The subtitle to Remain in Love, the new memoir by Chris Frantz, is “Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina”. He was the co-founder and drummer for the first named bands, and is the longtime partner of Tina Weymouth, the bassist for both bands. His book is more celebratory than ‘muckraking’ about his time with both successful, long-lived bands, though he does touch on some of the rough patches and tells some unexpected and funny stories about David Byrne, Seymour Stein, Lou Reed, John Cale, Eno, among many others. Richie Unterberger talked with Chris for PKM.

“Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina.” The subtitle of drummer Chris Frantz’s new memoir namechecks the three big loves of his life, and not necessarily ordered by the fervor of his passion. He’ll always be most famous, of course, for Talking Heads. Almost as many people—and not just Talking Heads fans—know him as drummer in the group he co-founded while Talking Heads were still in their prime, Tom Tom Club. And the biggest love of his life was the wife he remains in love with, Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club bassist Tina Weymouth.

Talking Heads had the longest and, except for Blondie, most commercially successful run of the major acts associated with the ‘70s New York CBGB scene. It’s never the smoothest of roads when a group has such a long career, and frontman David Byrne didn’t always endear himself to his bandmates. Remain in Love, Frantz’s new memoir, has its share of such incidents, dating back to the early ‘70s, when he rehung a gallery show in Rhode Island to spotlight his work. Yet more contentiously, he sometimes took what Frantz viewed as inappropriate composer credits for material other Talking Heads were also involved in crafting. He left Talking Heads in 1991 without telling the band, the others finding out when Byrne told a writer for the Los Angeles Times.

But Remain in Love is more a celebration of their achievements than a catalog of gripes, and Frantz is also quick to credit Byrne’s skills as a singer, performer, and lyricist. The book hits its best stride when it digs into the particulars of how they aimed to make their recordings different from their live shows, not signing a deal for their debut LP until they thought they were ready; their determination to make each album different from the last; and Frantz and Weymouth’s equal determination to make Tom Tom Club different from Talking Heads, with a pronounced funk/R&B/dance vibe. The stories of just how rough living in the Lower East Side was when Talking Heads started are also pretty gripping. So are the accounts of life at CBGB (musical and otherwise) when a punk/new wave scene started to blossom in what most outsiders would have considered a down-and-out dive.

If you’re looking for inside stories of encounters, close and passing, with plenty of figures from CBGB and beyond, there are quite a few, some of them quite unexpected. Some are very complimentary portraits (Lenny Kaye); some are mixed but overall quite positive (Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal). Some are mildly unflattering; upon being introduced to Talking Heads by Kaye, Patti Smith sniffed, “You’re that art school band. I wish my parents were rich enough to send me to art school.”

Talking Heads performing at CBGB, 1976, by David Godlis

Others are very unflattering. John Martyn called Lee Perry a “useless old nigger” while recording in the Bahamas, and though Frantz became friends with Johnny Ramone, he doesn’t overlook Ramone’s physical abuse of a girlfriend during a British tour. And there are up-and-down interactions with people who could be pretty strange, like Phil Spector (whom Seymour Stein wanted to produce Talking Heads), Lou Reed (one of several other notables who wanted to produce the band), David Johansen (who told Frantz, “You’re never going to make it in this business. You’re too nice!”), and Mick Jagger (who, “high as a kite,” changed the lyrics of “Killing Me Softly” to “blowing me softly with his lips” when he sang along to Roberta Flack’s hit as it played on a bar jukebox).

“Psycho Killer” from the Talking Heads 77 album, song co-written by David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth:

For all these reasons, Talking Heads fans, and fans of the ‘70s New York new wave scene in general, will find much to interest them in Remain in Love. I spoke with Frantz about the book shortly before it was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2020.

PKM: In the preface to Remain in Love, you wrote that “a number of books have been written about us, but most of them are not very good and none of them have given the reader the true inside story.” What did you most want to convey about your life and career?

Chris Frantz: One of the big reasons I wrote the book was to kind of…we have a lot of fans out there. A lot of them understand that Talking Heads was a collaborative effort, a group effort. But it seems like people who write books seem to zero in on our lead singer as the creator of Talking Heads, and as the main driving force. I don’t mean in any way to diminish his powers of songwriting and his stage performances, and his quite frankly genius at raising sort of everyday situations in life to a sort of higher level.

But it was always a group effort, and there was a lot of back and forth between the various band members, and also our friends. We had friends that were of great support to us. So I just wanted to sort of set the record straight.

