Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Friendly As A Hand Grenade

Released 1988 on World Records
Reviewed by fwump bungle, 17/07/2000ce

Prior to the release of this first album proper, the members of Tackhead (NJ slang for home-boy) possessed musical CVs (both individually and collectively) which would prick up the ears of any road-sore muso. While guitarist Skip McDonald and bassist Doug Wimbish’s beginnings in the spangled days of New York disco (playing on such cult classics as ‘Push Push in the Bush’… ahem) may not bode too well for a successful career in music, in 1979 they moved to the newly formed Sugarhill Records and were teamed up with a sensational young drummer called Keith LeBlanc. The three became the label’s house-band and provided the funked-out grooves for the three most seminal rap recordings: ‘Rapper’s Delight’; ‘The Message’; and ‘White Lines’.

At the same time LeBlanc was also recording solo work - his album ‘No Sell Out’ is credited as one of the first albums to employ extensive sampling (featuring numerous cut-ups of speeches from Malcolm X) – and it was this which drew the attention of London-based dub-afficiando, and On-U label owner, Adrian Sherwood. He invited the three musicians over to work on a new experimental project, eventually named Fats Comet. Once united in London, it quickly became evident that their studio forays were developing into two distinct strands; the less commercial of these strands they decided to release on an album called ‘Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System: Tackhead Tape Time’ – and the unique mix of dub, funk, rock and rap proved to be an instant cult success. Fats Comet was laid to rest, and Tackhead proper was born.

Meanwhile, the gang of four somehow also found time to provide backing for Mark Stewart (former Pop Group front man) as the Maffia. This resulted in what still remains some of the most freaky trashed hip-hop metal music ever envisaged – best evidenced on ‘The Game’ 12”.

‘Friendly As A Hand Grenade’ is where I discovered them. Not for the first time, it was the title which intrigued me (that and a lot of my crusty agit fanzine-writing pals recommended it). When I heard the first track, ‘Ska Trek’ (yes, the clue is in the title), my first thought was ‘somebody’s been widing me up’. My second thought, moments later, was ‘this is fuckin’ tops!’. When ‘Tell Me The Hurt’ kicks in the funk is fully resolved – trimmed and hung with the glittering soulful voice of sometime vocalist Bernard Fowler. ‘Mind and Movement’ and ‘Stealing’ plough similar funky sampled furrows to LeBlanc’s solo work. While ‘Airborn Ranger’ (definitely the album’s centre-piece) rocks a huge fat smoking one, taking the old US Marine chant and going to work on it. Every time Skip’s soaring “the animals went in two-by-two, hurrah! hurrah!” guitar line flies in toward the end, my feet leave the ground.

The album funks and rocks on through the dub mantra of ‘Body To Burn’, the kicking ‘Demolition House’, the spot-on political doublet ‘Free South Africa’ and ‘Ticking Time Bomb’, and is resolved with perfection by a reprise of ‘Ska Trek’. It’s really pointless to try and pick apart each track individually, not because I’m being lazy, but because I listen to this album so often that these songs have become friends. They all work so well, have so many strengths and so few flaws, that I just can’t subject them to the critical microscope. This album reflects every era of funk from the early 70’s, through disco, early rap, up to the touch-bass and sampling techniques of the modern-day. It is performed by musicians at the pinnacle of their creed. But does it rock?

Oh, it rocks. Tackhead achieve what Living Colour strived to achieve – but they do it without even trying, and then push on to further uncharted territory; and all this before breakfast.

They attained critical acclaim and a little commercial success with the slightly tame follow-up album ‘Strange Things’, but following this they have concentrated on side-projects such as Strange Parcels, Interference, and Little Axe (the world’s first dub-blues band). As well as providing session backup and remixes for the likes of George Clinton, James Brown, Miles Davis, BB King, Bomb The Bass, Depeche Mode, Jello Biafra, Seal, Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and ABC (??).

Live, they are unbelievable. The hard-to-find 1990 album ‘En Concert’ (released on Plus Au Sud), recorded live at the Ritz NY in 1988, testifies to this. With covers of ‘The Message’ and ‘Crosstown Traffic’ so fierce that they could cause cerebral damage with the right headphones. I saw them live back in 1990, at Leeds Coliseum, and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone rock so hard. I danced my little booties off all night!

I also remember going home, grinning about the video montage accompanying one of the tracks (‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’) which featured clips from ‘An American Werewolf in London’ cut with stock footage of that Thatcher creature. Spot/Head/Funk/Rock/Tack: On.

Reviews Index