FAIRFIELD — You can’t have live music without the live venues, and few venues were as legendary as CBGB in New York. From the club’s opening in 1973 to its closing in 2006, it was an artistic hub and a birthplace of punk rock. Bands like the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads and others got their start at CBGB and in some ways its legacy lives on in current venues hoping to follow that lead.
In celebration of that memory, The Warehouse at the Fairfield Theatre Company is hosting CTGB on Dec. 21 at 8 p.m., with Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club members Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth making an appearance and hanging out for much of the evening
Frantz and I talked ahead of the event about his memories of CBGB in the mid-70s, how he became part of CTGB, his local radio show and his and Tina’s plans for 2024.
RD: CBGB was actually the first place where Talking Heads performed, with the band opening for the Ramones back in 1975. What were some of your first impressions of the club and the music scene that surrounded it?
CF: We initially moved to New York in 1974 in the autumn, it was late October. A friend of mine named Jamie Dalglish, who was also a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, had a place on Bond Street that was just around the corner and across the Bowery from CBGB. He told me that there was something going on at that place and he knew that I was into music, so he suggested that I check it out. I went that very night, I walked in and there was nothing going on, zero. They used to have a pool table in the back of the club and I heard the pool table balls cracking, so I went back there to see what was going on.
I asked “Is there going to be any music tonight?” and the guy at the pool table said to me in a very heavy Spanish accent “No man, there’s nothing going on tonight but come back on the weekend and the Ramones will be here.” I thought “Oh, a Spanish band” because of the name “the Ramones,” and I came back there to witness them and they were just amazing, even in their most early stage, which they were still at during that time. They hadn’t gotten their look together or all of their songs together yet. In fact, they would stop and argue about what they were going to play, sometimes even during the middle of a song (laughs). I went back another time and there was this artist called Patti Smith and I thought “Wow! She’s amazing!”.
At that time, she was only playing with Lenny Kaye on guitar. It was just herself sort of reciting poetry, as you could say, but singing a little bit. Later on, she got a whole band, did a lot more singing & songwriting and she was just electrifying. Also, around that same time we discovered the band Television, who actually built the stage at CBGB and they were the first rock group to play there. Some people say that they played there before Television, but I don’t know.
Television was definitely one of the first, they built the stage and their manager was helping Hilly [Kristal] to book the talent in the club. Then there were other bands like The Shirts, Mink DeVille and Blondie. Blondie wasn’t even called Blondie at that time, they were called The Angel & The Snake, so there was clearly this underground downtown scene happening there. We felt that CBGB was perfect for our band to play when we had enough material and we felt like we were ready to do a show, which happened a little less than a year later. It was in May and June of 1975 when we first started performing there.
I went and asked Hilly if we could audition and he said “Yeah, you can audition. I’ll put you on in front of the Ramones”, so that’s how it began. In those days, there were maybe 20 people in the audience, maybe less. It was not crowded ever in those days, even for Patti Smith who had quite a downtown following through the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Hilly decided at one point to have what he called “A Festival Of Underground Rock” with unsigned bands and a lot of people signed up to play at it as we did in the Talking Heads. That was in the summer of ‘76 and that was when things started to heat up, it really started to percolate down there.
There would be lines around the block. The club had a capacity of 350 people, but I think they would squeeze in even more than that on a good night. Everybody was shoulder to shoulder, but there were some really good times. It was a very creative period and it was before anybody really had a record deal. I guess both Patti Smith and the Ramones had a record deal at that time, but their records hadn’t come out yet.
There was a real feeling of camaraderie between the bands, at least the people I knew didn’t feel competitive with other bands. It was a very friendly and intoxicating atmosphere.
RD: I can only imagine, but it must have been awesome. For CTGB, how were you and Tina approached about it? Did you both have any input on the idea for this event or did someone just reach out to you?