Talking Heads in the studio listening to the playback of their first album, 1977, by Bobby Grossman

I don’t know that my book will set the record straight. There’s a lot of fans that love David Byrne so much that they actually would like to be David Byrne. That’s something that I’m not going to be able to change just by telling a few stories. But I think some people will realize that it was a more shared experience. That’s what I would like to convey.

Also I have this fabulous partner in my life and in my musical career, Tina Weymouth. I wanted to sort of praise her and also convey that she was a very important part of the band, and also Tom Tom Club, of course. And that I feel very, very fortunate to have ever met her, and to still be living with her after all these years.

PKM: When you write about how the nucleus of Talking Heads formed around the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, it shows how it wasn’t anything like the textbook way the music business would suggest getting musicians together. Tina hadn’t played bass at all, but you wanted her to join because “I knew she had a wonderful sense of rhythm from dancing with her. I knew she shared the ideals and esthetics that we needed in our band.” It was built more out of intuition than something more standard like trying to find the best musicians who were around.

Chris Frantz: Yes. Particularly in the days that we formed the band in the mid-to-late 1970s, there was a whole movement. Some call it punk, some call it new wave, some call it no wave. But there was a whole permissiveness that you could be in a band without having advanced musical chops. It was more about the content and the sort of soul of the sound than it was about the sophistication of the music.

PKM: It’s amazing just how rough the Lower East Side was when you moved there from Rhode Island to get the band off the ground in 1974. Things like finding mice in your cereal boxes and guys relieving themselves on the Bowery in broad daylight. This is New York, but it’s almost like another country.

Chris Frantz: My editor said to me one time, “What was it like being a nice kid from the suburbs, and being dropped into this hellhole that was the Lower East Side?” It sort of was a hellhole, I must admit. But on the other hand, walking down the street I might bump into Debbie Harry or Robert Rauschenberg or Dee Dee Ramone. And that sort of made up for it (laughs). ‘Cause we were all living in the same hellhole together. There was a real feeling of camaraderie, even though there was also some competition between the bands. I think even more than competition, there was a feeling of camaraderie [between] the bands that performed at CBGB.

 

I didn’t really have many neighbors. Like, we didn’t have anybody else living in our building. But a block away was where Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were living. Three blocks away was where CBGB was. Four blocks away was where Rauschenberg was. Ornette Coleman was just two blocks away. So there was a weird kind of community. It wasn’t a community that had meetings and gets together and decides how to make the streets look cleaner, or anything like that. It was a community of artists that were able to exchange ideas and support each other and encourage each other.


Walking down the street I might bump into Debbie Harry or Robert Rauschenberg or Dee Dee Ramone. And that sort of made up for it (laughs). ‘Cause we were all living in the same hellhole together. There was a real feeling of camaraderie, even though there was also some competition between the bands.


PKM: A story I like in the book that illustrates that is how, after you saw Patti Smith the first time, she told you that you could buy her first single [“Hey Joe/Piss Factory”] at Bleecker Bob’s Records in Greenwich Village. So you go there the next day and [Patti Smith’s guitarist] Lenny Kaye himself is right behind the counter, selling you the single and Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” 45.

Chris Frantz: I know! That surprised me too. It was my first trip ever to Bleecker Bob’s, and I guess Lenny Kaye had been working there for some time. But I didn’t know that. I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised. ‘Cause Lenny Kaye was probably the nicest person in Bleecker Bob’s. The guys that worked there, and Bleecker Bob himself, were not known for their conviviality.

PKM: Lenny might have been the only nice guy to work there.

Chris Frantz: Yeah, that’s right.

PKM: Considering that the rest of the band would have some issues with David Byrne, I was surprised to read how you, he, and Tina shared the same loft for a while when you moved to New York. It was one room with no partitions, no shower, toilets in the hall. Was that strange, living in such close quarters without much privacy?

Chris Frantz: It happened out of necessity. We really liked each other. We got along great. There were a few bumps in the road here and there, but really, we got along very well together. I don’t remember any fights or anything like that.

Somehow, somebody somewhere decided that there was some kind of ambivalence between David and Tina, and also myself. But that’s not really true. It wasn’t really like that. We worked together. I mean, look at the work we did together. Just take a minute and think about it, what we did over ten years’ time. I don’t know how we did it. But it certainly wasn’t because we were fighting. It was because we were cooperating and being supportive of one another.

PKM: You also get a sense from what you wrote of how supportive the CBGB scene was, in a way that’s hard to imagine today. Like you got your first show there, opening for the Ramones in May 1975, just by walking in and asking Hilly Kristal. Then right after that show he asked you when you could come back, and you said “as soon as you like.”

