Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius Of Love’, four decades on
“What you gonna do when you get out of jail?
I‘m gonna have some fun…”
Released on 6 September 1981, Tom Tom Club’s Genius Of Love is a pop masterpiece, blending reggae, rap, funk and R&B in a delightful blend of sonic exuberance that is a world away from band members Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’ work with Talking Heads.
Coming just a few months on from the Heads’ seminal Remain In Light (which featured Once In A Lifetime), Genius Of Love was the second single from Tom Tom Club’s eponymous debut album, with the first, Wordy Rappinghood, establishing the group’s playfulness – featuring a verse spoken entirely in French and a chant (“ram sam sam…”) taken from a Moroccan children’s game.
But while Wordy Rappinghood laid the foundations, Genius Of Love hit another level entirely, showcasing the musical dexterity of the newly-formed outfit, with a video that slammed head first into the MTV generation – the music station having launched just a month previously.
Produced by Stephen Stanley at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, The Bahamas, weighing in at a meaty five minutes and 34 seconds, and drenched in Caribbean sunshine, Genius of Love would go on to be one of the most influential and sampled tracks of the new wave era.
As Frantz explained in his excellent memoir, Remain In Love, released earlier this year, the group were “determined to make music that sounded nothing even remotely like Talking Heads. We didn’t need to compete with our own band. We were going to do our own thing.”
“Tom Tom Club was intended solely to support me and Chris – to put food on the table,” Weymouth explained in an interview with Bass Player magazine in 2006. “We had no money, and we decided to work up our own songs instead of accepting the session work we were being offered.”
The short keyboard riff that commences the track, performed by The Wailers’ Tyrone Downie (who is reportedly the ‘My Jamaican Guy‘ in Grace Jones’ celebrated track), soon makes way for a funk-soaked odyssey that is straight out of the Parliament Funkadelic playbook, as well as the emerging hip hop scene at the time – artists such as George Clinton, Kurtis Blow and disco producer Hamilton Bohannon all get referenced, as well as, most notably, “James BROWN..!”
As Frantz revealed in Remain In Love, the track’s groove was inspired by Zapp’s More Bounce To The Ounce, released in 1978 and produced by funk legends Roger Troutman and Bootsy Collins. “We loved this song in part because it was played at a slower, funkier tempo by far than so many other dance tracks of the period,” he said. “It was very relaxed and sexy while still maintaining a raw, hard edge.”
The lyrics to Genius Of Love, sung by Weymouth, backed by her siblings Lani and Laura, are a stream of consciousness tale told by a female prisoner, dreaming of happier times with her boyfriend (the ‘Genius of Love’ in question) – while the reasons for her jail-bound status are unclear, references to going “insane when we took cocaine” hint at a potentially dark undertone.
“Wordy Rappinghood and Genius of Love deal with extremely serious and profound things,” Weymouth told Bass Player.
“To me they’re like fairy tales, which deal with dangerous themes people couldn’t touch any other way. ‘Genius of Love’ is about extraordinary pain and loss, but I deliberately did not put people who had died in the lyrics. We were definitely not trying to reach the intello-muso audience of Talking Heads, but those songs are much more dangerous than they first seem.”
While the track’s bassline is undeniably associated with Weymouth, on the day of recording, the part was actually played by a studio engineer, as the bassist came down with a sudden cramp.
“We were given extremely limited studio time–just three days–and when it was time to do that track my whole right arm seized up in a terrible cramp, and I couldn’t play,” she revealed.
“I had never played in the studio around the clock like we were doing, so I didn’t even know that could happen. I ended up waking the assistant engineer–he was asleep under the console–and I showed him the part, and he played it.”
Other notable artists also pepper the recording of Genius Of Love – Monte Brown, a guitarist with T-Connection, a Bahamian funk band, came in to add a simple rhythm part, as did percussionist Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, who was recording with Grace Jones at the time. Legendary reggae producers Sly and Robbie (among the artists referenced in the lyrics) were brought in to provide handclaps – in fact, four sets of handclaps were recorded and mixed down to one, to provide extra depth.
In fact, while Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne – with whom Frantz and Weymouth had a sometimes strained relationship over the years – remained schtum on the work that the duo were doing with Tom Tom Club, neither signalling his approval or disapproval, the handclaps on Genius Of Love appeared to resonate, as Frantz told Songfacts in 2014.
“We went to Studio 54 and what should be playing when we walked in but Genius of Love? It sounded so good and you could tell everybody in Studio 54 was really getting off on it. David leaned over and he said, ‘How did you get that hand clap sound?’ That was the only thing he ever said about the record.”
The accompanying video for the track – a hallucinogenic, animated tour de force – was the work of Jimmy Rizzi, a friend of the band, who had designed the child-like album cover for the group’s debut. Using “thousands of Jimmy’s drawings“, video directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel of Cucumber Studios (along with Laura Weymouth) came up with the iconic short, which has undoubtedly helped to maintain Genius Of Love’s longstanding allure.
In fact, the video even has a ‘sequel’ of sorts, with Morton and Jankel again called up to develop the video for Tom Tom Club’s 1983 track Pleasure Of Love.
It didn’t take long for Genius Of Love to find its way to the dancefloor, cementing its status as an all-time classic. It would also appear in Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense – a musical interlude to enable Byrne to change into his oversized suit for the movie’s closure – which according to Frantz was the first time the group had played the song live.
“We had never intended for Tom Tom Club to be a live thing,” he told Songfacts. “To us it was just an interim thing while Taking Heads waited for David Byrne to be finished with [1981 solo project] The Catherine Wheel. But in fact, on that tour some people would say, ‘I didn’t come here tonight to hear Talking Heads, I came here tonight to hear Tom Tom Club’.”
And then there’s the legacy impact – while Genius of Love was most notably sampled for Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit Fantasy, it has also been plundered by Ice Cube, 2 Pac, Redman, Busta Rhymes, Warren G and countless other artists from the hip hop and pop worlds. According to WhoSampled.com, the track has been borrowed or interpolated in 167 other tracks… although we think that the number might be many more. [Check out our playlist, Genius Of Samples… 20 tracks that borrow from Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’ below]
In fact, when rap artist Latto recently teased a new song on social media that “samples Mariah Carey’s Fantasy”, it didn’t take long for many to point out that the riff in question actually harks back to Tom Tom Club, and a little slice of perfect pop recorded in the Caribbean 40 years ago.
“I would say [Genius of Love] probably took two 16-hour days to complete, but once we had the bass and drums, we already knew we had a hit,” Frantz told Songfacts.
“Usually, you wouldn’t say, “This is a hit,” because you don’t want to jinx it, but I think everybody in the room knew it.”
Happy birthday to Tom Tom Club’s Genius Of Love! 🙂