Probably the first time I heard some type of electronic/industrial music was at my friend Jason’s house. For people with such divergent tastes in music at a time in our lives when music seemed like one of the most important and personality defining things in the whole wide world, we were really good friends. I was all about rock and hair metal. He was into speed metal, goth, and industrial. We had a few overlaps, most notably Black Sabbath and Billy Idol, but that was about it. He’s the one who introduced me to Metallica, Slayer, The Cure, and Depeche Mode, though I have to confess I never got into any of them while he and I were still close. It took me a while to get there, moving to metal first because it was more familiar.
My first foray into the sort of electronic/industrial scene was the purchase of the MC 900 Ft Jesus album Hell with the Lid Off in 1989. I bought it after reading a review in Rolling Stone that made me think to myself, “This sounds out there. I have to check this out for myself.” This was, of course, back when Rolling Stone gave you lots of info on music and entire articles devoted to discussing the relative merits of every album in the Led Zeppelin catalog and not filling up its pages with yet another article slamming George Bush (news flash – he hasn’t been president for quite a while now). But I digress. It’s not like I was going to hear MC 900 Ft Jesus on the radio, at least not any radio station that I knew existed, and this was for all intents and purposes pre-internet (as a nerd, I was still using my modem to direct dial a couple of bulletin boards hosted on people’s computers… but that’s about all there was). I was impressed with Hell with the Lid Off, but I never took it any further and didn’t listen to anything else in the genre for oh, I don’t know, maybe 20 years. Go figure.
Iceland Airwaves opened me up to a lot more types of music, so when I got back into vinyl a while back I started exploring some different genres. Which is where my musical journey had brought me when I was the other day at Silver Platters flipping through the massive section housing the DJ Masa collection. I’m not sure if this happens to you, but I seem to accidentally stumble onto things that are connected to one another. I didn’t even realize as I was making my purchases that eight of the records I was buying were sort of related to one another – The Barmy Army, Gary Clail, and Tackhead. How does this happen? Three bands I’d never heard of before that day, in a genre I know basically nothing about? Beats the hell out of me. Thank god I’m not a conspiracy theory guy, because I’d probably be finding some kind of connections between low fat yogurt and sub-prime mortgage debacle.
What’s My Mission Now? is one of Tackhead’s earliest releases, a two-song 12″ that came out in 1985, about two years after their first efforts. The title track, “What’s My Mission Now”, is electronic moving towards industrial with some jarring musical elements. It delivers its anit-military industrial complex message through clips from various interviews, TV shows, and movies in place of traditional vocals – all the speaking parts are sampled. This political stance wasn’t unusual in the UK (or in a lot of other places for that matter) during this period a few years following the Falklands War with Argentina and while the Cold War still governed international relations, though the reliance on sampling was new-ish. The flip side is a song called “Now What?” has a more electronic dub vibe, though it uses a much more limited set of very short, repetitive vocal samples that make the vocals more like an instrument than something conveying a message. The song as a whole is more consistent than “What’s My Mission Now”, seeming more like an underground dance track than a “song”. Both tracks have quick silences, followed immediately by sorter versions of themselves that are like remixes – these aren’t listed as separate tracks on the jacket or labels, but you can clearly see the short dead space between tracks. Overall solid stuff.
Reality sees Gary Clail join Tackhead, part of a collaboration between the band and the MC/sound system operator Clail who worked with them and often added his own vocals over their mixes at live shows. Per the liner notes, “Some people have called Gary a rapper. Gary is, in fact, an ex-scaffolder and second hand Cortina salesman from Bristol, and sees his new role as chanter extraordinaire as his true vocation.” Chanter extraordinaire… riiiggghhhttt…. OK Gary. Side A of this 12″ from 1988 contains “Reality”, a song that feels like more of an attempt at a mainstream dance club hit which uses both some vocal sampling clips (mostly crowd noise type chants – think soccer fans) and Clail’s “chanting”. It’s moderately heavy, but not really industrial, at least not to my ears. The B side is “Life & Dreams” which opens with Clail speaking through some kind of megaphone with no musical accompaniment before the beats kick in. It uses the same crowd sound samplings from “Reality”, and surprisingly adds in some traditional rock guitar riffs here an there.
