Tom Tom Club is the side project of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, the drummer and bass player of the Talking Heads. They married in 1977 and released the first Tom Tom Club album in 1981. The group was a family affair: Tina's sisters Laura and Lani were backup singers, and their brother Loric wrote a song called "Booming And Zooming" for them.
Frantz and Weymouth would have liked to start working on another Talking Heads album after their 1980 release Remain In Light, but David Byrne decided to do the soundtrack to the movie The Catherine Wheel and make an album with Brian Eno (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, released in 1981). The other Talking Head, Jerry Harrison, also made a solo album at this time. Chris and Tina thought about waiting it out, but their accountant told them they were short on funds - their last Talking Heads tour featured four additional musicians and wasn't profitable for them. So, they formed Tom Tom Club and released their self titled debut album in 1981. Thanks to "Genius Of Love," it went Gold, outselling not only the Byrne/Eno album, but any Talking Heads album released to that point.
The nimble beat on this song has been appropriated by many other artists, most successfully by Mariah Carey, who used it on her 1995 #1 hit "Fantasy
." It was also sampled by Grandmaster Flash on "It's Nasty/Genius Of Love," and by Ziggy Marley on a remix of "Tumblin' Down," a song from Marley's 1988 album Conscious Party
, which Frantz and Weymouth of Tom Tom Club produced. Money earned from "Genius Of Love" sampling royalties financed future albums from the group.
Free from the cerebral lyrical stylings of David Byrne with their group Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club created songs that focused on the grooves. They make this clear in the line, "Who needs to think when your feet just go?"
In lieu of poetic missives, the lyrics are mostly a mention of various artists that influenced Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, including Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley, Kurtis Blow, Bootsy Collins, and James Brown.
Instead of hiring a lead singer, Tom Tom Club used bass player Tina Weymouth and her sisters, Laura and Lani, who had been singing together since they were kids. They weren't professional grade, but sounded good when mixed into the grooves. Tina called their sound "naughty Catholic schoolgirl."
This song was written in the studio - Compass Point in the Bahamas - which is where Talking Heads worked on their album Remain in Light
. Frantz came up with the title and the last line, and Weymouth wrote the rest of the lyrics and the melody. In a Songfacts interview with Chris Frantz
, he explained how the song came together:
"In the studio I'd play the drum part. It's played by hand, but it's a loop part. It doesn't have any fills or anything, but it does have some tom-toms, so I would record a groove with bass drums, snare, and hi-hat. Then Tina would put down her bass. Then I would add a little tom-tom here and there. And then we added the keyboard part, which was actually two keyboard parts combined. Then Tina worked out the vocals with her two sisters, Laura and Lani, and a little bit of screaming by myself. Then we added Adrian Belew on guitar. We also had a Bahamian guitarist named Monty Brown playing a simple rhythm part. He had recently left T-Connection, a Bahamian funk band that had had a few hits.
Lyrically, things would get changed as it went along, but Tina had a good idea of what she wanted it to be about. We also wanted to pay tribute to all these great soul artists that we really enjoyed and appreciated, like Smokey Robinson, James Brown, and Sly and Robbie. 'There's no beginning and there is no end/time isn't present in the dimension.' I didn't hear that line coming. Tina came up with that. That stuff in the middle, that's Tina's sister, Lani, who invented this language when she was a little kid. It's gibberish, but it sounds like it might be Hindu or something. People at the time were asking, 'What kind of language is that?' Well, it's this language that Tina's sister Lani invented as a child."
Steven Stanley, a Jamaican who was the engineer and co-producer on this track, came up with the famous keyboard line on a Prophet-5 synthesizer when he was alone in the studio one night. "It just came out and it sounded great," he said in Musician magazine. "I have the ability to know when something just fits. That first Tom Tom Club record was done layer by layer, one by one. Drums first, then bass, then the keyboard, then Adrian Belew's guitar, which added a rock element. I came up with that keyboard riff after the drums and bass to the song were already completed."
