How did one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation toast the birth of his second brilliant album this decade? Was he chaired victoriously into a champagne reception at his record company? Did he and his bandmates, including his similarly talented younger brother, run riot on a trans-pacific flight ferrying them from one leg of a sell-out world tour to the next? Or did his management devise a plan to keep his muse from being too scorched by the glare of the limelight?
Mick Head takes a swig of his drink and flashes a gummy grin. No, sometime after he’d finished his second great album of the ’90’s he headed back to Liverpool and scored some heroin. Then, being at a bit of a loose end, he decided to go to the pictures. But by the time he’d settled into his seat the smack had wrapped its warm and familiar arms around him and he slept right through Trainspotting.
“Oh, it’s not funny,” he says, laughing hard, “it’s hilarious.”
There is an old music biz rumour that all truly great art shines through the marketing wash and gets its just rewards sooner rather than later, it’s a message that massages the egos of the commercially successful and eases the conscience of a ferocious, unforgiving industry. Mick Head and his younger brother John are proof of its lie.
If they hadn’t made two of the outstanding albums of the decade, Shack’s Waterpistol and Michael Head Introducing the Strands’ Magical World of the Strands, their long, mad history would simply slot in neatly alongside those of a million other failed songwriters.
But their art is not a failure, indeed it eclipses that of their illustrious peers from the Northwest of England. It’s a gift that deserves to be ranked high alongside its great inspirations – Love, The Stone Roses, Nick Drake or Tim Buckley – but one that has been mashed by hideous luck and terrible judgement. Which is why, on the eve of The Magical World of the Strands’ domestic release, we’ve travelled to Liverpool to untangle the sticky web of Mick Heads’ life.
The tale begins at the dawn of the ’80’s in Kensington, a raw working class neighbourhood in the north of Liverpool. It is here that the 17-year-old Mick and his best mate Chris McCaffrey, aka Biffa, two obsessive Love fans enthused by the DIY ethic of punk, are plotting a way out via a grant cheque that Biffa has blagged to buy instruments.
“They were great times,” recalls Mick, “learning to play, learning to write. At the time in Liverpool there were two schools that bands came from, you were either similar to the Bunnymen or you were similar to the Teardrops, otherwise you didn’t exist. We didn’t sound like either and we didn’t give a shit. We were called The Love Fountains and Love were our favourite band, but we also threw in bossa nova rhythms, little jazzy bits, all sorts. I don’t think we sounded like too many bands anywhere.”
Soon they changed their name to The Pale Fountains – something Mick regrets – and released a couple of romantic, atmospheric singles for Les Disques Du Crepuscule.
“For me and Biffa to just get out of Kensington, where being a scally is like a religion, was a major thing. Getting to London, doing gigs, going abroad, putting out a single, was such a buzz. And meeting London girls! It was a boss laugh.”
Their distinctive sound didn’t go unnoticed and soon they were subject of a huge major label auction, eventually signing for an unheard of six-figure sum to Virgin because they respected the A&R man there, Rob Collins.
“He wasn’t like the others that came up to Liverpool, the Luciens with their red-rimmed glasses. He was a cockney, supported Spurs, dressed like us, was a good lad.”
Two weeks after they signed, Collins left the label. Virgin had no idea what they were meant to do with this strange, scary bunch without him. They weren’t exactly Haircut 100.
“We had to deal with this new fella,” spits Mick. “We went to play him some demos and he takes out a stopwatch, listens to the songs and says ‘I think we’ve got a hit! Take the first bit from the first song, that lovely middle eighth from the third one and the end of the second and we’ve got a smash!’ It was downhill from there.”
Indeed. Not only were they an expensive purchase by a label that didn’t want them but they were victims of an era that thought the best results were gamered from guitars when they were compressed, whacked through a synthesizer and backed by a drum machine. When John Head (who joined the band in his teens) asked an engineer on their second album, …from across the kitchen table, if he could add a backward guitar to a track he laughed the band out of the studio.
“We just wanted to record our songs on the instruments that we’d written them on,” shrugs Mick “we weren’t allowed to do that. Technology just went right up it’s own arse…but maybe we weren’t strong enough, maybe we weren’t good enough to get where we wanted to go. It took The La’s to kick down that door for everyone else.”
It didn’t happen in time for The Pale Fountains, though, and they split in the middle of that wretched decade with two valiant if butchered albums in tow. To miserably complete the circle, Biffa was later tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.
