This was a twice-rescheduled London gig, initially designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of On-U Sound Records.
And what a line-up was brought together to celebrate mixmaster general (and birthday boy) Adrian Sherwood’s iconic dub/funk/post-punk/industrial indie label (motto: ‘disturbing the comfortable, comforting the disturbed’): Creation Rebel, African Head Charge, Tackhead and Mark Stewart & The Maffia.
And what a pleasure to hear this music in a big hall, in front of a near-sell-out crowd. There were no half-measures here – this was an ageless performance from all the artists, and, refreshingly, also bone-crunchingly loud. Club gigs are all well and good but sometimes you need to hear this stuff in full effect.
Augmented by a striking set of projected visuals, taking in everything from Malcolm X to 1980s CND marches (On-U always championed agents of protest), Creation Rebel and Head Charge fused slow dubs and occasional bursts of metal guitar.
But the real draw was the return of Tackhead, their first London date for 14 years, and they didn’t disappoint – drummer Keith LeBlanc always swings even when tied to drum machines and loops, playing with dynamics and a killer right foot.
If there’s a greater contemporary rhythm section than him, bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald, I haven’t heard it – and these guys are not young any more. Joined by sermonising vocalist Bernard Fowler, they unleashed tracks taken mainly from their 1989 Friendly As A Hand Grenade album, excellent versions of ‘Stealing’, ‘Tell Me The Hurt’, ‘Mind At The End Of The Tether’, ‘Ticking Time Bomb’, and a brilliant take on ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’.
Mark Stewart, skulking around at the back of the stage for most of the Tackhead set, then took the mic, seriously pissed off with the state of the world – and who can blame him? He laid into ‘Hysteria’, ‘Liberty City’, ‘Passcivecation Program’ and ‘Resistance Of The Cell’ with the intensity of a man who knows everything he predicted 40 years ago has come to pass, but also found time to lead the crowd in a verse of ‘Happy Birthday’ for Sherwood.
Then, gig over and job done, Stewart was soon spotted in the stalls, chinwagging with fellow travellers. As he once said, the On-U audience is just as interesting as those on stage. Great gig.
Tackhead have always been ahead of their time, but no one could have predicted quite how prescient their 1989 album Friendly As A Hand Grenadewould prove.
When Trump became president in 2016, Gee Vaucher’s brilliant cover artwork went viral, though one wonders how many people knew the image’s origins.
In a way that’s a good metaphor for the band’s career. A supergroup of session players, and arguably the ultimate post-punk band in their effortless fusion of hip-hop, P-funk, agit-prop, dub, house, gospel, blues and industrial, Tackhead have never quite hit the mainstream, even while their respective careers flourished with other artists.
And that’s probably exactly how they like it. Tackhead has always been a kind of musical petri dish for each member’s explorations, kind of a funk version of 1980s King Crimson.
Bassist Doug Wimbish, drummer Keith LeBlanc and guitarist Skip McDonald had of course hooked up during their legendary sessions for Sugarhill Records, and vocalist Bernard Fowler was one of the great singers on the ’80s New York scene.
Add London-based mixologist/dub innovator Adrian Sherwood and it was a whole new thang, mixing the latest sampling technology with classic funk-rhythm-section smarts.
And if their second album Friendly, released 30 years ago this weekend, hasn’t dated as well as hoped, that’s more down to its mastering limitations (not enough bottom end) and occasional dearth of quality original material.
But when it works it really works, a thrilling mix of heavy guitar, funk basslines, tasty grooves, soulful vocals and scary samples, usually with a political element.
‘Mind And Movement’ steals a march on Heaven 17’s ‘We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang’, a funky missive against Margaret Thatcher’s late-’80s policing policies. ‘Stealing’ is a grinding, gospel-tinged rail against TV evangelists.
The two ska cameos are pure filler, but side two is much better, kicking off with the classic Tackhead theme tune ‘Airborne Ranger’, and gradually adding in elements of old-school hip-hop and early house.
Friendly was a hit, reaching #3 on the UK Indie album chart and reportedly selling over 100,000 worldwide. The majors smelt a hit; EMI subsidiary SBK came calling with a big advance and huge recording budget (LeBlanc puts it at around £250,000), resulting in the 1990 major-label debut Strange Things, which had some brilliant moments but has been been described by a few band members since as ‘crap’.
Arguably the better follow-up to Friendly was the 1994 Strange Parcels album Disconnection, credited as a ‘A Tackhead Re-Duction’.
