Review Summary: With its blend of funk and new wave, Tom Tom Club’s debut remains a highlight in Chris and Tina’s extensive résumé.
Marriage is a delicate thing. One minute you’re walking on air, the next you’re arguing over who’s turn it is to clean the house. It’s takes a concerted amount of effort and practice to maintain such an intimate relationship and all parties involved must be equals in each other’s eyes. Living proof of this concept are Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, known for their role in influential new wave act Talking Heads. They’ve been together since 1977, longer than many can boast, and have had quite a bit of success as well. Being in a revered new wave group like Talking Heads makes that pretty easy, but they’ve stayed true to each other even after the band’s dissolution in 1991. So what’s their secret? How have they stayed together for so long? How can others follow in their footsteps and achieve marital harmony?
The answer is quite simple really: just take a trip down to the Bahamas.
Tom Tom Club’s debut truly sounds like the space it was recorded in, taking many ques from Bahamian music. After all, it was recorded in the now-defunct Compass Point Studios, a major studio involved with the compass point movement of the 1980s. The compass point style usually involved reggae-pop-rock infusions, and nowhere is that description more apt than with Tom Tom Club. With the help of the Weymouth sisters and several Jamaican legends (including Tyrone Downie and Sticky Thompson), Tom Tom Club’s self-titled album fuses dub, funk, rap, new wave, and synthpop to create a truly distinctive sound.
The first track, and one of the group’s biggest hits, Wordy Rappinghood contemplates the usage of words in our modern society. Lyrically, the song is just as strange as you would expect from the duo’s track record. From references to Koko the signing gorilla to pollution to a reimagining of Ol’ McDonald where they substitute the word “rap” instead of a farm animal sung by what sounds like one of the Chipmunks. Another common occurrence on the album is the use of French. Since Weymouth has roots in French, this inclusion makes a bit more sense. On L'Éléphant, the Weymouths detail the story of an elephant and hippopotamus walking into a village disguised as men, only to have the women and children run away from them. When asked why they were running, the birds began to sing:
”C'est la guerre, la guerre des hommes
Ils se sont disputés.
Tout autour, ils veulent tuer,
Tuer, tuer, tuer, tuer”
Roughly translated, the village was more afraid of men arguing and warring with each other than they were of animals. This speaks of the climate in 1981, what with the many wars and global conflicts that had begun around that time. The lyrics throughout the album are very obviously of their time, but are still applicable today. One of the stranger tracks, Booming and Zooming, involves an F-104 Starfighter jet pilot deliberating with ground control through radio as his plane goes down. While interesting, the majority of it is spoken word, which some listeners may not appreciate.
While the lyrics are attention-grabbing and varied, the true highlight of Tom Tom Club is the instrumentation. Of course Tina does a wonderful performance with her bass, as per usual. Tracks like On, On, On, On… would not have nearly the punch they without her syncopated style playing. The percussion on As Above, So Below and the short interlude track Tom Tom Theme are also very nice additions and add to the dub atmosphere the album tries so hard to cultivate. The vocals for the majority of the album are done by Tina, Lani, Laura, and Loric Weymouth. The sisters do a wonderful job for the most part, but their delivery can be viewed as a bit unpolished. In my opinion however, the imperfect vocals are what gives the album its distinctiveness and charm. Immediately my mind goes to all-female groups like the Raincoats, the Slits and ESG, both of which had the same air of ease put into the vocals.
Tom Tom Club is a fantastic debut album that still rewards repeated listens to this day. While it’s lyrics and vocals can be off-putting to some, it remains a fantastic staple of early-80s new wave-reggae fusion. So remember: if you and your lover ever squabble, allow the deity to guide you and walk on through, tearing away the veils set before you. Or just make a really good record together. Whichever comes more naturally, I suppose.