“Losing him was…he was my best mate, my bro, God rest his soul.”
Shack were formed from the ashes of The Pale Fountains by Mick and John Head and with it was born something much harder, driven by John’s now prodigious guitar playing. Live they unveiled a sound that pre-dated The Stone Roses by a couple of years, but fronted by a singer in Mick who could crack the stoniest heart with his thick, perfect Scouse pitch. They signed to Ghetto, the label set up by their publisher Dick Leahy, and they felt fresh and excited…and went into the studio to record their first album, Zilch. Uh-oh.
“I suggested using Ian Broudie to the record company but they wanted us to work with up-and-coming engineers. Eventually, after two years we find ourselves in a studio with Broudie! And because we had to do it quickly, Broudie in his infinite wisdom decided, instead of rehearsing with a drummer, to do it with a drum machine! God, did those songs suffer!”
Zilch was neither a commercial nor artistic success and for the next few years – bar the odd single – Shack dipped from view. It wasn’t until 1991 that they decided they were ready to record again – although the first handful of producers who accompanied them into the demo studios within the Ghetto offices would probably disagree. Eventually Chris Allison actually started recording what would turn out to be Waterpistol with them and for the first time in the Heads’ recording history the results were as good as what they heard in their, um, heads. In fact, they were amazing. They’d captured a smoky, lushly psychedelic mood powered by Mick’s extraordinary rich and honest writing and delivery, matching his brother’s intuitive playing perfectly. It’s the sort of record that could’ve changed the way that young men across the country wear their trousers or comb their hair, and had it come out then, in ’91, it would’ve somewhat have blunted Oasis’ first thrust. Yes, had it come out. There were a few snags, see.
“Just after we finished recording it,” recalls Mick matter-of-factly, “Ghetto burned down and most of the tapes of the album were destroyed.”
Luckily, Chris Allison had one DAT of the album for himself. Unluckily, he’d just set out on a trek across America and was out of contact for several weeks. Even more unluckily, when he got back to England, he realised he’d left the DAT in his hire car in LA. Or somewhere.
“I’d been back three weeks when I realised,” remembers Allison with a shudder. “I contacted the rental company in America and six weeks later got it back in this battered envelope in the post. So it had been driving around America for a couple of months in someone’s glove compartment!”
Ghetto, however, had folded in the interim and for the next four years this magnificent, ground-breaking record was just floating homeless in the ether.
“I was horrified,” says Allison, “because it’s such a good record. The depth of Mick’s writing, both musically and lyrically, was amazing and I thought we’d caught something very special. But no one was willing to take a chance with it, the climate was totally wrong.”
Shack, meanwhile, disintegrated. Bassist Pete Wilkinson left to join Cast, and while Mick and John Head continued to play together, they only encountered two real diversions from songwriting and rehearsing. The first was a bolt out of the blue and the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. For a few European dates, Mick and John joined Love, the influential ’60’s group who’d been their heroes since childhood.
“It was amazing,” says Mick. “You know how people say it’s disillusioning meeting your heroes? Not with Arthur (Lee, Love’s mad genius of a songwriter).
“We did all the popular, famous ones in the soundcheck at the first gig in Paris, then just as we were about to wrap up I said ‘Can we do Your Mind and We Belong Together? He said ‘You don’t know that one! Love didn’t know that one!’ So we ran through it and John did the solo at the end perfectly and Arthur walks over to him, pulls down his shades and says, ‘We’ll finish on that one!’ He was chuffed! We were doing songs he hadn’t played in 20 years. He said to me, ‘Michael, it’s great to be home’.”
Unfortunately, in 1996, Arthur Lee was jailed for 12 years for firearms offences.
“Yeah, bad move, but it was bound to happen because he was fucking psycho.”
And so their first diversion drew to a sudden halt. Their other diversion would prove more long-term.
In 1995, Marina, a German indie label, acquired the rights for Waterpistol and released it over there and on import across Europe (earning a 9/10 in NME). By now, Mick and John had been fronted some money by an enthusiastic French friend and fan, Stephane Bismuth, and under the name of The Strands were recording a new record, The Magical World of the Strands, with Oasis’ engineer Mark Coyle.
The record they’d finished that year was a breathtaking leap from Waterpistol. It’s a record that breathes the same oxygen as Nick Drake or Tim Buckley did, but takes that atmosphere into a different galaxy. It mates beautiful folky melodies with jazz structures, winds wonderful Judy Garland-ish string arrangements around Mick’s bittersweet singing, revels in a sense of stark lyrical honesty but mixes this with magical fables, it’s baroque, enchanting and yet totally natural. It’s no slight to say it would take Noel Gallagher or Richard Ashcroft a lifetime to come near it.