Elsewhere, Wimbish went on to great things with Living Colour, McDonald formed the potent Little Axe and Fowler became a key member of the Rolling Stones touring entourage. And they all continued to work with fascinating On-U Sound outliers Mark Stewart and Gary Clail.
But the ‘real’ Tackhead sound has probably never adequately been captured on record – the gigs were (and are) where it’s at (and highly recommended is their live anthology Power Inc. Volume Three).
There was a memorable March 1989 show at London’s Town & Country Club, and I went to many great gigs in the capital during the early 1990s and beyond. The band’s fans were (and are) an incredibly disparate bunch, from Whirl-Y-Gig crusties to B-boys and musos.
And they’re still with us. Don’t miss them if they come to your town – they’re still doing some of the best stuff out there.
So here’s the second instalment of essential drum albums from the 1980s (check out part one here), a selection of the decade’s movers and shakers who either pushed the boundaries, flew somewhat under the radar or simply made the music sound better.
19. Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers: Live ’87 Drummer: Ricky Wellman
Alongside Keith LeBlanc, Jonathan Moffett and Dennis Chambers, Wellman played some of the scariest single bass drum of the decade, laying down the go-go template that would influence everyone from Trevor Horn to Miles Davis (who headhunted Wellman in late 1987).
18. Nik Kershaw: The Riddle (1984) Drummer: Charlie Morgan
Another somewhat underrated Brit sessionman, Morgan does exactly what’s right for the songs with a lot of panache. His ghost-note-inflected grooves on ‘City Of Angels’ and ‘Easy’ are treats for the eardrums.
17. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989) Drummer/programming: Keith LeBlanc
Included because of the sheer variety of grooves, both human and machine-generated. Some beats bring to mind the sounds of electro and early hip-hop, but Keith also provides precise, tight, funky grooves on the kit.
16. XTC: English Settlement (1982) Drummer: Terry Chambers
He was not subtle but the unreconstructed Swindon powerhouse could mix it with the best of ’em when it came to rock. Strongly aided by the dream Lillywhite/Padgham production/engineering team, his cavernous grooves always hit the spot. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (Or is he? Check out the comments section below… Ed.).
15. Power Tools: Strange Meeting (1987) Drummer: Ronald Shannon Jackson
Ex-Ornette/Ayler collaborator and serious Buddhist Shannon Jackson cut a swathe through ’80s drumming with his striking solo albums and occasional projects like this frenetic trio alongside Bill Frisell and future Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. Free jazz with balls and humour. Play LOUD.
14. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982) Drummer: Andy Newmark
Hard to bet against this masterpiece of tasteful, empathetic song-accompaniment. Even more impressive is the revelation that Newmark was usually the last musician to overdub, replacing a skeletal drum machine part.
13. Nile Rodgers: B Movie Matinee (1985) Programming: Jimmy Bralower
Much-in-demand NYC programmer Bralower wasn’t every drummer’s cup of tea but he came up with many memorable, catchy beats on Nile’s forgotten second solo album. Even classy ballad ‘Wavelength’ chugs along to what can only be described as an electro groove.
12. Yes: Big Generator (1987) Drummer: Alan White
Possessing one of the crispest snare sounds of the decade, White played 4/4 rock with lots of surprises – both listener and band alike have to be on their toes – and conversely also made the most complex arrangements sound completely natural.
11. Grace Jones: Living My Life (1982) Drummer: Sly Dunbar
Sly came up with not one but two classic, much-imitated beats on this album (‘My Jamaican Guy’, ‘Nipple To The Bottle’) and also proved he could play rock with the best of them. Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan were definitely listening.
10. Mark King: Influences (1984)
We knew he’d started his musical life as a drummer but finally hearing the results of his misspent youth was well worth the wait. He gives his heroes Billy Cobham and Lenny White a serious run for their money on this varied collection, from Level-style funk to Latin-tinged jazz/rock.
9. King Crimson: Discipline (1981) Drummer: Bill Bruford
Impossible to leave out. Aided by Robert Fripp’s ‘rules’, the Surrey sticksman redefined rock drumming for the new decade, adding unusual timbres and taking the emphasis off the hi-hat. He also delivered one of the great over-the-top performances on ‘Indiscipline’.
8. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985) Drummer: Omar Hakim
The fusion supergroup’s penultimate studio album is also one of their best, and Omar is a big reason why. His touch on the hi-hats and ride cymbal is instantly recognisable, and he swings hard on the inspired cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.
