Sunday, 19 December 2010

Why Tad were the Greatest Rock Band of All Time

Okay, let's take it as given that writing about music is tantamount to dancing about architecture, and that what follows will by definition relate to its subject matter only by the most tenuous of means.

Around 1990 or maybe 1991, I knew of the existence of a band called Tad, but also knew they were something to do with Seattle. Having heard Nirvana and thought them okay but nothing special, and not feeling there was anything specific lacking in my musical diet of the time, Tad failed to register on my radar as anything other than 'some loud guitar band with a fat guy.'

At that time I was living around the corner from Andrew Cox, pretty much my best friend by most definitions for the first half of the 1990s. Andrew was a somewhat withdrawn, quietly spoken individual, one of those rare people entirely lacking in either malice or (at the other extreme) wasteful enthusiasm. We clicked instantly (in so much as anyone could have clicked with Andrew) and for a few years I enjoyed the great benefit of his razor wit and considerable self-deprecating wisdom whilst cursing the fact that such an uncommonly pleasant and thoughtful individual should have been dealt such consistently shitty breaks in life. As David Elliot (Andrew's friend and collaborator in Pump, MFH, and other musical endeavours) recently observed, this world was a little too cruel for a genuinely compassionate soul such as Andrew - or words to roughly that effect. Following a lengthy battle with alcoholism and the inevitable personal demons, Andrew passed on in 2008. I know it's common to speak of the dead as though in life each and every one of them had been uniquely wonderful in their own way, but in Andrew's case it was sort of true.

Anyway, one of the many compilation tapes Andrew put together for me contained, amongst an absurdly eclectic assortment of other things I'd never heard, 'Glue Machine' by Tad. When I hear the track now, I recall the instant it first sank in, listening to that tape on my walkman whilst on the bus between Lewisham and Greenwich. It starts off so quiet you can barely hear the folky guitar and embittered mumblings of someone with nothing left, then explodes into a wrestling match between Black Sabbath and an active volcano. I suppose it's that Seattle quiet bit / loud bit / another quiet bit thing which some people seem to think Nirvana invented. At the time I was in one of those relationships which seemed to involve a lot of wrath and not knowing what the fuck to say, and for a few months 'Glue Machine' was the perfect soundtrack. Naturally I went out and bought every Tad record I could find. I've done that on a few occasions, but this was one time when suddenly I had a group's whole back catalogue in one go and not a single duff track within earshot.

At first, Tad sound like a godawful racket - the loudest, most violent thing you will ever hear, the heaviest possible metal (incorporating the hazardous chemical materials meaning of the term) analogue to the first few Nocturnal Emissions albums of what sounded like raw factory noise; but listen a few times and it becomes apparent that nothing this violent has ever sounded quite so wounded, quite so close to falling apart. I read somewhere that Joy Division were one of a number of influences, and whether true or not, that makes a lot of sense despite the musical gulf between both bands, except Tad went some way further. There's a hint of an industrial aesthetic in songs titled 'Particle Accelerator', 'Leafy Incline' and 'Weakling' (depending of course upon what's commonly considered industrial this week), but it runs a lot deeper, and with a lot more bruising than the self-proclaimed outsider aesthetic of most groups labouring under the industrial banner. For all their strengths, Throbbing Gristle were always an art installation, something that would never travel far from the safety of a gallery environment, sometimes shocking subject matter offered up for consideration whilst the film is running. Similarly, Joy Division, regardless of intent, ended up as soundtrack to the introversion of people who read Camus and set themselves apart from the "herd" with black clothes. This at least is how these groups now sound to me. For all their sincerity, theirs is a literate and self-aware brand of despair.

Tad never worked quite like that, and the music might be viewed as lacking sophistication by comparison (regardless of its considerable complexity, those weird stop / start rhythms and  unusual time signatures), and lyrically there's not much poetry in the Ian Curtis sense. In short, they were a big, blunt instrument, but that was sort of the point. True horror is never experienced as Throbbing Gristle's detached reportage or with the overwrought intensity of a media studies student listening to The Cure and bemoaning why he should have been born so much more sensitive than anyone else; true horror is as mundane and familiar as the death of a loved one, or knowing that you're drunk and about to die, and not quite having the presence of mind to compose a flowery gothic elegy to mortality. Tad is the wrathful, self-destructive, mournful sound of blue collar outsiders who were never allowed into the regular outsider's club, who never read the right books and aren't so good at expressing themselves; it's the music of those for whom such extremes are a dead end rather than an aesthetic. In other words, to add another cliché to those already perpetrated, Tad is absolutely the genuine article - a big, messy portrait of all the mixed emotions of life shitting in your face and realising that you will never, ever be able to stop crying.

Okay. So maybe that's not much of an enticement, but it's that very rawness of emotion, something bordering upon absolute despair that contrasts so dramatically with the chugging anger of the music to far greater effect than Nirvana's simplistic loud bit / quiet bit gimmick. Over the years, not that I'm particularly prone to crisis, Tad's music has become my number one cathartic release in times of needing to punch a brick wall, and its simply because of that contrast, the depth and range of emotions conveyed which do the job so much better than your average misery pantomime act; and as if that weren't enough, it isn't even like they always went for that effect via the same route, as is apparent from weirdly bitter-sweet moments like 'Crane's Cafe' or 'Dementia'.

I still think of Andrew quite a lot, and particularly when listening to Tad. The world has become a slightly shittier place without Andrew in it, and 'Glue Machine' expresses my thoughts on that matter far better than any words.

At the risk of sounding like a wanker (well... why stop now I say) Tad made the most honest music I think I've ever heard, even if it sometimes feels like being run over by a monster truck. Great shame, they never really achieved the recognition they deserve, but sadly I guess that makes sense.