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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Tom Tom Club: Tom Tom Club


1) Wordy Rappinghood; 2) Genius Of Love; 3) Tom Tom Theme; 4) L'Elephant; 5) As Above, So Below; 6) Lorelei; 7) On, On, On, On...; 8) Booming And Zooming; 9*) Under The Boardwalk.

General verdict: Funky synth-pop for Eighties kiddos with open minds and senses of humor — the KISS equivalent of Talking Heads, and yes, that's a compliment.

I bet it is a fairly common thing for all those who watch Stop Making Sense for the first time and keep forgetting to unglue themselves from the screen and then ʽGenius Of Loveʼ comes along and we are, like, "EH????" I mean, depending on your general feel for such music, you may be delighted with Chris' and Tina's performance, or you might feel totally embarrassed by it, but one thing is most probably certain: the appearance of Tom Tom Club in the middle of the regular Talking Heads setlist is like The Osmonds interrupting a Rolling Stones show, or, more accurate­ly, the appearance of a juvenile J-pop act in, say, a Peter Gabriel performance, while he is busy changing costumes or digging in the dirt.

Personally, I fall in the category of people who found it embarrassing (and I am still trying to unsee the image of Tina doing the squat dance); in fact, I used to suspect that it was a wicked plot on Byrne's part, to have the band do a Tom Tom Club number while he was busy diving in the Big Suit, just so that the people would clearly understand: without Byrne, Talking Heads are instantly reduced to a bunch of nonsense. And despite the immense reputation of ʽGenius Of Loveʼ as one of the most heavily sampled tunes in history, it is obvious that I was not in a hurry to check out the remainder of the catalog.

But in the end, it is all about the context. Essentially, Tom Tom Club was just a lightweight (and totally unpretentious) diversion, a way for the happily united couple of Frantz and Weymouth to have some fun while on vacation from their main business — after all, the very name of the band comes from a dancehall in the Bahamas, so how more carefree can you get? And the first album released by the group is a charming, if typically early-Eighties, exercise in what could only be called «twee-funk»: a mixture of involving (and not always simplistic) dance rhythms with mock-infantile lyrics and nursery vocal melodies, sung in everything from English to French to Japa­nese (or pseudo-Japanese). In fact, I would dare say that the aesthetics of Tom Tom Club, although it borrows plenty from Blondie, comes much closer to Japanese kawaisa than to any­thing associated with Talking Heads — the saving grace being a sense of humor and irony that shows that the band is quite serious about not taking themselves seriously.

It is interesting that, although the very idea for the band was inextricably tied to the Caribbean and there are at least two major reggae musicians invested in the recording and production of the album (keyboardist Tyrone Downie and engineer Steven Stanley), Tom Tom Club vehement­ly oppose reggae mechanics and aesthetics — guitar duties are largely handled by Adrian Belew, who was never much of a reggae fan himself, and, from the opening bars of ʽWordy Rapping­hoodʼ, prefers to do his trademark chicken-scratch funk. Most likely, this has to do with the fact that Tom Tom Club's job is to make defiant, in-yer-face pop music, celebrating the simple joys of life with a whimsical spirit that may indeed be found in the Caribbean environment, despite all the troubles that the region is notorious for (twenty five years later, by the way, both the pain and the whimsy would be perfectly encapsulated in Arcade Fire's ʽHaitiʼ). And as long as this thing is done right, who really cares where it is done?

As far as the album's hit singles are concerned, I actually find the first one, ʽWordy Rappinghoodʼ, more interesting than ʽGenius Of Loveʼ — and think that a live performance of it might have fit  better within the general context of Stop Making Sense. It is deliciously funky (a solid and very Talking Head-ish weaving two-guitar pattern runs its way throughout), it has Tina doing a funny «nursery rap», it glues together Moroccan, American, and Japanese nonsense for the silly catchy chorus, and it actually carries a message — the continuous refrain of "what are words worth?" can be understood as either satire or a way of self-positioning (since words are not worth much in any context, should we actually care what we sing about?). Next to this, ʽGenius Of Loveʼ's reve­latory "who needs to think when your feet just go?" feels a bit embarrassing in comparison, and the song's constant suck-up references to funk, soul, and reggae heroes reek of misguided product placement. Which is not to say that the song's message of "what do you consider fun? — fun, natural fun!" comes across convincingly; but the atmosphere of light-headed jubilation that the tune conveys is way too thin and see-through for the song to make a lasting impression.

