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Breezy and filled with buzzing tales of Talking Heads’ early days, Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina sustains its rather substantial point that the band and its particular magic wouldn’t have existed without its drummer, Chris Frantz. Though big-suited frontman David Byrne has cut a larger cultural figure, in practice Talking Heads was just as much Frantz’s group.
It was the enthusiastic drummer who suggested that he and former Rhode Island School of Design classmate Byrne move to New York to start a band, and Frantz who urged his girlfriend (now wife) Tina Weymouth to learn bass. It was Frantz who arranged the earliest gigs, recruited guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and gave the band its earliest look via the Lacoste shirts gifted by his mother (and often borrowed by Byrne). By his own admission, Byrne wasn’t a “people person,” but Frantz was an amiable organizer. He got the band off the ground and kept them in the air.
Even more significantly, it was Frantz and Weymouth who propelled Talking Heads from the Bowery to the world, shaping their songs with a pulse informed by a deep love of Black music (and later perfected in “Genius of Love,” the biggest hit by the couple’s Tom Tom Club spinoff). Arguably the first Talking Heads memoir, Remain in Love paints a slightly less fraught portrait of the band than David Bowman’s 2001 bio, This Must Be the Place, capturing the enduring art-school innocence of their creativity. But that naiveté sometimes seems to carry over to Frantz himself, who rarely reflects too deeply on the scope of the cultural transactions taking place when Talking Heads chart with Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” or their own “Burning Down the House,” built around a chant he heard at a P-Funk show.
Though largely gracious and happy-go-lucky in tone, Remain in Love doesn’t shy away from airing Byrne’s dirty laundry (literally, in one difficult-to-believe anecdote). It’s a CBGB version, perhaps, of Levon Helm’s beef with Robbie Robertson, a parallel story of a drummer’s personality and grooves absorbed into the work of a seemingly lone songwriter. At the same time, the book doesn’t probe too far into the band’s deeper dynamics, relegating Frantz’s own struggles with substances to a veritable footnote toward the end. A romance as much as a memoir, Remain in Love—like Frantz himself—is here for a good time.
In the centerpiece chapters, he recalls the joint Ramones/Talking Heads European tour of 1977, reconstructed in glorious detail from his own memories, Weymouth’s datebook, and the rare assist from Harrison. “I sort of fact-checked things with old friends of mine from back in the early days of CBGB,” says Frantz, “just to make sure that my memories were in sync with theirs. I was really surprised a lot of my friends don’t remember things. I don’t know if they were just really high or what.”
Pitchfork: In the early days, you were very much the organizing force in the band.
Chris Frantz: I was, and it wasn’t just in the beginning either. When it was time for Talking Heads to make an album, it was usually me who brought it to everyone’s attention. When it was time for Talking Heads to book a tour, it was usually me who said, “Okay, let’s do this now, let’s get going.” David Byrne is a big part of Talking Heads, but so am I.
How did you find your balance in writing about someone who you obviously have immense respect for as a creative partner, but also some really valid frustrations?
When I sat down to write, I thought to myself, What is the tone of this book gonna be? Am I going to be a whiny, embittered drummer? No way, because that’s not the kind of person I am. But I did want to tell the story from the inside, which has never been done before. There has been plenty written about Talking Heads, but mostly it’s either magazine articles, or books where the author spent a lot of time on the internet looking things up. I didn't have to spend a lot of time on the internet looking things up, I already knew it. And I knew it from day one until the final day.
I wanted to show my appreciation for the band members and how great everybody was. Some people believe that there’s one genius in Talking Heads, but really Talking Heads was like a team of geniuses, if I do say so myself. And together, it made for a really powerful band. And it’s not just the band members: It was also our sound men, our management, our agents, and the guys at the record company. Without all of that, Talking Heads might have ended up making only one or two records.
You’ve said that the Tom Tom Club segment of the classic Talking Heads live film Stop Making Sense was intended to be the opposite of everything else in the movie. Was the same true of Tom Tom Club’s relationship to Talking Heads’ music?
We never had any designs on having another band outside of Talking Heads. But David announced he was going to do a solo album, and then Jerry announced that if David was gonna do a solo album, he’s gonna do a solo album. Then Tina and I realized, “Well, we’re going to have to do something,” and our accountant said, “Yeah, you better do something, you’re going to be broke.”
We got this deal from [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell, which was a very nice deal. He said, “I understand the value of a good rhythm section, so I’m going to give you guys a shot.” The idea was to go down to Compass Point studios in the Bahamas and cut a single. And if he liked the single, then we could do a whole album. Before we even went into the studio, Tina and I decided between us that we wanted to go in a completely different direction from Talking Heads. We wanted to create a party album that would be played at our favorite places, like the Mudd Club and the Danceteria, and please our friends. The first song we came up with down there was “Wordy Rappinghood.” It was so different and so joyous. Chris Blackwell said, “I love this, I’m going to release it and in the meantime I want you to work on an entire album.”
This was 1981, which was very early for white art-school students to be doing something strongly influenced by hip-hop. What kind of reaction did you get from the Black music community?
I think [many people] had no idea that Tina and I were white. In fact, I’m quite sure of that. And when they found out, it was a big surprise. It wasn’t just hip-hop that was an influence on Tom Tom Club—it was also reggae, dub reggae, calypso. It just really worked with the hip-hop community.
I wrote in the book about my experience one day walking down the street, by the basketball courts on the corner of Houston and Sixth Avenue [in Manhattan]. All these guys were playing basketball. These were the days of the big boomboxes, and they’re all tuned to [R&B station] WBLS. The boomboxes started blasting a mega-mix of “Genius of Love.” The guys stopped playing basketball and started dancing, no girls or anything. I just thought, Holy mackerel, we have really crossed over here.
Right after “Genius of Love,” Tina did a photo session for New York Rocker with the photographer Laura Levine where she was photographed with Grandmaster Flash. She brought Grandmaster Flash back to the studio afterwards and introduced him to all of us. We were working on the live compilation album, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. He said, “I really liked that song ‘Genius of Love’... You’re going to be hearing that song a lot.” And I said, “Oh, really, you think so?” and he said, “Yeah, man, take my word for it.”
It wasn’t long after that Jekyll and Hyde came out with something on Profile Records called “Genius Rap”; this was before sampling, so it was a re-play. And then almost immediately was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five with “It’s Nasty,” which was also a re-play with different lyrics. It was like one song after another had some element of “Genius of Love,” and still to this day, I hear the influence on the vocals in R&B. In the Tom Tom Club, the girls’ vocals were very different from what had been going in R&B prior to that, like Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin. It wasn’t like that. It was sweet and kind of innocent.
You write about getting into Black music while at boarding school in the South, which felt a little surprising.
Southern guys loved Black music. They loved James Brown, they loved Otis Redding. I mean really loved it. This is before the Southern rock thing, before Allman Brothers and all that. They all liked Booker T & the M.G.s, Sam & Dave, and especially Stax Records. Before that, I had been in Pittsburgh, and we were all listening to the Beatles and the Stones and the Animals. But once I got below the Mason-Dixon line, it was like, “Beatles? Stones? No, no, no, you’ve gotta listen to James Brown.”
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