7. Stewart Copeland: Rumble Fish (1983)
Not for nothing was the ex-Police man calling himself The Rhythmatist around this time: he hits anything and everything (xylophone, drum kit, marimba, piano, typewriter) to create a colourful, unique soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white curio.
6. Sadao Watanabe: Maisha (1985) Drummers: Harvey Mason, John Robinson
A superior example of big-budget ‘smooth jazz’ before it became a cliché, Mason and Robinson split the drum duties and perfectly compliment each other. The latter particularly lets his hair down a bit more than usual, particularly on ‘Paysages’.
5. Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain (1984) Drummer: Mel Gaynor
Slinky, powerful grooves from South London’s answer to Omar Hakim. He has the walls of Shepherds Bush’s Townhouse studios shaking with his uber-beats on ‘Up On The Catwalk’, ‘Waterfront’ and ‘C Moon Cry Like A Baby’.
4. Level 42: A Physical Presence (1985) Drummer: Phil Gould
An exciting live performance from one of the great British drummers. His top-of-the-beat feel and crisp sound suggest a mix of Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, and he could also lay down explosive multi-tom fills to match both of them.
3. Chick Corea Elektric Band: Eye Of The Beholder (1988) Drummer: Dave Weckl
Love or hate Corea’s Scientology-infused, neo-classical jazz/rock, Weckl’s stellar performance on this album was beyond question. He delivered a gorgeous sound, a total mastery of the drum kit and stunning chops when required.
2. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989) Drummer: Terry Bozzio
One of the loudest drummers this writer has ever heard in concert (Hammersmith Odeon, December 1989), Bozzio delivered some of the fastest double-bass playing on record (‘Sling Shot’) and also unique takes on reggae (‘Behind The Veil’) and funk (‘Day In The House’).
1. The Clash: Sandinista! (1980) Drummer: Topper Headon
The rebel rockers embraced rockabilly, reggae, dub, calypso, punk and even funk on this ambitious triple album, but they wouldn’t have been able to go there without the versatile London sticksman.
The 1980s featured a smorgasbord of great guitarists and Skip McDonald was right in the thick of it.
He started the decade playing on many classic Sugar Hill Records sides and ended it as a member of futuristic funk/rock titans Tackhead.
Since then blues-dub solo project Little Axe has been his chief musical outlet, a collaboration with legendary mixologist Adrian Sherwood and Sugar Hill cohorts Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith Leblanc on drums.
1994 debut The Wolf That House Built was a big critical success, but, after a run of middling albums through the noughties, Little Axe’s time somehow seemed to have come and gone.
Until now. It’s unclear whether the state of the world (and the White House) has given him a new lease of life but McDonald’s bittersweet missives seem tailor-made for these times. T
his packed one-off London gig – promoting impressive, surprisingly upbeat new album London Blues – saw McDonald joined onstage by Wimbish, Sherwood and drummer Andy Gangadeen.
Observing Sherwood was like watching a master cocktail-maker at work, adding his trademark delays and feedback loops with deft sleights of hand. The ageless Wimbish was in typically fine form too, creating mind-bending dub tones with some very nifty footwork – not for nothing has he occasionally referred to himself as the ‘Bruce Lee of bass’.
But McDonald’s impressive vocals were the star of the show, and he also seems to have found his electric guitar mojo again. Old favourite ‘If I Had My Way’ has never sounded so apt (‘These are demon days/It’s a time of chaos, rage and anxiety/Where you gonna be when two worlds collide?’) while new songs ‘Snake Oil’, ‘Factory Girl’ and ‘London Blues’ were instant earworms.
The latter could even make for a leftfield choice of single. Best of all though was chilling closer ‘Deep River’, an eerie death-dub with a central image of ‘a flower blooming in hell’, sounding a bit like an unlikely collaboration between Gregory Isaacs and Sarah Kane.
There was a slightly valedictory feeling to the end of the gig; Wimbish, Sherwood and McDonald’s farewells were possibly more heartfelt than usual.
It would be a great shame if this was the last we see of Skip’s Axe – the state of the world and a fine new album demand that he continue.
When late, great bass hero Jaco Pastorius was asked about his philosophy of music, he had a stock response – ‘Women and rhythm section first!’
In the world of black music, whether jazz, funk, R’n’B or soul, the hookup between the drummer and bass player has always been pivotal. As the cliché goes, a band is only as good as its engine room.
