Nine Songs: Talking Heads' Chris Frantz
“I wish they could find a better word than lockdown. That’s like a prison term. What can we call it instead? Like… a cooldown. A government-enforced chill-out?”
At the end of March, although we had our suspicions, the full extent of just how significant the pandemic would be had still not quite hit. To say the least, it was a weird time to be doing an interview, let alone with a figure who looms as large as Chris Frantz, the man with the self-described “best seat in the house” as the drummer and founding member of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.
If David Byrne was the Heads’ galaxy brain, then Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth were its constant beating heart, a pulse the married couple carried over into Tom Tom Club. Mention Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-directed concert film from their final tour, and the first image you see is Byrne’s Big Suit. But I’ll bet you anything the first sound that springs to mind is Frantz screaming “James Brooooown! James Broooooown!” from the powerhouse performance of Tom Tom Club’s "Genius of Love".
When our conversation took place, Frantz was gearing up for the release of his memoir, Remain In Love, from the comfort of the home he shares in Connecticut with Weymouth. “A very nice spot to chill out in,” he chuckles, grateful that his “sturdy young sons” live near enough to help with any errands which need to be run in the outside world. It’s an initial response to these global events that you’d expect from the guy.
Three and a half months later, Remain In Love is finally set to come out. The first memoir by a Talking Head, it’s been in gestation for almost a decade. “Certainly, the band deserves a good book, and it took me about eight years to actually screw up the… I don’t know if ‘courage’ is the right word, but you know, screw up the energy to do it.” Frantz’s memoir also alludes to the fact that Weymouth is also working on her account of her years as a Talking Head, but her own memories proved invaluable to keeping Remain In Love accurate. “We’re very careful about being honest,” the drummer notes.
The book covers all bases, reeling off anecdotes featuring all of the names you’d expect, from their first encounter with Patti Smith - “Oh yeah, you’re that art school band,” Frantz recalls her saying to them. “I wish my parents were rich enough to send me to art school” - to their first European tour with Ramones. While the Heads sought out castles and culture on the continent, da Bruddahs Ramone were simply desperate for some familiar food. As he describes the situation in the book, “Johnny spied a McDonald’s and let out a whoop. Finally, a restaurant that appealed to him!”
If that reads almost like caricature, Frantz insists that it’s all true. “We loved the rock and roll lifestyle up to a point, but this is what drove Johnny Ramone crazy about us. We were interested in contemporary art, fashion, and things he couldn’t understand why anyone would be the least bit interested in. Dee Dee was the exception, though. He would go out with us to a nightclub after the show, but I don’t know why the rest of the Ramones just stayed in their hotels, because a lot of them didn’t have a TV. And there wasn’t anything on much after midnight, let alone anything in English.”
It’s fitting then, that Frantz decided to go particularly formative with his choice of Nine Songs, none of which date past Talking Heads’ formation. From Al Green to the Fab Four and, yes, Jaaaaames Brooooown, Frantz is all too happy to explain the significant impact each of them had on him as a person and as a musician. “This interview is about what songs were pivotal in your experience, right?” he tells me, expounding on one of his song choices. “And I picked this because it was a moment when everything became more fun. Life became more full of joy, and I really appreciated that.”
“I believe this was my first exposure to rock ‘n’ roll, and at the time, I didn't even know it was called rock ‘n’ roll. I was so young, but I just loved it. Elvis Presley was a phenomenon, like the Beatles were, and this song “Hound Dog” would be played repeatedly on the radio throughout the day, like practically every hour on the hour.
“I think I say in the book that my mom said, ‘Oh, Chris, but he's so common!’ But I didn't have the image of Elvis Presley in my mind, because I hadn't seen him on TV or anything like that. I just had the sound. It was just the sound of the music, and it was it was basically Black music, sung by a hillbilly.
“Back then he was known as ‘Elvis the pelvis’ - which referred to his dancing style - if you look at the old videos of Elvis in the early days, he was really something. Super, super sexy. I continued to really like him a lot, up until the point where he became a little more sophisticated. And then by that time he was doing these beach movies and stuff, and I could tell that this was not like the same thing. It was more homogenized and very much a watered-down version of ‘Elvis the pelvis’. Although I did love Ann-Margret in those movies.
“I kind of lost respect for Elvis because of those movies, but then when he recorded songs like “Burning Love” and “Suspicious Minds”, my respect for him was renewed.”
“This was a song that a young friend of mine sang to me, it's kind of a spoken word thing. I write about this in the book, but we must have been in the second grade, which I think would make us about eight years old.
“He was a good singer, and a very hip young kid for an eight-year-old, but he was shy. So he would sing through one end of a garden hose, behind some bushes, with the hose extended out about 30 or 50 feet or whatever, and we would listen through the other end. And he sang this song, “Big Bad John” and I thought, ‘Whoa, that's really cool!’