The lyric was written after the music was finished. Chris Frantz came up with the title and the last section:
He's a genius of love
He's got a greater depth of feeling
Tina Weymouth added the rest of the lyrics, which don't follow a thread but are catchy and memorable. The opening section proved quite popular:
What you gonna do when you get out of jail?
I'm gonna have some fun
What do you consider fun?
Fun, natural fun
Tom Tom Club wasn't conceived as a live act but became one when Talking Heads toured for their Speaking In Tongues album in 1983. For this tour, David Byrne put together an elaborate, carefully choreographed, somewhat surreal production where he added strange physical movements to the performances. For the song "Girlfriend Is Better" he emerged in a ridiculously oversized suit that took a while for him to put on. To buy him time, the band transformed into Tom Tom Club and played "Genius Of Love" while he changed and Tina Weymouth took over on lead vocals. This is seen in the 1984 concert documentary Stop Making Sense and heard on the soundtrack, which sold over 2 million copies in America.
Another reason The Tom Tom Club was added to the bill: In some cities, they were more popular than Talking Heads.
The line, "Reggae's expanding with Sly and Robbie," refers to the Jamaican production team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who appear on "Genius Of Love" doing hand claps. In the studio, they stood in a circle with Weymouth and Frantz around a Neumann U 87 microphone and did the clapping for the duration of the track. Then they did it three more times, and engineer/producer Steve Stanley layered the tracks together to get a rich, vibrant percussion element.
The group earned the right to record this song (and a full album) after making their first single for Chris Blackwell's Island Records, "Wordy Rappinghood
." Blackwell had them record at his Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with the deal that if the first single went well, they could do a whole album.
Blackwell loved "Wordy," and when he released it in the Latin America and Europe, it did very well, climbing to #7 in the UK. The next song the band recorded was "Genius Of Love," which was their second single. It didn't do as well in Europe as "Wordy," but Island exported 100,000 copies of the 12" single to America which quickly sold out as the song got picked up in dance clubs. This led to an American distribution deal with Sire Records, who issued further copies of the single and released the album in America.
An inspiration on this song was the 1980 electro-funk track "More Bounce To The Ounce
" by Zapp, which plays at a slower tempo than most dance songs and has a relaxed, slinky vibe.
Tom Tom Club didn't have a live presence at the time, so they hired their friend Jimmy Rizzi to draw the album art. They loved his whimsical creation so much, they hired him to do the video for the song, which used many of his other drawings.
How did David Byrne react to the success of this song? According to Chris Frantz, he basically ignored it. Frantz told Songfacts that the only time Byrne mentioned the song was when they went to the popular New York dance club Studio 54 after watching the premiere of The Catherine Wheel, which Bryne worked on. When they entered the club, "Genius Of Love" was playing, and the crowd was going nuts. At this point, Byrne made his one and only comment about the song: "How did you get that hand clap sound?"
Movies this song has appeared in include Pie in the Sky (1996), Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Towelhead (2007), You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008), Tower Heist (2011), Shame (2011), The Family (2013) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013).
Writing credits on this song went to group leaders Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth along with Steven Stanley and Adrian Belew. Both Stanley and Belew had worked with Talking Heads and were enlisted for the Tom Tom Club album.
Drawing on disco, rock and the hip-hop sounds then emerging from the South Bronx, this song set the template not just for the group's 1981 self-titled debut, but also for much of the music they've made since. Tina Weymouth looked back at the song in a 2010 interview with Spinner UK: "It just has a texture that sounds like magic," she recalled. "It was kind of a different edge. Everything else was about 120 bpm at the time for dance music, and we wanted to slow it down to give it more internal swing, and not have any four on the floor - maybe give it kind of an island feel as well. I can't remember if it was 112 bpm or something. Maybe it was around 108, but it was really slow for us, because we were used to playing these nervous paces and breakneck speed and stuff, so it was a delightful challenge."
Tom Tom Club released an updated version of this song in 1999 called "Who Feelin' It
," which mentions a new list of influences.
This was used in a 2002 commercial for Kia cars. It features young women driving the cars with men who are not exactly "geniuses."
Tom Tom Club performed this on Soul Train, shooting the episode the day of a Talking Heads concert that was filmed for their concert documentary Stop Making Sense.