TACK>>HEAD: Friendly As A Hand Grenade 30 Years On

Tackhead have always been ahead of their time, but no one could have predicted quite how prescient their 1989 album Friendly As A Hand Grenade would prove.

When Trump became president in 2016, Gee Vaucher’s brilliant cover artwork went viral, though one wonders how many people knew the origin of the image.

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 in the company of other artists.

And that’s probably exactly how they like it. Tackhead has always been a kind of petri dish for each member’s musical explorations, a funk version of ’80s 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 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.

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Gig Review: Little Axe @ The Jazz Cafe, 18th November 2017

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. This 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 would seem to demand that he continue.