Chris Frantz: Yes. Hilly had this sort of unwritten rule that if you had ever performed there, as a musician, then you didn’t have to pay admission to get in. You got in for free. So it really did become like a clubhouse for a certain set of downtown musicians, and also other artists that were regulars.

Because it was a scene that was gestating, and eventually became a worldwide thing. But in the beginning, it was because it was a welcoming place for downtown musicians. It’s just a wonderful thing.

PKM: Although I’d read about it before, it’ll surprise some people that David sort of auditioned Tina not when the band first formed, but after you’d been playing shows a while and were recording demos.

Chris Frantz: He did that a few times, evidently. Never in front of me. But it was when I wasn’t around. What can I say here? He must not have been thinking very clearly.

I guess it was Tina that told me that David tried to audition her again. I thought, “What? That doesn’t make sense at all.” Because we were all in the same boat. None of us were, like, great players or anything. None of us were capable of doing session work or anything like that. Tina was the only person that actually had a, because of her background, sort of classical approach to composition. The rest of us were old-fashioned rock and roll and blues roots, and R&B roots. She didn’t have those roots. She had a different set of roots.

On Facebook, I get a lot of comments from people what a tremendous influence Tina was. From men, too! Not just women.

PKM: I find it unusual that you didn’t want to jump into making an album as soon as possible, even after you’d started to build a buzz with your live shows. You wanted to wait until you thought you were really ready to make a good studio record. Did you ever consider at least putting out an indie single before that, like Patti Smith did with “Hey Joe/Piss Factory” and Television with “Little Johnny Jewel”?

Chris Frantz: We did think we should put out a little independent single. It was right around the time that we also signed with Seymour. We told him that we wanted to put out a single first. And he said, “Oh no no. I’ll put it out.” And we said, “Oh, okay.” That was “Love Goes to Building on Fire.” We had a number of boxes of those 45s that we carried around for our gigs. I don’t think it was ever properly distributed in the United States. But in Europe, it was. That was how we got that tour with the Ramones [in spring 1977], on the strength of that single.

“Love Goes to Building on Fire”-Talking Heads’ single:

PKM: You wrote about that tour real extensively in the book, almost like you’d kept a diary during that time. It’s something else hard to believe happened today, that you could tour Europe before your first album came out, and with a single that not many people had heard.

Chris Frantz: There was a real strong buzz on not just us, of course, but the whole like downtown New York sensibility. In places like Paris, Amsterdam, and London, the music press was really interested in that. There had been articles written about what was happening down at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and there had been radio broadcasts. It was a big help in Europe. They didn’t have these programmed radio stations. DJs were actually allowed to play what they wanted to play. In the course of a half hour on a radio station, you would hear a very wide variety of music if you were listening to an FM station in Amsterdam or Paris. It wouldn’t just be one niche. It would be, like, all kinds of stuff. So we could actually get airplay in Amsterdam before we could even get a gig in New Jersey across the river. So that helped also.

PKM: John Cale and Brian Eno saw you play in London and came backstage, and as you write in the book, Cale told Eno, “They’re mine, you bugger!” How do you think your records might have been different if Cale had produced some of them? He already had a great track record producing artists you liked, like Patti Smith and the Modern Lovers.

Chris Frantz: We really like John Cale to this day. I’m so happy that he’s still out there alive and well and performing very well. It’s really something, his longevity. But there was something about Brian Eno, something about his early solo albums. It was songs like “Baby’s On Fire” and “Here Come the Warm Jets” that we thought – we could really relate to that. And we liked his sort of, how shall I say it? His sort of amateurish production style. He became a lot more sophisticated. But in the beginning, he was pretty…flying by the seat of his pants.

But John Cale, I’m certain, would have made a very good record with us. Jerry [Harrison] had already worked with him with the Modern Lovers. That demo was later released as their first album. And we knew him pretty well from hanging out at the bar at CBGB’s, and also at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. In fact, he did a set of songs one night at the Ocean Club where he invited David to perform with him, along with Patti Smith and Lou Reed. So there was definitely a lot of mutual admiration going on. But we just had a feeling about Eno, and we went with that.

PKM: You write about how other producers were considered early on, like Phil Spector…

Chris Frantz: Yeah, that was Seymour’s idea.

PKM: Also Cale, Lou Reed, and Chris Thomas [who had produced Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks]. How do you think your albums might have been different if you’d worked with other producers?

Chris Frantz: I think they would have been different. Maybe better, maybe not better. It’s hard to say. Because there’s a lot of human chemistry that is involved in making a record. I feel like we were fortunate to have a very good personal chemistry, within the band and also with Brian Eno.

PKM: You noted that you tried to make every album different from each other, and use different approaches for each.