Anyway, I may never get over my personal bias against ʽGenius Of Loveʼ, but I like almost everything else on here — precisely because almost every other track has at least a tiny strip of weirdness, not allowing the record to be qualified as pure vapid entertainment. ʽL'Elephantʼ, behind its kiddy French-pop vocal melody, actually tells a serious story with a moral, and keeps up a good balance between the ska-like boppy rhythm and Belew's «keep-the-motor-running» guitar solos (I am also thinking that the concept behind the song is Belew's, given his well-known love for African fauna that he would carry over to his King Crimson career as well). ʽAs Above, So Belowʼ gives you a bit of darkness in the form of Tina's broken-up, merciless bassline and ice-cold declamation of the title in the chorus — the lyrics may largely be mystical crap and the whole thing may be completely in jest, but dark-tinged jests are always more exciting than bland light jests anyway. ʽLoreleiʼ introduces a slightly psychedelic twist with its thin webbing of keyboard and guitar overdubs; ʽOn, On, On, Onʼ shows the band trying its hand at an invigora­ting twee-rock anthem ("on and on we will come, there are scores of us!"); finally, ʽBooming And Zoomingʼ ends the album on a decidedly non-joyful note — this is another seriously Belew-ish track detailing a plane crash with a chilly radio voiceover while the keyboards and guitars are busy impersonating the erratic behaviour of a flying machine in its last minutes.

If anything, this is an impressively diverse collection of songs — more diverse, in fact, than any early Talking Heads album, reflecting the band members' wildly eclectic circle of musical and literary influences. Add to this that Tina turns out to be a surprisingly sexy singer, that her two sisters contribute conveniently sexy backing vocals, and that Belew and Stanley try to keep that up by using smooth tones and keeping the dissonance to a minimum, and Tom Tom Club becomes one big «adorkable» musical purr where specific virtues or flaws of individual songs do not matter all that much behind the general aesthetics — so I can easily allow myself, for instance, to go on shunning ʽGenius Of Loveʼ but digging the album in general. That said, it must be stressed, over and over, that if there is any lasting charm to Tom Tom Club, it all has to do with that wispy, barely detectable thread of weirdness, irony, and occasionally over-the-top absurdism wriggling its way from beginning to end. Shallow entertainment hardly ever gets better than this, when its main ingredients are siren singing, African percussion, post-punk guitar, and Jamaican synth-pop. The only thing that befuddles me, no matter how hard I try to wave it off, is that this stuff is made by the exact same Tina Weymouth who first entered pop music lore with the decimating look given to David Byrne during a live performance of ʽPsycho Killerʼ, popping out bullet-bass notes with the intensity of a Stalingrad defender. Tom Tom Club was, I think, the first time that the people at large got to see her softer side — even though there is still enough of the old icy bitch in this newborn sex kitten.

Too much of the old icy bitch, perhaps, as this is the only reasonable explanation for why, on some editions of the album, the ominous lead-out track ʽBooming And Zoomingʼ was replaced by their thoroughly purry cover of ʽUnder The Boardwalkʼ — another charting single, to be sure, but not much of a lasting achievement, other than demonstrating how old-school poppy R&B could be adapted to modern playing and production standards. (Spoiler: it could, but in 2018 those standards might seem more dated than the ones of 1964). Which, in a way, predicts the eventual downfall of Tom Tom Club — the success of this little game is still directly dependent on how much personality, rather than technology, you imbue in the material. Fortunately, the self-titled debut at least proudly stands that test.


  1. Oh happy day - George has finally given Tom Tom Club their due. Personally (and scandalously) I actually like TTC's debut better than most of the Heads' output, in part because I find David Byrne's vocal hysterics annoying, but also because this album is fun. Nasty fun!

    Oh, and "Genius of Love" is great. Think of it not as a lightweight pop tune but as a distaff version of "Once in a Lifetime," told from the perspective of the beautiful wife in the beautiful house. Except this song's arguably darker, because where "Once in a Lifetime" rails against conformity, "Genius of Love" gleefully embraces thoughtless obedience. More like "Ministry of Love," if you ask me. And of course, both songs are anchored by Weymouth's awesome bass.

  2. "like The Osmonds interrupting a Rolling Stones show"
    Well ..... Crazy Horses has a good riff and kicks some ass on top of it.