In jazz, you can’t do much better than Tony Williams with Ron Carter or Philly Joe Jones with Paul Chambers. In funk, you can’t go wrong with Benny Benjamin with James Jamerson or Clyde Stubblefield with Bootsy. In fusion, you know it’s going to work if Dave Weckl/John Patitucci or Steve Jordan/Anthony Jackson are taking care of business.
But interestingly, possibly the most heralded rhythm section in recent black music hasn’t come out of jazz, funk or soul music (though these undoubtedly went into the mix), but rather hip-hop.
Drummer Keith Leblanc hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald when they were summoned to work on the label set up by industry veterans Sylvia and Mickey Robinson to showcase the new hip-hop artists emerging from the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-’70s.
Just prior to that, Keith had briefly worked with Doug and Skip in the funk band Wood, Brass and Steel but when The Sugar Hill Gang’s controversial ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a monster hit in ’79, the Robinsons were on the lookout for a house band to lay down the foundations for the follow-up.
It seems the call was inevitable, according to Keith, speaking crisply and candidly down the line from his home in Connecticut:
‘Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug but they initially said no because they’d had a bad experience with her before. But I was new to the band and when I heard the words “recording studio” and “money”, I bugged them until they said yes! And the day we all went up there, we started recording. I didn’t want to know about the business, I just wanted to record.’
The slick, dynamic fusion of funk, rock and jazz laid down by Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald proved just the ticket for Sylvia and they were in. But in those very early days of hip-hop, the money was tight although luckily for Keith the musicianship was too.
‘I was brought up with James Brown, Muscle Shoals, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gap Band and Cameo, so playing the rap stuff wasn’t much of a stretch from what we were already doing. But the first Sugar Hill Gang album was recorded in the Robinsons’ studio which was falling to bits.’
They moved to the slightly more lugubrious surroundings of H&L Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (also home to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio where so many classic Blue Note albums were recorded), and so began a golden period of recording characterised by great performances captured sometimes under great duress in the studio.
Extended jams like Funky Four Plus One’s ‘That’s The Joint’, The Sequence’s ‘And You Know That’ and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘Freedom’ featured jazzy horn charts, challenging stop-and-go arrangements and extended solo sections that had more in common with Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway than Eminem and Jay-Z.
These tracks were not piecemeal studio confections; according to Keith, ‘Back then, playing live in the studio was normal. The arranger Clifton “Jiggs” Chase would get with the rappers and do an arrangement based on what they wanted to use and then make up a chart. Then we’d add things. The musical ethic was really good at that time. You had to get it right or there’d be someone else in there recording the next day.’
The work ethic was almost comparable to the famous Motown production line: ‘We’d cut a track on the Friday, drive home to Connecticut, drive back to New Jersey on the Monday and hear the track on the radio.’
In the time-honoured hip-hop tradition, sometimes sections from other records were ‘replayed’ to give tracks an air of familiarity, most notoriously on the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ which stole Chic’s ‘Good Times’ groove lock, stock and barrel. But this just provided yet another irresistible musical challenge to the young Leblanc: ‘Alot of the time, we were playing maybe a bar of someone else’s music. So we wanted to cut it better than the original!’
But then came the second seismic shift in hip-hop’s history – the release of ‘Planet Rock’, Afrika Bambaataa seminal track which was the first rap tune to properly utilise newly-affordable drum machines and sequencers.
And for Keith, it was both a blessing and curse: ‘When the drum machine first came out, I saw my job opportunities flying out of the window! Now anybody could make a rap record in their bedroom. But then it dawned on me that I could program a drum machine better than any engineer. I did “No Sell Out” just to see what I could do with the technology.’
Featuring a mash-up of Leblanc’s apocalyptic beats and segments of Malcolm X’s oration, the track led to many more intriguing fusions of man and machine in his recorded output and also prefigured the Tackhead project which teamed up Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald with London dub mixologist Adrian Sherwood to thrilling effect.
Sadly, the Sugar Hill story wouldn’t be complete without reporting its demise – in less than honourable circumstances, according to Leblanc – with lots of law suits, claims and counter claims. But much of the music stands the test of time, particularly the extended jams of the ’80/’81 period which suggested a thrilling fusion of Duke Ellington, George Clinton and Trouble Funk.
Leblanc has continued to work with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald regularly over the years in projects such as Little Axe and Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Check out what he’s been up to on his Facebook page.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.