Chris Frantz: Yeah, I think so. What might have appeared to be a calculated move was actually just an intuitive move. We were fortunate in that our audience sort of rode that wave with us. You hear a few people that say, “Oh, I liked the group best when they were a trio” (laughs). [Talking Heads initially played as a trio of Byrne, Weymouth, and Frantz for a while before they recorded their first album and Jerry Harrison joined; some demos and live footage from this time have circulated.] “And I didn’t like it when they did those country songs.” But most people kind of went with it, and in fact our audience got bigger and bigger until the day that David kind of sneaked out the back door.

PKM: What were Seymour Stein’s assets, as the guy who signed you to his Sire Records label?

Chris Frantz: He really had a good ear. He was capable of seeing a diamond in the rough. And he got to hear bands and go to concerts in pubs and bars around the country, and around Europe, way before any other music executive did. Most of the music executives were sort of not very adventurous. Seymour had a real sense of adventure. I always respected him for that. There were maybe three music biz executives that came down to CBGB’s, and Seymour was one. Most of them, it was like, they didn’t want to go to a place that was so nasty. He was really earning his dough back in those days.

Now one drawback was that the courtship of the band – you know, Seymour collects art, and antiques, and things like that. And he also sort of collected bands. I think Talking Heads and the Ramones were real feathers in his cap, as a collector. Sometime after the collecting aspect was finished, and he had that band in his stable of artists, well, then he kind of was off to the next band. You know what I mean?

But he, in fairness to him, also hired a very capable guy whose name was Ken Kushnick to run the show for him and do the day-to-day work, while he was out traveling the world. So he did cover his bases.


Most of the music executives were sort of not very adventurous. Seymour had a real sense of adventure.


PKM: At first he offered Tom Tom Club just $10,000 for a deal. But when Island put out “Wordy Rappinghood” in Europe and it did well, he did sign you for the U.S. for a much higher figure. Was it the kind of thing where he was humble enough to realize he was wrong and swallow his pride, even if he might not have expressed that to you as such?

Chris Frantz: Yes. And that’s why we’re still friends with Seymour.

“Genius of Love”-Tom Tom Club-official video

PKM: In the book, you go over how you and Tina didn’t want to sound like Talking Heads with Tom Tom Club.

Chris Frantz: Well, first of all, Tina and I never would have made the Tom Tom Club record if it hadn’t been for David doing a solo project that he couldn’t tell us when it was gonna be finished. Or anything [as far as], like, how much time it was gonna take. So we had to do something to financially support ourselves. Because after touring the world with a nine-piece band and a rather substantial crew, we didn’t have much money left in the bank. So our hand was forced, you might say, to do an outside project.

Chris Frantz by Tina Weymouth

We always viewed Talking Heads as the mothership, or if you want to put it a different way, as our first child. And you never want to abandon your first child. Or your second.

But we did it. And it was, like, just enormously popular. So we felt like, “Oh, that’s a good sign. That means we can do this and Talking Heads.” We always felt like there was room enough in our world to do two things, like Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. We always felt that David could do his solo projects, and then after that had run its course, come back to Talking Heads. I mean, that’s what we did for years. But I guess he just didn’t see it that way.

PKM: When that record came out, it was a lot different from what many people expected after hearing you in Talking Heads.

Chris Frantz: It was deliberate from the beginning. Tina and I said, “We shouldn’t just try to emulate Talking Heads. That would be stupid. Let’s do something completely different.” What we wanted to do was a record that our friends could party to, and go out on dates and play it in the car, and stuff like that. Or the DJ at the Mudd Club would spin it, you know? And thank goodness, they did. It worked out really well.

PKM: There were some different ideas about when and how to record as Talking Heads made records. Did the different influences at work create some tension that might have worked to the group’s advantage, as you worked out a cooperative approach that might have led you to something better that you hadn’t even originally envisioned?

Chris Frantz: I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that we had different musical influences. I think mostly our musical influences were exactly the same, except for Jerry Harrison liked Aerosmith (laughs). I’m just kidding. He used to say, “Oh man, Aerosmith was a bad-ass band. You should hear them!” And we would be like, “Oh, Jerry, come on.”

But no, we very much had influences in common. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to think that somehow our ideas were very different from one another. But there was a kind of musical tension that I think was exciting to people, and certainly exciting to us, when we played. ‘Cause we were always, especially in the first few albums, struggling just to play the song right. You know? We weren’t so professional that we could do it in our sleep. We had to work hard at it.

