THE SOUND OF THE SOUND: VOL 2 - Tactics (Memorandum)
Check the irony in this: I'm reviewing this album when 20 years ago, I was exactly the sort of music fan Dave Studdert would have despised. For all I know, I still am.
In their heyday, Tactics eschewed the more conventional forms of music around them - traditional punk, hardcore, '60s derivatives and Detroit - and played what the quick-to-categorise critics tagged as post-punk. They were definitely in a minority - largely of their own defining. They were probably also self-condemned to obscurity, so much were they wrapped up in railing against anything that had the faintest whiff of the hated "industry"about it, but that's another philosophical argument for another set of liner notes that say something about using the system to your own advantage
Two decades on I can appreciate them as much for what they weren't as what they were. The dryly-recorded sounds of skittish, stuttering guitar and barreling rhythms still make these songs distinctive, as do Studdert's highly-strung vocals. Most of all, however, it's the tension in the playing - the almost imperceptible feeling that the instruments are working against each other, yet playing the same tune - that make Tactics songs walk alone. Edgy and taught.
Disc one is a collection of singles (the outstanding "Coat-tails" b/w "Fatman" and "Should Be/Will Be" b/w "Committee of Love") book-ending the "Blue and White Future Whale" LP released on Citadel (!) in 1985. A few live tracks and skeletal demos fill it out. While the preceding "Glebe" and "My Houdini" albums attracted al the critical acclaim, "Blue and White Future Whale" does have some excellent moments. It was also one of the early success stories for Citadel, which was more or less a distribution channel rather than a label.
Disc two compiles live and demo tracks, many of them versions of songs that made up the "Gusto" album which, in its final mix, is something Studdert can't abide listening to these days. I can't vouch for the widsom or otherwise in that but I find the earlier disc the stronger of the pair - 'though not by much.
I could live without the snatches of stage banter that were probably more enjoyable in the first person, but there's a dark grandeur in much of the latter stuff ("Continental Walky Talky", "Coalface" and the live "Only When I Breathe") that would sit well next to the Laughing Clowns. Horns and violin add to the textures that Tactics would explore in a way that the frankly boring Talking Heads (to whom they've been compared) could only dream about.
Studdert's liners are voluminous, sometimes vague, probably occasionally memory-challenged but never boring and well worth immersing yourself in.
POSTSCRIPT: Is it the end of the line? It's early 2008 and Tactics (mostly made up of '80s band members) just wound up a modest run of Australian dates while Studdert was back in town from his UK base. The final show was allegedly the final Tactics show ever but word had it that the line-up had domne some rfecording. Watch this space.
- The Barman
THE SOUND OF THE SOUND VOL 1 – Tactics (Memorandum/Reverberation)
Wilfully obscure, contrary and difficult to categorise, Tactics were the archetypal inner-city Sydney band of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Originating in Canberra (hardly a hotbed of alternative music – at least not until years later, by which time they were gone), they played a deliberately perverse brand of choppy guitar music. Employing mid-tempo to fast rhythms (often syncopated - in a vaguely reggae way) with tightly-wound, ricocheting guitars strung like a tightrope to be straddled by Dave Studdert’s quavering vocals, the fact they never fitted anywhere undoubtedly suited them to a tee.
Horns, organ and an array of soundscapes colour the songs while the lyrical themes (disorientation, displacement and open space) derive from Studdert’s appreciation for indigenous Australia. It sounds like what pigeon-holers would term “post punk”, even though it was going down in the middle of punk. Me, I’ll tag it “anti-rock” in that the songs aren’t classic verse-chorus-verse constructions.
“The Sound of the Sound” is a double CD set, compiling the first two Tactics albums (“My Houdini” and “Glebe”) with a whopping 20 bonus cuts culled from live tapes and radio broadcasts. Archivist Murray Bennett of the Inner City Sound website played a big part in sourcing the rarer stuff. It’s carried by Memorandum, the archival arm of the Reverberation label run by Russell Hopkinson and Ian Underwood, and it’s packaged with a detailed booklet written by Studdert and various band luminaries. Some of the statements and stories therein read like band leader Studdert was determined to stay as far underground as was humanly possible. Then again, when you look at the state of the so-called mainstream music industry since then, you can appreciate why.
Always a critical fave, Tactics only existed from 1977-81 and straddled a Sydney scene that was polarised between Brit punk and American-inspired rock. Along with Voight 465, Seems Twice, the Thought Criminals et al, Tactics were (or would be) part of the Doublethink stable of left-of-centre bands that sat somewhere in the middle. Playing dives like French’s, Rags and the Stagedoor Tavern, Tactics were as likely to turn up at the demolition party in a condemned terrace house that fell in any of half-a-dozen inner-city postcodes as they were to grace a paying venue. Tactics became a part of Roger Greison’s post-Thoughties Green Records roster and, by all accounts, were conscientious objectors even then.
Can’t say I was a big fan back in the early ‘80s when I heard bits and pieces of their first album, “My Houdini”. Those splintered sounds and equally fractured rhythms were a world away from what I was getting into. But tastes evolve/broaden over time and it’s that tension between the guitars (not unlike Television) that makes Tactics sound contemporary and interesting, more than three decades on. Studdert still sounds a lot like John Lydon to these ears though, which is more an observation than a criticism.
As unhappy as the band may have been with the eight-month recording process, “My Houdini” sounds fresh and up-to-date. The liners reveal the band had to contend with a hardcore manipulator/egotist producer and a would-be Phil Spector in Basilik Studios owner Phil Bishop. Legend has it (confirmed in the liners) that Studdert had to beat him up to secure the master tape. No such trouble releasing “Glebe”, although it was remixed in ’89 because the band was less than ambivalent about the Palm Studios production job. The sound here is more expansive and well-rounded, but Tactics had more or less given up by the time of its release with the accompanying fall-out from drugs/drink/wackiness setting in.
These albums don't mark the end of the story and, in true inner-city legend style, Studdert has re-appeared sporadically (and does so again on September 23 and 25 at the Surry Hills Excelsior in Sydney with another line-up of the band). Tactics were (are) still a bit anti-rock to hit the button everytime for me, but I'll still pull this collection on when I feel too suburban. - The Barman
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