“Then I heard it on my little transistor radio, because my parents were very conservative and didn't even have a radio in their car until we got older, then my dad loosened up a little bit, because in those days, radios were considered optional in a car. So I listened on my little transistor radio, and there was an element to it that reminded me of my parents’ Calypso records that they had collected. I heard the DJ say, ‘This is the number one record in the country, “Big Bad John’”. So I got on my bicycle, and went to a department store that had a record department and I bought it.
“That was the first 45 RPM record that I ever owned, the first record, period, that I bought with my own money. I was just listening to it the other day as I compiled this list, and I still liked it.”
“I connected with what I guess you would call popular music and rock ‘n’ roll ever since I can remember.
“I remember even listening to it on the stairs. I would set the portable record player at the top of the stairs, and then I would stand on the stairs below it, so that my head would be on the same level as the little speaker that was built into the record player. I would play Gene Autry's “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, or “Teddy Bears on Parade”. But I would also play my parents’ calypso 78s’ that they had collected, and I loved those.
“It was very early that I that I felt a strong attraction to the music that everybody else liked. I don't think I had any kind of unique taste at that point, but The Four Seasons were pretty amazing. They had a string of hits that went on for several years - not just “Walk Like A Man” but “Big Girls Don't Cry” and “Rag Doll” - and prior to the Beatles, they were pretty much my favourite vocal group.
“I don't believe I ever bought any of their records, but their songs were so pervasive on the radio that I heard them frequently. And I really dug it! They were extremely well produced records, and well written, and they had these super hooks, and then Frankie Valli with his falsetto kinda put those songs into orbit.”
“Was I put off that even my mom was into the Beatles? Not in the least bit! I mean, I was amused.
“I think I must have been about 12 years old when that song came out. They came to the US in 1964, right? So I was 13, and like Elvis, they were just a phenomenon. And everybody, whether they were hip, square, or whatever, were enjoying the Beatles, especially people in my age group. But girls were just wild for them. I mean, really wild.
“And so this was the first Beatles song I heard, and they continued, as everybody knows, to write great songs and get more and more interesting as they went along. The quantum leaps they made every couple of years, kind of like Talking Heads. Ha!”
“This was one of James Brown’s first hits to cross over to white people. I mean, I knew about him before then, but when that song came out, everybody knew about him. And it’s so, so, so funky and direct. And at the time, I didn't even know what a new bag was! Was he referring to luggage?
“I was starting to play drums around this time, and the British Invasion songs were much easier to play along with and get the drum parts. Then with James Brown, or even The Temptations, rhythmically, it was a different thing. And later on, reggae was the same way. I was like, ‘How did they do that?’ Eventually I sort of figured it out, but it came from a different culture, so it took a while to sink in, and to absorb by osmosis.
“To me, the appeal of James Brown was in the rhythm for one thing, but also, a lot of soul music comes out of gospel music - so you have the cadences of the preacher in church, and you also have the urgency of passion and lust. And then sometimes the songs will be about being poor, or being broke, or not having any money. So you have all of this mixed up together and it makes for a very interesting combination of elements. And it really spoke to Elvis as well.
“I still love good gospel music. If you ever get to New Orleans during the Jazz Fest, one tent that Tina and I love to go to is the gospel tent. You have one church choir after another, and you can sit down and listen to them all day long if you so desire. Some of them are very famous, and some of them are completely just local to Louisiana, but they're all amazing. I have a strong affinity for gospel music.”
“This song is on the album Highway 61 Revisited, and there's a picture of Bob on the cover with a really wild shirt, his hair’s all messed up and he's got a Triumph motorcycle T-shirt on underneath. So I saw this album cover, and I'd heard of him, and I thought ‘How does he pronounce that? Is it Die-lan? Dee-lawn?’ I'd never even heard it said! I was in Virginia, at a boys’ preparatory school down there.
“Anyway, I bought that because I knew that he had written “Blowin' in the Wind”, which was a well-known song recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. And I knew that he had written “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds and I loved both of those songs. So I was I was anxious to hear - ‘what does this guy do when he’s left to his own devices?’
“So I put it on and the first thing that happens on that song is this giant whack of the snare drum, and then he goes into all of this wild imagery and it’s kind of accusatory. The tone was completely different than say, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Walk Like A Man”, it was like a beat poet kind of attitude, almost on the verge of being mean-spirited. But at the same time, something rang very true about it. So that was very interesting to me.
“And it was a long song, so it was a lot to absorb with all that imagery, which I now know was maybe related to Andy Warhol and that the whole crowd at The Factory? But anyway, it just totally captivated me. I think at one point, I could recite the lyrics to entire song, I listened to it so many times it was just ingrained.
“I understand he just released something new today. An 18-minute song about the Kennedy assassination? That intrigues me. Again, that’s like a beat poet thing to do. I mean, how long was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl? I haven’t had a chance to listen to it, but I’m going to check it out. It is a bit of a downer of a topic, he’s done a song about the Titanic as well, so maybe he’s working his way through all the tragedies of the world.
“I’m still a fan of Bob Dylan, although he’s an odd cat, for sure. I have some friends who were in his band for quite a few years - the drummer and the bass player - and I went to see them when they played somewhere near here about five years ago. I said to them ‘What’s it like? It must be great working for Bob!’ And they said ‘Well, he never talks to us!’