PKM: As a big Velvet Underground fan, a story in the book I got a kick out of is what Lou Reed told you about how they recorded “Femme Fatale,” when Tom Tom Club did it for their third album. He said Nico asked him about the “whoa, whoa, whoa’s” at the end. “What means this ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’? Lou is making fun of Nico!”

Chris Frantz: We thought it was interesting that Lou told us that story. I’m not sure why. I know there was some tension between Nico and Lou, and things that she said, and things that he said, to each other that weren’t very nice. But I happen to love what they did together, and that’s why we wanted to record “Femme Fatale.”

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz via Creative Commons

When Lou told that story about Nico, it was actually very touching. He wasn’t being the nasty Lou. He was being the sweet Lou, like remembering, “I made Nico feel bad, I probably shouldn’t have done that.” I have a feeling she was a fairly dignified person, and she didn’t know that “whoa whoa whoa” is like a fairly common thing to say in a pop song.

PKM: You remember in the book that David only once complimented your drumming, and then just to say “nice drums” when he heard a playback of the basic track of “Puzzlin’ Evidence.” In his book How Music Works, though, he wrote, “Chris and Tina were a great rhythm section.” Was this something he just couldn’t express to you in person at the time, and maybe with the passing of years, or in writing, he felt he could?

Chris Frantz: That could be. Let me just use a little analogy. David’s psyche is like an onion. You peel one layer down, and you think you know, oh, that’s what it is. And then you find oh, there’s something else there. There’s some other layer under that one. Oh guess what? There’s yet another layer under that one. It’s like this way with many people. They have layers upon layers of issues, and/or problems. Sometimes the problems are character flaws, and sometimes the problems are chemical. I would say that in David’s case, there were probably both.

I haven’t sat down with David and talked since the one night shortly after we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was in 2002, so it’s been a really long time. But in spite of everything, in spite of his problems and my problems and anybody else’s problems that we were involved with, I’m very grateful that I was able to be part of that band Talking Heads.

There’s been a lot of misinformation spread out around about the band, and exaggeration. I often wonder where those stories come from, what their origin was. I think I know. But I can never be sure. Let’s just say that thank god Talking Heads did such good music. Because I can look back and really appreciate it.

PKM: You had a longer run than any of the other major CBGB ‘70s bands. How would you account for that?

Chris Frantz: I think our longevity is due to the fact that we surrounded ourself with good people, for the most part. We had good management, Gary Kurfirst was a great manager. We had good accountants that gave us good advice about, make sure you pay your taxes so you don’t get in trouble. That type of thing. We had our excellent crew and soundmen, who really became like family to us, at least to Tina and me. Also, last but certainly not least, the record company people—while no record company is perfect—really did right by us. They invested money in promoting the band, and they did what they were supposed to do. Mind you, Gary Kurfirst gave them a lot of guidance. So our longevity is really primarily due to the band itself, but also to the team that supported the band.

PKM: There are stories in the book about a lot of people who weren’t in or working closely with the band, from Phil Spector and Lee Perry to the Happy Mondays and Iggy Pop. Sometimes they show them in a really good light; sometimes they’re pretty unflattering. In those cases, what kind of judgment did you use in deciding what to write and how much to write?

Chris Frantz: Let me just put it that way: I didn’t tell the whole story about everybody (laughs). I really didn’t want to write a muckraking book. I wanted a book that was primarily upbeat, but also have interesting insights into what happened between the four of us, and particularly between Tina and me. So in some instances, I just hit the tip of the iceberg. But there might be another book later, who knows?


I haven’t sat down with David and talked since the one night shortly after we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was in 2002, so it’s been a really long time. But in spite of everything, in spite of his problems and my problems and anybody else’s problems that we were involved with, I’m very grateful that I was able to be part of that band Talking Heads.


PKM: You mention in Remain in Love that Tina is working on a book. Is that happening?

Chris Frantz: I believe she has told me that it is happening, yeah. She hasn’t gotten a publisher or even an agent yet, but I can tell you there’s a lot of interest.

PKM: Are you doing anything in connection with your book when it comes out?

Chris Frantz: I’m not able to do the sort of normal book tour in July, but I will be doing some online things, Q&As that will be streamed live. If people go to my Facebook page or the St. Martin’s Press website, those will be announced. At the moment, we’re also working on some funny little sort of video snacks for people that I can put on social media to help entice them to buy the book.

On Record Store Day, we have a new Tom Tom Club live thing called Genius of Live 2020, a twelve-song live vinyl. It comes on colored vinyl, even, ooh! It’s actually an older recording [from 2002], but it’s a re-release. It’s got a great picture of Tina doing the bump with Grandmaster Flash.

Chris Frantz by James Swaffield

http://www.pleasekillme.com

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