Remain In Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina
St. Martin’s Press
Talking Heads made nearly perfect music across 10 nearly perfect albums (eight studio, two live). There are post-punkers and people there at the time that swear only by the first four albums, thinking the second half of the band’s career some sort of pop sell-out. But I think it was a perfectly managed run and a logical progression. If pop radio has played And She Was or Road to Nowhere a little more often than The Big Country or Don’t Worry About The Government that’s a problem you can fix with your own playlists or in your own record collection.
Part of the magic of the Talking Head story is that finite, fairly immaculate catalogue, a perfect straddling of the 1970s and the 1980s and then the fact that they never went off the boil. They just stopped.
David Byrne had his solo career that continues. Jerry Harrison produced a bunch of stuff including solo records and now sits on the board of Garageband.com which he co-founded. Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, the band’s rhythm section and married couple remain in love, had their fun (and great) side project of Tom Tom Club and also produced records for others and made a few appearances. There was one reunion only, filled with tension of course and to celebrate the Hall of Fame induction. But there’s been no failed attempt to tour the world and relive the glories.
We know some of the tensions and frustrations and there have been other books written that tell of how the in-fighting grew ugly, but now it’s the drummer’s turn to tell his story.
In much the same way that Frantz is not a flashy drummer but is so super-dependable, giving the song just what it needs, he tells his story without any great prose crafting, it is very matter of fact. He drops names like rimshots, he hits correct dates like a crash cymbal and there are nice little story accents, lifting lids like hi-hat cymbals.
If you were ever a fan of this band you sign up for this story instantly. You leave completely satiated, a renewed interest in the music if you’ve ever lapsed.
If you’re a fan more broadly of the era then there’s even more for you here – great (and sometimes grim) stories that expertly detail the sad hero status of a post-fame, bored-junkie Lou Reed, an angered, embarrassing, spoilt-jerk Johnny Ramone and a gum-chewing, bored with it all but actually passionate-as-fuck Patti Smith.
Later on we’ll hear about the great camaraderie between the Tom Tom Club and the B-52s, between Frantz and Weymouth and a cameo cast of reggae legends (Sly & Robbie, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Toots) and walk-on rock stars like Robert Palmer.
Frantz is a fan. Of music. Of the dream-like qualities of his own crazy life. From “you’ll never make it kid” to co-writing a runaway chart hit, to producing reggae songs, to injecting Afro-beat into Talking Heads, intersecting with Brian Eno and the Ramones; watching David Byrne move from Anthony Perkins with a guitar to conceptualist pop-preacher in a big suit. And all via hip-hop, punk and funk touchstones.
There’s plenty to love, plenty of reasons to be in awe of Frantz’ own telling of the tale. He doesn’t leave things out. He doesn’t pull punches either.
Byrne steals songwriting credits, or lazily forgets to remember the genesis of song ideas, even claiming lyrics as his own (Warning Sign was written by Frantz). It’s a bone of contention always, and it’s best and brilliantly explained with Frantz articulates the trouble with a borderline-spectrum/Asperger’s Byrne as being that he “couldn’t acknowledge where he stopped and other people began”.
In the very early 1990s Byrne just slips out the back door, leaves a (not so big) suit to communicate the message that Talking Heads is finished.
That frustration, that sadness, that bitterness, is hinted at all along the way. But at least Frantz never lets that get in the way of fondly recalling the frontman’s best attributes. He rightly points out that he’s a brilliant rhythm guitarist, says that Byrne’s way with a trippy non-sequitur and psychedelic storytelling is the key to the song-success of the group.
But it’s important to note, as Frantz does – more than once – that he invited Byrne to make a group with him; it was Frantz driving things and not just rhythmically. He also architects Weymouth learning bass, joining the band and then the breakaway to Tom Tom Club. He is a drummer with ideas; he devises the percussion that is so crucial to big hits like Burning Down The House, adding it as a production idea, choosing the player, arranging, co-composing. He creates rhythmic loops for the band’s acknowledged “best” album, Remain in Light; he and Tiny make the rhythms that Byrne and Eno chop and cut, splice and dice, at one point Eno replaces Weymouth’s bass playing with his own. She doesn’t like it. Sneaks back in. Re-records her part. And it stays.
There are interesting stories galore. Hints only of the real tensions. But that’s all you need. You feel the rest.
You also feel the very real love story, even if we don’t get to know too much about their lives together off-stage. They are in love and still together and they have raised a family and as Chris tells it he’s been the luckiest man alive since he saw Tina back at art school. He couldn’t then believe his luck. Sometimes it seems like he still can’t.
I loved this book so much. So many reminders of the magical moments in the catalogue and how the band’s four distinct musical personalities were all crucial. He does a nice job too in coping with the frustrations of Byrne (and Eno, to a degree) really dominating the mastheads, wrestling ideas away from them to own without actually having the receipts.
Remain In Love is required reading for music-bio fans. You’ll come away with a lot of new stories about your favourite band. Or you’ll some away with a new favourite band. You’ll also read fondly of CBGB’s, the punk and new wave scenes, the cocaine-daze of making generation-defining concert films. And the tragedy of Lead Singer Syndrome. And how it has a lasting effect.
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