CF: The creator of CTGB is a guy named Dave Schneider, who plays in The Zambonis. He started doing this five or six years ago at was then known as The Walrus and Carpenter in Black Rock. It was like a tribute to CBGB and he and his friends would play songs by the Ramones, songs by Television and songs by Talking Heads. It was kind of small and then he expanded, he got more people involved and they played Park City Music Hall [in Bridgeport], which was really fun. Then they graduated to The Warehouse and Dave is the organizer, he accepts people who want to volunteer to play and he puts them together with other various musicians. It’s all a tribute to the bands that played at CBGB and it’s really great.
Tina and I are kind of like his co-hosts. We don’t really perform, but we’re there to give it our seal of approval and applaud the young people who are doing covers of the bands that we sort of came up with. It’s music that we really love and I gotta tell you, they do a great job. These kids can really play, really sing and it’s just marvelous to hear the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith and I think this year they’re having artists who are going to cover the Pretenders and also XTC, so it’s hip.
RD: It sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Earlier this year, Talking Heads’ seminal live concert film Stop Making Sense was re-released in 4K resolution and it had you, Tina, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison reuniting at the Toronto Film Festival for the first time in over 20 years for a Q&A hosted by Spike Lee. What are your thoughts on the film’s re-release and what was the experience like for you seeing David and Jerry again after such a long time?
CF: It was great. We made this movie in 1983 and it was released in 1984, it had a resounding success and it did very well, especially in art houses and in theaters on college campuses and so on. Then it did very well on cable TV and it sold a fair amount of DVDs and Blu-rays, but this year the contract was up with the company that had been distributing the film. Then we thought about it and we thought that we should get a really good distributor for this. A couple companies were interested, one of which we made an agreement with, which is this company called A24.
They’re a sort of young, hip and very successful production company. They said that they wanted to not only bump it up to 4K and remix the sound for Dolby Atmos and IMAX, but they also wanted us to be involved and help promote it, so we said “Ok.” We made this agreement with them, we had a number of Zoom sessions with the four of us and we were all in agreement that this is something that’s really worth putting our energy into because the movie is just so good.
RD: It is.
CF: If there’s anything that we can do to help promote it, then we’ll do it, so we did. It was a little strange at first, but after three weeks or so of us being in the same room with each other and having a few drinks together, we all felt that this is great. We were happy to be doing this and we were very happy to be involved with the film Stop Making Sense.
RD: It’s awesome that you were able to do that and it’s great that you had such a positive experience with it. You’re actually a local fixture on the radio these days due to you hosting “The Talking Head” on 89.5 WPKN out of Bridgeport. What inspired you to start doing a radio show? Did you do one when you were living in New York City and do you have a different theme with each episode? How do you structure it?
CF: My show is very freeform and this is the first and only radio show I’ve ever had. I’ve done some DJing and stuff like that at parties, clubs and things like that, but I’m not a real DJ, I’m just a guy who plays records. With WPKN, I was at this fundraiser for Arts in CT and a couple of the programmers at WPKN, including the general manager at the time, approached Tina and I. They actually approached Tina first, they said, “Tina, you should do a radio show at WPKN” and Tina said, “Oh no, you don’t want me. You want Chris.” So I got it. I got the radio gig that way. I only do it once a month on the last Friday of every month, so this month it’ll be on the 29th.
I just play whatever I want. I tend to play a lot of funky and R&B based stuff, but I’m also always looking for new stuff. I think I might have been the first person in Connecticut to play Wet Leg on the radio a couple years ago when they had that great song “Chaise Longue,” so I try to keep in touch with what’s going on in popular music, underground music and in dance music. All of that ends up on my radio show if I like it.
RD: I’ve had the pleasure of listening to your radio show before and I think it’s great. Going into next year, do you have any other projects you’d like to mention? Anything you’ve been working on these days either with music or outside of music?
CF: Tina and I are going back into the studio just after New Year’s and we’re going to see what we can come up with. Nobody is breaking down our door for new music, but we are musicians and we’re pretty good so we’re going to see what we can do. We recently renovated our studio because we didn’t have any choice. I think some lightning struck nearby and some electromagnetic field was sent out into the air and it fried a bunch of our gear. We had to replace it all, at great expense I might add, but it’s all working now so we’re excited to go back in and see what we can do.