, “which is pretty crazy when you think about it. I would say that was harder for him than it was for us – I could tell he was listening for something that he was never going to get from us!”
On the first Talking Heads album, 77, the Black music influence was direct “on some songs, not all, but some.” But once Frantz and Weymouth achieved a sense of groove, they were hooked. “It's a good feeling when you get that,” he says. “They call it being ‘in the pocket’. Tina and I have achieved that state many times since, but I guess ‘Psycho Killer’ was maybe the first time, that and ‘New Feeling’ on that first album.”
The next step forward came from the beginning of a long working relationship with Brian Eno on the next album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. “The big one was ‘Take me to the River’,” says Frantz. “That had a good groove to begin with, then we ended up slowing it down. That was Brian Eno's call; we'd been recording it at the tempo Al Green had done it at, which is pretty uptempo R&B, but when we were making our second album, Brian said: ‘What do you say we slow this down to the extent you can barely play it any more?’ So we tried it and it worked, and we all agreed it was a great improvement.”
The formation of Tom Tom Club cemented Frantz and Weymouth’s love of dance music. While the band “still likes to put a rock song in here and there”, from the beginning it was built on danceability above all else. “We set out to make something completely different to what we'd done in Talking Heads,” explains Frantz, “and at the time, we felt a real adoration of reggae, of early hip hop and dance music, even some electronic dance music like Kraftwerk. What we wanted was to make a record that we could imagine DJs playing at the Danceateria or the Mud Club or even The Paradise Garage in New York – the places where I guess you could call us habitués when we were not on tour somewhere. We thought that was our audience, and we actually accomplished that with ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ and ‘Genius of Love’: you heard it all the time in nightclubs downtown.”
Indeed, Tom Tom Club would find themselves not only played by contemporary DJs, but sampled on records by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Mariah Carey. And for generations of acts to follow, citing Talking Heads as an influence would become an easy signifier of the incorporation of dance music into the rock band format. Their grooves have themselves become foundational – but what were the foundational grooves for them? Here, Frantz shares some anecdotes on the rhythm sections that he finds inspiring to this day.
“‘Trans Europe Express’ – that one never fails to get me going. I like all of their stuff, but I just relate to that. I've been on the TEE and it's a fabulous train. I love the Doppler effect that they get in the song; the sense of movement it gives. There's something about Kraftwerk tracks that could go on for ever – their extended versions are even more welcome than their short tracks.”
“The Meters are from New Orleans, and though they're famous it still feels like they're underplayed outside of that city. I was just listening to ‘Fire on the Bayo’" the other day and thinking, ‘They should have mixed Zigaboo's drums even louder on that!’ They have many great songs: ‘Cissy Strut’, ‘Sophisticate Sissy’... they do so much with so little, there’s not a lot of processing on those sounds. Once with Talking Heads, I think it was our first time in New Orleans, we played outside of town on some barge that was turned into a nightclub. At the end one of the fans said, ‘I'm having a party, y'all welcome to come’, and normally we weren't really into after-show parties, but we went anyway and I'm so glad we did. He said, ‘Come on in the back yard, I got a band playing’, and it was The Meters. That was a good night.”
“I'm going to say the whole label! The Stax house band – which is usually Booker T and the MGs in various permutations, or sometimes The Bar Kays, who were younger cats – their groove never fails to get me going. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas… there were so many great artists on that label, and the template for all of that was set by Alan Jackson Jr on drums and Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. There's something about that Memphis groove that's just more funky, more kinda sinuous, and to me even more sexy, than the Motown sound.”
“When I was maybe around 14, I was sent to boarding school in Virginia, and I met this kid who said, ‘Oh you're into the Beatles? Noooo... you need to listen to this’ and played me a lot of Stax, and The Tams, and James Brown – which was a revelation. At this time he hadn't really crossed over to white audiences up in the North: that came really with ‘Papa's got a Brand New Bag’, but what this kid played for me was James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, and that did it! Straight away it was, ‘OK I get it!’ I don't know that I understood about the musicianship at the time; I was listening on a worn-out vinyl on a little student portable record player, and the whole gestalt hit me, more than the individual musicians. The sound was huge, like an orchestra or something.”
“I don't want you to think I only like old grooves! I always keep an ear on new things, and I love to hear new players doing something interesting. So I have to mention Khruangbin too – that's a current band that I really like, with Laura Lee on bass and Donald Ray Johnson Jr.: that's a rhythm section that I can really get behind! I just want to throw that in there...”
Cover Image: Talking Heads / Orion Books
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs