Tom Tom Club have a definite time and place in musical history – 1981, New York. Essentially the rhythm section of seminal new wave band Talking Heads, bassist Tina Weymouth and her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, were the band’s back bone. In 1980, Talking Heads recorded their fourth album Remain In Light in the Bahamas. With Brian Eno at the helm, the band experimented with African rhythms, samples and loops. In the process, many outside musicians were brought into a crowded studio and in essence, Tom Tom Club were a reaction to, or perhaps an extension of, Talking Heads’ experimental phase.
Weymouth and Frantz conceived Tom Tom Club as a studio project, naming the band after a dancehall club they hung out in on the island. The pair wanted to indulge in their poppier side, with the deliberate intention of channelling their shared love of reggae, American R&B and afrobeat into a record geared towards dance clubs. Returning to the Bahamas in 1981 with an assembled band, Tom Tom Club went about recording with producer Steve Stanley (Lee “Scratch” Perry had been drafted but didn’t show). And just as the they were putting down ‘Wordy Rappingwood’, Blondie had a hit with ‘The Rapture’ – the first rap song to ever top the charts – unwittingly beating them to the punch. In some ways Tom Tom Club will always be over-shadowed by their friends. They toured and played alongside The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads. Where these bands are constant reference points to nearly every indie band since then, Tom Tom Club rarely get name-checked. Odd considering their first album alone brimmed with more ideas than most bands would achieve in their whole career, including some of their contemporaries. That was 30 years ago.
It has been 23 years since Tom Tom Club visited Ireland. The band were entirely inactive during the ‘00s and only reformed late last year to mark their 30th anniversary by releasing Genius Of Live. Perhaps the ten year absence explains why Vicar St is far from sold out. However, those that are present are a healthy mix of long time devotees and the next generation, curious to see the band behind the muted legacy.
Let’s get this out of the way, Tom Tom Club are mildly out of touch. They were introduced by BP Fallon, their use of a scratch DJ on every single song is dated, Tina is dressed like mid-nineties Baby Spice, and in an attempt to localise Frantz calls out to “Ballymun, Dún Laoghaire, Dublin town.” Hmmm, that about covers the cross-section of their audience. .
The flip side and the legacy are so much brighter. On stage, Tina Weymouth sparkles with glowing youth. Chris Frantz is the happiest dude on the planet, owner of a perma-smile that is nothing short of contagious. And as a band Tom Tom Club perform in a groove that is eminently danceable – any attempt not to would be pure folly. Though playing tunes from two decades before last, Tom Tom Club perform as if they are fresh cuts – and they could be. ‘L’Elephant’ is perky quirk-pop, ‘The Man With The Four Way Hips’ is bouncy dub-reggae, ‘Disco Lolita’ is disco-punk (which they dedicate to Debbie Harry) and ‘Dark Sneak Love’ is synthy-electro – and the synths did squelch!
Overall a glitzy affair, there were times when it veered towards Vegas show band. During their cover of Hot Chocolate’s ‘You Sexy Thing’, it kind of felt like, and for scratch DJ Kid Ginseng this was probably true, watching your parents jive – fun but a bit squirmy. But then in fairness, you would have the coolest parents in the world. In fact, Tina and Chris are beyond cool. They are badass.
Though not as celebrated as others, Tom Tom Club’s musical influence has been vast – sampled by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Tupac Shakur, Money Mark to, eh, Mariah Carey. And they in no doubt inspired. Tom Tom Club can be heard in a plethora of modern indie and electro acts – not least in the flat funk of support act Tieranniesaur. Le Tigre are indebted, without them CSS probably wouldn’t exist and you would even have to ponder over LCD Soundsystem’s attitude and form.
Before playing ‘Under The Boardwalk’, Tina introduced themselves as Mama and Papa Gaga. Like their musical step-daughter, Tom Tom Club continue to re-invent, though way more subtly. Each song slightly twisted or extended that when originally recorded. For the nostalgia trippers they closed with Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’ but the truly iconic moment was ‘Genius Of Love’. The synth flick will forever induce an unspoken dance-off, spiralling on the spot in the warmth of a congruous sing-along, popping shapes to calypso rhythms that spiral to a loose jam of hip hop, soul, pop and disco. Still innovative – 2011, Dublin.