The convoluted adventures of the musically fascinating Tackhead collective began when the members of New Jersey disco/rap label Sugar Hill’s house band — Keith LeBlanc (drums, percussion, keyboards), Doug Wimbish (bass) and Skip McDonald (guitar) — collided with British dub producer Adrian Sherwood. In addition to working with Mark Stewart and releasing singles as Fats Comet, the collaboration made its first longplaying venture into the world of overturned rhythms, deconstructed tunes and rearranged found sound as Major Malfunction under Keith LeBlanc’s name, presumably because the drummer had already stirred much interest with “No Sell Out,” his provocative cut-up dance hit of Malcolm X speeches, and a similarly conceived tribute to England’s striking miners.
Enter Gary Clail, an unconventional British MC who specialized in adding twisted vocals from the mixing board during Tackhead’s live shows. Tackhead Tape Time is effectively the group’s second LP, with Clail rapping and chanting semi-political rants through what sounds like a megaphone. Abrasive beats, funky guitars and the frequent use of sampled speeches (Margaret Thatcher was a Tackhead favorite) make for a mind-bending/butt-moving experience.
Stranger Than Fiction is again credited only to LeBlanc, but Wimbish and McDonald make frequent appearances, Clail pops up once, and Sherwood co-produced. Clearly political without ever being overtly so, the album is never less than intriguing, ranging from the pure rhythmic repetition of “Einstein” to the jazz feel of “Count This” and the eerie ambience of “Men in Capsules.”
Adding Bernard Fowler as lead singer, Tackhead attempted to solidify into a proper group with its “debut” album, Friendly as a Hand Grenade. Opening and closing with the jaunty “Ska Trek,” living up to the title of “Demolition House” and pursuing the by-now-familiar sardonic comments on the military with the infectious “Airborne Ranger,” the album captures Tackhead at its most coherent.
Strange Things did indeed happen on the way to a major deal. After years of tantalizing avant-garde sounds, Tackhead launched themselves wholeheartedly into the mainstream and completely lost their sense of purpose. As angry black rockers, they aren’t close to Living Colour; as funky cynics, they are leagues behind Was (Not Was). As electronic experimentalists, they are not a patch on their former selves.
Clail, meanwhile, remained back in Britain. End of the Century Party is dub-heavy, a white reggae record that uses vocal samples, football chants, rap and narration. Clail may be politically obsessed, but he is only occasionally dogmatic. His vegetarian rap “Beef,” which reconstructs a famed Public Enemy phrase, was subsequently revamped to launch a new British record label (Perfecto) and became a minor hit. That track also appears on Emotional Hooligan, which features the LeBlanc/Wimbish/McDonald triumvirate.
The Barmy Army is another one of the crew’s pseudonyms. The English Disease sets football chants to deep, dubby music. It’s a fun idea for a couple of tracks, but the repetition turns tiresome by record’s end.