“He just keeps completely separate from the band, and the only time they see him is on stage. That particular night, I was in the wings, and the local union crew has to hold up these sheets of canvas when Bob goes on and off the stage, sort of like a tunnel, so that Bob can walk through without having to make eye contact with anyone until he gets on the stage.
“So… he’s an unusual guy, y’know?”
“To his credit, Lou was one of the first well-known rock ‘n’ roll people that came down to CBGB’s and was checking the bands out. And on a regular basis. Had we not moved to New York City, we would never have met him, probably.
“I was in college, at the Rhode Island School of Design when “Walk on the Wild Side” came out, and I was hip enough, or well-informed enough, to know who the various people mentioned in the song were. So I got it, I got what the song was about, and I was kind of amazed that they were playing it on pop radio!
“I think the David Bowie production and involvement was a big help to Lou getting it on the radio, and what a great production it was. Just, everything about it, super cool. And it was a great departure from what we knew him for, like “White Light/White Heat” or “Heroin” or “Waiting for the Man”. It was cool and jazzy - a very sexy song - and we just loved it.
“Tina and I were friends with Lou up until the end. We didn’t see him very much in the last few years of his life, he was wherever he was, and we were up here in Connecticut, out in the country. But we kept in touch by email, and I saved the ones I got from him. He became a lot sweeter as a person towards the end. He was always pretty nice to us, except when he wanted to become our producer and sign us to this really horrible production deal!
“But other than that, you could even say he was supportive of what we did with both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Tom Tom Club did a fifteen-night run at CBGB’s in 1988, when we did an album called Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, which had a version of his song “Femme Fatale”, which Lou plays and sings background vocals on. So we talked Lou into coming to join us on stage on this super-hot, sweaty, jam-packed night. It was the final night of that run and it was a dream come true for Tina and me. It was the first and only time I ever actually played with him, and it was a gas. It was so much fun.”
“Tina and I became big fans of Al Green ever since “So Tired of Being Alone”, which I think went to number one, and “Love and Happiness” pretty much said it all to us. David Byrne loved the song also, and we performed it with our band The Artistics.
“It’s so funny to think that we were sort of a prototype punk band, playing songs like “Psycho” by The Sonics and “I Can’t Explain” by The Who, and then we’d switch over to Al Green. I wish I had a recording of it back then. Who knows what it really sounded like? At the time, we just thought ‘Oh man, we got soul now!’
“And we continued to love those Al Green classics. He was a very interesting singer and performer. Of course, our cover of his song “Take Me to the River” was the first hit we ever had, and I understand he liked our version.
“When he became a reverend, I always wanted to see him preach, but Talking Heads never played in Memphis, which is where he was. The closest we got was Nashville, Tennessee, and that’s miles away. I did get to see him about ten years ago at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, playing on a hot Sunday afternoon, dressed in a white three-piece suit and handing out red roses to the ladies in the front row, who swooned.”
“It’s so sad that Manu Dibango had to go out the way he did. I know he lived a very full and rich life - I mean, culturally rich, and he was prolific, you know? I think one year he released seven different albums, some of them are better than others. It's African jazz is what it is, but we heard Manu Dibango before we heard Fela Kuti or King Sunny Adé, or any of the other great African artists. He was he was the first to cross over - one of the only to cross over.
“I sent an email to my friend Wally Badarou, the keyboard player who was one of the Compass Point All-Stars, and he sent me a reply which… do you mind if I just read it to you? This is Wally Badarou writing here:
“Manu was, as I said, sort of a “Miles Davis” for many of us who managed to have a career after having collaborated with him at some point. The couple times I found myself in a studio with him, I did not realise how true that was. Back then, I just enjoyed the great person he was, his supportive attitude and his iconic laugh.
Then, added to the cover he did of “Hi-Life”, I found out later on, describing me in an interview, he made me a “painter”, which is precisely how I’ve always described myself, and which comforted me in the philosophy behind my work. I could never thank him enough for that.
I could never thank him enough for simply being who, what, where and when he was.”
“Wally is a very articulate and spiritually philosophical guy, and to hear him describe Manu as the Miles Davis of Africa - that kind of says it all. And in terms of how Manu was important to me, we had the opportunity to meet him when Talking Heads were making the Naked album in Paris. The percussionist we were working with, Abdou M'Boup was playing with Manu Dibango at the time, and he took us to this park on the outskirts of Paris in the suburbs, where Manu was doing an outdoor concert. He was just wonderful, very welcoming and a real big guy, you know?
“I first came across his music on the jukebox at the Rhode Island School of Design student bar. And one of the first times I ever danced with Tina, maybe the first time, was to “Soul Makossa”, which was a big hit at the time. And it’s a very, very sexy song, and Tina didn’t really dance, but I realised, ‘Wow, she's got a really good sense of rhythm. I should ask her to be in a band.’ So that’s why I feel so strongly about Manu Dibango.”