I probably should be moving to 1989s Friendly as a Hand Grenade next, but to be honest it’s a hassle to switch my Rega turntable from 45 to 33 rpm since it involves taking the platter off and adjusting the drive band, so I’m being lazy and playing all the 12″ers on 45 first. Ticking Time Bomb actually includes two tracks from Friendly as a Hand Grenade though, so I don’t feel like I’m totally going out of order here. With these tracks we seem to have done away with Gary Clail (I hope he didn’t have to go back to roofing and scaffolding for a living) and gotten back to the bands’ more industrial dance sound that relies on samples for the vocals. Two versions of “Ticking Time Bomb” are on side A, the shorter album version and a six plus minute dub remix, and both sample heavily the phrases “we were walking right on the edge” and “ticking time bomb of tension” (not sure the sources of these), alongside the types of news broadcast and interview clips we heard on What’s My Mission Now. The dub version is pretty tight and I prefer it to the album version. “Body to Burn” on the B side makes you think you’ve got your turntable on the wrong setting because the vocals sound slow and distorted, and so does the music, but I’ve got it at 45 rpm, so unless these guys intended this to be played at 78, this is what they were looking for. The slowness gives it a heavier feel, like you’re moving through at 3/4 speed.
1989s Friendly as a Hand Grenade is a full length LP that moves away from industrial and more towards electronic-dub-funk with it’s use of bass guitar in the rhythms and even some actual singing. I read somewhere that Tackhead’s later material started to move towards a sound like a funky version of Living Color, and I totally get that here (Living Color was known to sample as well, most notably in their huge hit single “Cult of Personality”). We’re certainly not in copycat territory here – Tackhead’s musical direction is different than that of the hard rock Living Color, but there are some similarities to be seen especially having just listened to some of the band’s earlier, heavier tracks. Friendly as a Hand Grenade would probably be a good entry point for the rock fan who wants to start exploring the electronic/industrial sound since there’s enough here that’s familiar to keep the experience from being too overwhelming like it would be to dive into the deep end of the pool with Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel or Ghostigital. There’s some solid material here, especially the song “Stealing” with it’s chorus “stealing in the name of the lord”, that feels like it would have fit perfectly into the movie New Jack City.
OK. Timeout. WTF is up with the Strange Things LP? Did Daryl Hall and John Oates secretly join Tackhead in 1990??? This is absolutely not the same band that put out the earlier works above. It can’t be. Holy hell. I feel like Michael Jackson could moonwalk through the middle of this room at any moment, and it would seem to fit with the music. How do you get from What’s My Mission Now? to Strange Things in only five years? Am I taking crazy pills?? The bass line is still up front, much as it was on Friendly as a Hand Grenade, and there’s some sampling as well. But other than that, this doesn’t sound even remotely like any of the previous Tackhead albums and more resembles something that you’d hear on the adult contemporary station while you’re making a vegetarian dinner in your kitchen drinking a hot cup of earl gray. Billy Dee Williams should somehow be involved in this album. How do you make a song called “Dangerous Sex” sound lame? There’s even a random rap in the middle of that song that sounds way more like the ill-advised rap-like portion of Blondie’s “Rapture” than it does like anything that was legitimately happening in hip hop. At least Debbie Harry was ahead of her time when she tried this in 1981. And hot. I don’t know what Tackhead’s excuse is. Side B is not as good as side A. And that’s really all I have to say about that. Wow.
The Barmy Army, Gary Clail, and Tackhead. A microcosm of English dance/electronic/industrial from about 1985-1990, most of which was excellent until Strange Things made it abundantly clear that by 1990 it was all over, at least for this loosely tied together group of performers. That being said, if you’re a fan of these genres I strongly encourage you to track down the various 12″ers, as that’s where the real quality is.