“This has been an age of Freud,” the voice blares from the megaphone, “an age of pragmatism, behaviorism, relativism, secularism, materialism — an age where all the emphasis has been upon the ingenuity of science! I am convinced that our time is desperately short!” Tackhead Tape Time opens with those words, and is a fitting soundtrack to a world that inspires such fulmination.
In old-school Newark, New Jersey b-boy slang, a “tackhead” is a hip-hopper — a tough appellation for tough folks from a very tough town. Small surprise that the name would inspire one of the toughest albums ever recorded: Tackhead Tape Time, from (Gary Clail’s) Tackhead Sound System. The group credit on the sleeve tells it: This isn’t Gary Clail, and this isn’t Tackhead, but a hybrid product of a meeting of multiple minds. It may be one of the best albums I own — tight, excellently recorded and produced, and endlessly listenable. It’s also important because it features some of the most critical names to grace modern music, even if you don’t notice their influences immediately.
This is the kind of music I find myself most responding to, for whatever reason: hard-edged, electronic, eclectic, beat-strong, but always with a guiding human sensibility to it all. It’s one of the few albums I can play endlessly and never get tired of. I always hear new things in it, respond to new parts of the production or songwriting or lyrics that I didn’t notice before. I don’t think my own music could have existed without this album, frankly: I’ve credited Tackhead (and Meat Beat Manifesto, and Front 242, and Greater Than One, to name a few) as influences.
A note on the back of the album reads: “Tackhead are K. Leblanc, D. Wimbush, S. McDonald, A. Sherwood.” Talk about a dream team. Adrian Sherwood has been responsible for everything from production assists on Nine Inch Nails’ albums to an endless stream of dub, hip-hop and electronic-assault albums and remixes out of Britain since the early eighties. Pull out any record with a drum machine on it recorded during that period in England (or the United States, for that matter) and chances are Sherwood’s name is in the credits somewhere — or if not him, one of his giant school of protégées, hangers-on, and comrades-in-arms.
Doug Wimbush and Skip McDonald are bassist and guitarist, respectively, who first popped into the public consciousness as members of the seminal rap outfit the Sugar Hill Gang, and haven’t dropped completely off the map ever since. And Sugar Hill co-alum and drummer Keith Leblanc (whose name was used as the sole credit for the earlier Tackhead album Major Malfunction) provided the drum machine programming and other electronic wizardry that pulses through the album’s nervous system. As for Gary Clail himself: “Gary is in fact an ex-scaffolder and second-hand Cortina salesman from Bristol who sees his new role as chanteur extraordinaire as his true vocation.”
Tape Time consists of eight cuts, several of which have surfaced before in vastly stripped-down (or extended) forms as 12” singles credited collectively to Tackhead. The opening cut, “Mind at the End of the Tether,” starts off downbeat and grim, intermixing a vaguely soul/funk web of melody with the aforementioned street preacher rants. Actually, the effect’s not so much grim or downbeat as it is simply gritty and matter-of-fact. Like the early Westbound-era Funkadelic, Tackhead want to reflect the life they’re surrounded with, and know that frivolous escape from it doesn’t work. When people talk about music being “confrontational,” this is what they mean.
Two of the album’s other cuts are absolutely indispensable, as much for what they talk about as how they approach it. “Hard Left,” a fast-moving track, is used as the basis for some sampled cut-ups about the ineffectuality of violence no matter what the politics behind it. Wimbish’s basswork is particularly strong here: everyone gets their turn on this record, but you do have to listen carefully for it. The best by far is the searing “What’s My Mission Now?”, in which Leblanc abuses a drum machine in ways probably not recommended by the manufacturer; the rest of the band’s gestures are transformed into shimmering echoey explosions thanks to everyone’s favorite low-tech effect, the tape-delay deck. The band also gleefully steals big chunks of a TV documentary exposing waste and fraud in the military. I suspect part of why this album hasn’t been re-released is due to its massive use of uncleared samples, including a sizable chunk of O Fortuna — the exact same tracks which landed KMFDM in no small amount of legal hot water, so much so that they had to melt a whole press run of a certain album.
Sherwood’s use of certain sound sources — the crowd noises, the call-and-response chants, the tapes of preachers and evangelists — have turned up in other places before. Listen carefully to Ministry’s Twitch and you’ll hear some of his work there, too; not surprising since these albums were recorded at about the same time, and Al Jourgensen himself did some fairly easy-to-spot synth work on Major Malfunction, too. The influences of the “On-U-Sound Mafia”, as this loose collective has been called, turns up in many places.
Someone once wrote that electronic music may be the most human music of all, because it simply couldn’t exist without a human element. Albums like this are proof of that statement.