“After Waterpistol we drifted into this other world. I thought we were like different strands all coming together to make this wonderful moptop, heh heh. It just turned out to be a beautiful piece of work,” admits Mick “Making it was so relaxed, there was no pressure because we were just making it for ourselves. At the time I was listening to a lot of Classic FM, and I soaked that up, but I think I can experiment in a way that is accessible to a lot of people. Because there was no pressure, it turned out to be a very different record to Waterpistol.”
The lack of pressure wasn’t the only difference in working conditions.
“When we were doing Waterpistol there was always a big bag of charlie, a big bag of E’s around. With Magical… it was smack.”
It didn’t really harm the creative process, then?
“Not at all. It seems like a nice and cosy world…but not really. Really, it’s the devil. When you’re smacked up, your pupils are really small. They say the eyes are the window of the soul, well, when the pupils are normal you see other things. When they’re dilated you don’t want to see things, and you can’t. You don’t look in the mirror because you’ve only got one thing on your mind. Nothing really matters. That was me for five years. Deffo.”
This story actually has a happy ending, although it’s not really over. Late last year, Megaphone released The Magical World of the Strands in France (earning another 9/10 in NME) and it’s now to be released in Britain via SRD. Shack, meanwhile, have reformed (although it’s the same band, give or take a bassist that recorded The Magical World of the Strands) and signed a healthy deal with London though Laurel Records. They’re midway through recording a record they’ve pencilled in for a summer/autumn release.
Mick and John, meanwhile, have both been through detox and kicked their heroin habits.
“I’ve always had a romanticised view of drugs, especially heroin and opium,” explains Mick. “I was fascinated by Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey. I think it’s a working-class attitude, you find out Wordsworth did it and you think ‘I want a slice of that.’ I’m sure models and barristers take it and hold down jobs, but they don’t see the seediness.
“Like, I was with a lad the other month and he was waiting outside Kwik Save for it to open. He went in and robbed 40 quid’s worth of toothpaste and his mission was to sell it round the houses until he’d got 20 quid and then, bang. But what’s he gonna do tomorrow? There’s only so much toothpaste that people want. Smack and the male psyche, I’d love to write a book about it.”
Many things prompted his detox – including a chance meeting with that other lost Liverpudlian genius, Lee Mavers of The La’s – but mainly he’d just had enough.
“Life was spiralling out of control. I was doing me band’s head in, me family’s, me bother’s. Obviously, my brother wanted to kick my head in on several occasions, but my bro is my bro…I took rapid detox. They stuck four needles in me arse on Monday and when I woke up it was Wednesday night. It’s not fair you have to pay for it. Most junkies can’t, but they also can’t face the endless hell of cold turkey. The main ingredient is wanting to get off, though.
The most striking thing about meeting Mick Head in 1998 is the enthusiasm the man still has for his art form and his life. He talks with big, excited eyes about the songs he’s written for the next record, about how his brother is writing stuff that blows him away (“And that’s hard. Prokofiev, Miles Davis, Gershwin do, and so does he…”) about a one-off gig they’re playing in Belgium, about Liverpool FC, about the new flat he shares with his girlfriend and her dogs, away from Kensington…
“I thought Kenny’s Dickensian, the decay. You can get heroin on the corner, there are prostitutes up the street, the lad you played footie with as a kid is now robbing cars. It’s fascinating, and I can write about it, my own little world. But it bogs you down. It’s romantic at first, you think you’re in Montmartre at the turn of the century, but you’re actually in a shitehole in Kensington. I had to get out because it was taking me down with it.”
Above all, he bears no bitterness towards himself or the rest of the world.
“I don’t think about it. With all the stuff that’s happened to me with The Paleys and Shack, I’d be a nervous wreck. I always knew I could write good songs, even with The Paleys. But I can just see better things coming. A couple of mates, people I play footie with, have come up to me and said ‘I knew you were in a band, I’d heard you were good, but that album The Magical World of the Strands is amazing.’ People who are my cousins who’d rather smack my arse than say my records are good, are saying ‘No, it really is good.’ So… lately I’ve been thinking, no, you are good. And there’s so much more to offer.”
Fate has been nicking points off the Head brothers for a long time now. The time is surely right for repayment.