Friday, June 19, 2015

Hippies vs. Punks: Tom Tom Club

Back in February I posted on The Clash's "Overpowered by Funk."

Punks do hip hop. That was the message. I cited Tom Tom Club's "Wordy Rappinghood" as a probable influence. I put a request in at the public library for the 2009 deluxe edition 2-CD import of the 1981 eponymous Tom Tom Club debut album and the band's follow up, Close to the Bone (1983). Last week it finally arrived, and I've been listening to it since.

Tom Tom Club (1981) is another product of the genius of Chris Blackwell. He saw explosive creative potential in the Talking Heads rhythm section of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz that others did not (or possibly he could have just been following the market, since both David Byrne and Jerry Harrison also released solo debuts in 1981). Blackwell's plan was to pair Frantz and Weymouth with superstar producer Lee "Scratch" Perry in a Bahamas recording studio. But Perry was a no show. So Steve Stanley stepped in and produced a miracle.

The album charted in both the UK and the United States on the strength of the first two tracks, "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love," which became dance hall favorites.

I owned the album in cassette form back in the day, purchasing it when I first arrived at the university as a freshman. This would have been the end of summer 1982. At the time, Tom Tom Club seemed incredibly fresh and novel even if it was part of an old tradition of white artists "borrowing" from black ones. It seemed spontaneous, exuberant, playful, multicultural, with both black urban and French Caribbean influences.

For me Tom Tom Club and those first two cuts represent the sunshine of the early 1980s, an interesting time. Reaganism and Thatcherism were new and not really accepted as legitimate. Most thought of these new conservative governments as aberrational one-offs. We had no way of knowing the extent of the regression that Reagan and Thatcher represented. There were dark hints in the Reagan recession (something I have explored in a previous Hippies vs, Punks devoted to Generic Flipper) but for the most part the early 1980s were a time of hope, ska, new horizons and multiracial possibilities (something I scratched the surface of in a previous post on 2 Tone Ska).

In listening to the 2009 deluxe edition re-issue of Tom Tom Club what is striking is that once you get past the opening cuts and into the second side of the album a more ominous and brooding sound surfaces. I think the tendency in the early '80s was to not think too much about songs like "As Above, So Below"; "Lorelei"; "On, On, On, On . . ."; "Booming and Zooming" but the dystopian future was all there to hear.

One remarkable track from the 2009 deluxe edition re-issue that was not included on the LP, cassette or CD versions of Tom Tom Club is "Spooks (Single Version)." It is a menacing ambient harbinger of the "total awareness" national security state aborning. Even if it had been included on the original album, we wouldn't have noticed it. We were too busy dancing in the sunshine to new rhythms and beats. It is very noticeable now though:

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