All you need is Love
Tom Cox finds the Head brothers of Shack in Liverpool – but spiritually, they’re in Los Angeles, circa 1967
Liverpool at 1pm on a Sunday is a city plucked and filleted by a collective hangover. It’s a ghost town, and I’m a lone traveller without directions, looking for The Lisbon pub, where England’s greatest songwriter, Mick Head, and his guitarist brother, John, like to conduct their interviews.
I’ve previously been sceptical about the famous Liverpudlian wit and charm, but both qualities are abundant today. After a warped taxi driver has mischievously sent me 180 degrees south of my target, I approach a middle-aged shopper sitting in a bus shelter; within seconds the whole queue is on its feet, jostling for my friendship.
The Lisbon is closed, but Mick comes bouncing across the street, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. “The guitar’s always here,” he says. “I’m sure chefs don’t go home and cook for the missus and David Beckham doesn’t bounce a football on his head in his living room, but with us the meter’s never off – and there is no meter anyway.”
The Head brothers began writing songs together in their teens, galvanised by Love’s punk-hippie masterpiece Forever Changes, and haven’t stopped since. While John completed school, Mick formed The Pale Fountains with his best mate Chris “Biffa” McCaffrey and signed to Virgin for a colossal £150,000.
The Fountains made two albums, Pacific Street and From Across The Kitchen Table, then split, leaving Mick to form Shack with John. Three LPs followed – 1988’s Zilch, 1991’s Waterpistol and 1997’s Introducing The Magical World Of The Strands.
That’s the surface detail, anyway. Somewhere underneath you’ll find one of the most spooky, unfortunate stories in British rock. A story with a cast of four: Mick Head, John Head, Fame, and the mysterious force which interposes itself every time the three of them look like they’re about to hook up.
The Force might pop up at any moment, disguised as the brain tumour which kills your best friend before you’ve resolved your differences and reformed your potentially brilliant band, the fire which destroys the mastertapes of the psychedelic baggy masterpiece you were about to unleash on a Stone Roses-obsessed public, or the class A drug which drains your record company advance.
It’s the reason why you’re still living in poverty, unsung, the missing members in the lineage of north-western guitar gods which begins with John Lennon and continues with Johnny Marr and Lee Mavers of The La’s.
It’s the reason you’ve had to flee from your landlord and busk to top up your dole. It has, in summary, been an intermittent git for 15 years. But you seem to have finally conquered it.
The Force thought it could use the Head brothers, but the Head brothers used The Force, sucked life from its evil juices, and made two of the most timeless, darkly beautiful albums of the decade.
The first, Introducing The Magical World Of The Strands, was recorded with money borrowed from an obsessive fan in France. “We made it without expecting anyone to hear it,” says Mick. “Our mum was dying and we’d moved back to our old turf. The place was like Dickensian London and I got totally absorbed in it. We never knew what was going to happen the next day, but I look back on that as a great time.”
Evoking cold empty fridges and even colder floorboards and summoning up the troubled spirits of Tim Buckley’s Lorca and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, “a great time” is the last thing it sounds like.
John later tells me his ambition is to make a record “which people can roll into bed to at night and get up to the next morning”. The nocturnal Magical World wasn’t it, but HMS Fable, the latest album, just might be.
Combining the insouciant swagger of The Stone Roses debut album with the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends and the brittle tenderness of Nick Drake, it’s dark but uplifting (Pull Together is a tingle-inducing call to arms which the sub-Oasis hordes would die for), fantastical (Lend Some Dough finds Mick dreaming his way out of an unheated kitchen and across “a big blue ocean”) but honest (Streets Of Kenny tells of a search to score a “big one” in Liverpool’s notorious Kensington district).
It’s a record which looks its demons – drugs, death, poverty – in the face, and doesn’t blink. “I don’t think we’ve got any sense of taboos,” says John. “We don’t say, can we sing about that, is that OK?”
Contrary to previous reports, drugs are not Shack’s favourite topic of conversation – Mick isn’t too chuffed about the way he’s been portrayed in a couple of recent features and would only add that “he likes experimenting”.
In fact, all-round, Mick and John are far more reticent customers than I’d anticipated from their press. As soon as the tape recorder clicks on, they perceptibly tighten and there’s lots of vague, self-conscious talk of “not having an agenda”, as if they’re trying to convince me that they’re not working to some five-point corporate plan. Like I’d expect anything of the sort from a band who have made music entirely for themselves for as long as they have.
Mick wants to take me to see “Queen Victoria’s nob”, the enigmatically phallic statue outside St George’s Hall. We stroll past The Beatles souvenir shop on Mathew Street and he says he’s spent a lot of time there in the past: not out of homage to Liverpool’s favourite sons, but “because there are always so many pretty female tourists in there”.
The Heads’ parents only owned one Beatles record, and Mick and John were always more obsessed with The Fab Four’s Californian contemporaries, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Love. In 1994, Mick received a call from the manager of Love frontman Arthur Lee. He’d heard that Shack were fans: “He called up and told me that Arthur was coming over to Europe to play and needed a band, and then he asked me how many Love songs we knew. I was like: ‘All of them’.” He will never forget the day he and Arthur met: “He bashed down my hotel room door, stormed in and said, ‘Michael?’. I turned around and said, ‘Jesus?’.”
At the new-look Love’s first sound-check in Paris, Mick and John re-taught Lee how to play Your Mind And We Belong Together, a Love song that Lee says “even Love didn’t know”.
“We blew his head off,” laughs Mick, before protesting the innocence of Lee, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence on firearm charges.
Shack see their spiritual home as Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, in 1967. For now, though, they’re stuck on the outskirts of Liverpool, and somehow, they wouldn’t be quite Shack anywhere else.
“It’s a get-on-with-it city,” says John, whose girlfriend has been trying to persuade him to move to New Zealand. “Since the docks closed down, living here has been more about getting to tomorrow than anything else.”
I ask Mick if he’s ever thought about leaving, but he doesn’t answer. His eyes glaze over and he just smiles off in the direction of Queen Victoria’s midriff. I take it that it’s a stupid question.
• A single, Comedy, is released today. The album HMS Fable is out on Monday June 21 and will be reviewed in this week’s Friday Review.