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“Take Off To Animation”: A closer look at London’s Cucumber Studios and Brooklyn’s James Rizzi’s “Genius of Love”
In early 1984, one of Night Flight’s most popular episodes in our innovative and popular “Take Off” series, which regularly juxtaposed early Eighties pop icons against obscurities from not-ready-for-MTV cult favorites, was our “Take Off To Animation,” which took a colorful look at cutting edge computer animation styles. You can watch the entire full episode — which originally aired for the first time on February 17, 1984 — right now on our Night Flight Plus channel.
In particular, we wanted to focus here today on expressive color-saturated animated “urban primitive” design style of Brooklyn-born artist James Rizzi and the electrically seductive work of directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, examples of which you can see in this conjoined video of two of the Tom Tom Club’s best loved songs.
The Tom Tom Club’s founding members — bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz — had formed as a side-project in the early 80s when their main band, Talking Heads, had decided not to tour in support of their new album, Remain In Light, which was recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas.
They were both encouraged by their bandmates, Jerry Harrison and David Byrne, to explore their own side project; both of them had temporarily left the group to record side-projects and solo albums of their own: keyboardist/guitarist Harrison had gone off to work on his own solo album, The Red and the Black, while Byrne and producer Brian Eno were collaborating on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Weymouth and Frantz signed with Island Records, owned at the time by Chris Blackwell, one of the first people to fully appreciate the value of a great rhythm section in and of itself, and they returned to the Bahamas to work on tracks for the eventual eponymous debut, Tom Tom Club, the name coming from a dancehall in the Bahamas they’d visited during their previous visit to the islands.
Tom Tom Club
The rhythm section of Frantz and Weymouth knew their new songs would be influenced by the underground Hip Hop culture in New York, that was a given, but also they wanted to explore the funky African rhythms they’d been playing on Remain in Light (released by Sire Records in the U.S. on October 8, 1980), and, in March 1981, they returned to Compass Point Studios, Bahamas, in order to work with legendary reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Perry, however, had failed to show up for a scheduled recording sessions at Compass Point, and so they turned to Jamaican recording engineer Steven Stanley, who was just 23 at the time, and asked if he would help them lay down basic rhythm tracks (drums, bass, keyboards and guitar).
A number of musicians stepped up to participate, partly due to the fact that they were already in the studio, working with Blackwell, who was producing Grace Jones’s classic Nightclubbing album right next door.
A guitarist from the islands of Bahama, Monte Brown, stepped up to play on both “Wordy Rappinghood” and “Genius of Love,” and Stanley (no doubt with encouragement from Blackwell) brought in Jamaica’s famous “Riddem Twins” of drums and bass, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, for the overdubbing hand claps on “Genius of Love.”
Other musicians, including Adrian Belew, the former King Crimson guitarist who had played with Talking Heads on tour, joined Chris and Tina on vacation to play guitar on several Tom Tom Club songs too. Weymouth’s sisters and brother also helped out on backing vocals.
Somewhat unbelievably at the time, Sire decided to initially pass on putting out the Tom Tom Club’s record, and so it was released in the U.K. first, on June 23, 1981, by Island Records, Chris Blackwell’s label.
Apparently Sire were unsure how they would be able market the Tom Tom Club’s R&B/dance tunes, and felt that it might actually scare off the Talking Heads largely white fan base, but Island UK had huge success immediately with the first single, “Wordy Rappinghood,” released in the spring of 1981, which featured a somewhat childlike (or childish) rap over a funky groove that caught on immediately with fans, topping the charts in 17 countries including the U.K., where it was #1 Club Play, and #7 UK singles charts.
A few months later, Island then released with the band’s second single, “Genius Of Love” (#2 R&B, #1 Club Play, #31 Pop), in September of 1981. “Genius of Love” — with it’s quirky almost novelty vibe — became a huge club hit thanks to New York deejays who also jumped on the track, and it’s popularity on the dance floor ended up selling 100,000 copies of the import single.
Sire, as you might expect, took notice of that, and quickly realized their egregious error and released the album in November that same year, also issuing “Genius Of Love” as the group’s first U.S. single. In 1982, Sugarhill Records’s GrandMaster Flash & The Furious Five released a 12-inch single of their own, “It’s Nasty/Genius of Love,” flooding the New York clubs and climbing the R&B and dance charts, and soon the Tom Tom Club was being award a Gold Sales Award.
Certainly another aspect to the band’s visual appeal was the innovative and distinctive cover art by James Rizzi.
Weymouth and Frantz both thought his cartoonish and colorful drawings matched perfectly with the sound and message they wanted to convey with their band’s playful upbeat and singular recordings, and so they featured his artwork on the cover of their not only their first album and on the subsequent 12-inch singles released by Sire and Island, but also on the band’s next two albums.
By the early 1980s, Rizzi dubbed “Ratso” by friends, after Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ratso Rizzo in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy — was already a successful graphic artist and designer, having had his first exhibitions at outdoor art shows in Washington Square Park and Brooklyn Heights, New York, as early as 1973.
A few years later he was one of the participants of the Brooklyn Museum’s “Thirty Years of American Printmarking, including the 20th National Print Exhibition, in 1976.
Here’s an interview with Brooklyn’s Jimmy Rizzi
It was also in 1976 that video director Annabel Jankel was graduating from the West Surrey College of Art and Design, and already in the midst of forming an animation company with her partner, Rocky Morton, called Cucumber Studios.
Within just a few short years they were being celebrated for pushing the boundaries of film-making with innovative combinations of animation, CGI and live-action, producing many award-winning commercials, short films and music videos, including the seminal 1978 video for Elvis Costello and the Attractions’s “Accidents Will Happen,” which today resides in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Jankel’s and Morton’s “Accidents Will Happen” video is also part of the British Film Institute’s archives on both 16mm and 35mm negative. In 2003, the video was one of only 35 videos selected for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious “Golden Oldies of Music Video” exhibition (You can watch it in this episode of “Take Off To Animation”).
In 1982, Jankel and Morton directed the video for Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier” — which you can also watch on “Take Off To Animation” — which depicts, using live-action and animation, an early 60s-looking scenario in which a young man entices his girlfriend to spend a romantic weekend with him in his family’s backyard fallout shelter. That video — which only shows Fagen in the background, in a promotional poster for Fagen’s album The Nightfly — is today widely considered one of the great videos of the early MTV era.
Working with thousands of individual James Rizzi drawings — shot at Cucumber Studios in London — the “Genius Of Love” video project also included the talents of Tina Weymouth’s sister Laura Weymouth, who was also responsible for putting together the award-winning team who worked on the project.
The video — hugely popular on “Night Flight,” MTV’s various video programs and other outlets — was in 1983 awarded by MTV the year’s “Best Animated Video,” and that same year the Tom Tom Club appeared on the nationally-syndicated “Soul Train” TV show, exposing the side-project to an even larger audience.
At the end of the year, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz reconnected with bandmates David Byrne and Jerry Harrison in order to appear in Jonathan Demme documentary film Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, which was being filmed at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.
During the show, Chris and Tina performed “Genius of Love” with Jerry Harrison and the other members of the Talking Heads big band — keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic , percussionist Steve Scales, guitarist Alex Weir and backing vocalists Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt — so that Byrne could slip away backstage and then slip into his Big Suit costume. Meanwhile, projection still of Rizzi’s artwork were shown during the film.
Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton
Annabel Jankel — the sister of musician and songwriter Chaz Jankel, who is best known as a member of Ian Dury and the Blockheads — is today probably best known not as a music video director but as the co-creator and co-director of the pioneering cyber-character Max Headroom, which we’ve previously told you about here. Her film 20 minutes Into The Future -- a made-for-TV Max Headroom movie and 13-part TV series for the U.K.’s Channel 4 — led to its re-visioning, in 1986, for HBO.
She then segued into directing big Hollywood features, including the remake of the classic noir film DOA, with Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, and Super Mario Brothers, with Dennis Hopper and Bob Hoskins. In the early 90s, she and Morton founded a new company — Commercials Production Company MJZ (for Morton Jankel Zander Inc.) — which based in Los Angeles, with offices in New York and London, focusing on making commercials.
She continues to divide her time between London and L.A., and continues working on feature films — including Skellig, starring Tim Roth, John Simm and Kelly McDonald for Sky TV in the UK as well as theatrical distribution worldwide — and a full-length 3D music and documentary show “Live On Air,” which was also broadcast by Sky TV.
In 2001 — finding that the original multi-track master for “Genius of Love” had gone missing — Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz recut “Genius of Love” as “Genius of Love 2001,” so that its individual parts could be sampled and scratched by New York City turntable crew The X-ecutioners for their album Built From Scratch (Loud Records).
Rizzi, meanwhile, would continue to become a very much in demand artist, achieving instant popular culture status once again when a playful pastel Rizzi painting was chosen to hang on the wall in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment on the TV show “Seinfeld,” something you can still see in the show’s daily re-runs.
Rizzi was over the years continually sought out for TV commercials and for products in which his artwork — paintings, drawing and 3D assemblages — could now be seen on Volkswagen designs, airlines (he painted the exterior shell of the “Rizzi Bird,” a Boeing 757 for Lufthansa’s charter airline Condor Airlines), Japanese trains, German postage stamps, Metro Cards, Zippo lighters, Rosenthal fine china and toys. He was an official artist of the Olympics, the soccer World Cup and the Montreaux Jazz Festival.
There’s an elementary school named after him in Duisburg, Germany, where a retrospective exhibition of his life’s work is on permanent display — over 1000 pieces — in the Rheingold Hall in Mainz.
There’s also a colorful Rizzi-designed office building — “Happy Rizzi House”– which was completed in Braunschweig, Germany in 2001.
Rizzi’s energetic and playful three-dimensional sculptures helped define the so-called “urban primitive ” style, and his influence cannot be underestimated, and has only deepened with his sudden death in 2011, at his SoHo studio. He was 61.