Mick Head was smiling as he came offstage that Sunday night. Well, the gig had gone great. He’d had a blast. Thrown in some new ones, jammed a couple of ideas around, had a bit of a laugh. Actually, they’d even attempted a song he’d first played to the others on the train down from Liverpool that morning. OK, so they only managed the first verse, but it was cool. Why not? He knew these lads, he knew they were up to it, and so they should be. I mean, that’s why they were in the band in the first place wasn’t it? That’s why they were in Shack.
Yes, Mick thought, as he cracked open a beer in the dressing room, that what it was all about. They’d played the audience what they wanted to hear, then also given them a few surprises as well. It might have only been a warm-up for the main event the next night, but what was the point of just trotting through all the same songs they would be doing then? Some kid had said ‘Thank you’ afterwards, too. That’ll do for me reckoned Mick. Nice one.
But the man from Mick’s record company reckoned Sunday night’s gig, Shack’s first headline performance in three years had been considerably less than nice. He’s been appalled. He saw a shambles, songs starting then stopping, Mick deciding to do a new one then realising he hadn’t written any words, then an old one and not remembering the words he had written all those years ago. Just as the man from record company was finally ready to unveil this, the new, cleaned-up professional Shack to the world, the spectre of an old, couldn’t-give-a-shit-even-if-they’d-wanted-to Shack hovered unsteadily in his line of vision. The very same Shack people derisively dubbed Slack or Smack.
The next morning, words were exchanged, with Mick unrepentant. “If they saw it’s a warm-up, they can’t come down to us later and say ‘You fucked up!’ You’ve got the company man saying ‘My balls are on the line’, and someone else comes up and goes, ‘It was good’. That’ll do for me.
For the record, Monday night’s gig was flawless. To say ‘Shack are back’ feels oxymoronic, because they never registered such an indelible impression on the public consciousness for too many to really notice when they went away. Of all the ghosts at the Britpop feast, no-one, not even fellow Liverpudlian enigmas The La’s, can claim such a frustratingly elusive presence. Few seriously expect to hear another La’s record ever again, but on a couple of occasions during the past decade Shack twitched into life with such brilliance that the few that did remember them felt sure that this was their time, the time when the band that Michael Head had formed with his brother John out of the mid-80’s wreckage of The Pale Fountains would finally reach the universal constituency its music deserved. And then, always, they were gone. Always gone.
“People say ‘Aw! Yez nearly made it, didn’t you? Aw…’ And they think that’s your aim is to ‘make it’, be on Top Of The Pops. And ‘making it’ isn’t that, to me. Personally.” John Head pauses to look at his elder brother by four years. It’s a glorious spring afternoon in London, two days after Shack’s triumphant official return to a British stage at Leicester Square’s Notre Dame Hall, and three after that show’s disputed prelude at the Camden Monarch. Bassist Ren Perry and drummer Iain Templeton have caught the train home, but the Heads are here to contemplate their latest return, the one that, if all goes to plan, shall finally imbue the name Shack with more than cult kudos.
“As far as I’m concerned we’ve been ‘making it’ ever since we were in the Paleys,” says Mick. “We’re still making the music.”
“Writing songs is fucking great!” John exclaims, his concerned features suddenly collapsing into the most massive smile. “There’s nothing like it.” Mick is firmly agreed.
“And we’re gonna do it for the rest of our lives,” he says.
If you harbour romantic notions that it is better to fail gloriously than be just moderately successful, then the story of Shack will turn you on like no other. Their first album took two years to make, was dogged by record company interference, and emerged in 1988 with an overbearing synthetic production obscuring its songs’ undoubted virtues. They dallied three years before recording a follow-up. This time, they got to sound like the band they knew they were: a stickily aromatic psychedelic pop band, inspired by Love, in thrall to the songwriting greats like Bacharach, and fuelled by Mick Head’s ability to nail the starkest lyrical home truths to tunes people had been placed on Earth to whistle. In 1991, Shack made an album called Waterpistol, an album fit to inspire a generation. It didn’t come out for four years. That it came out at all is little short of miraculous. The studio containing the master tapes burnt down, and though producer Chris Allison had kept a DAT copy, he’d gone AWOL in America. When he returned, he realised he’d left the tape in a hired car somewhere back in the US. incredibly, the hire company managed to track it down and sent it back. But by this time, Snack’s record company was defunct. With no one willing to release it. Waterpistol gathered dust and a burgeoning mythical aura among the small band of zealots who clung to the fantastic belief that in sheer musical terms Shack were the band The Stone Roses were never good enough to be.
This point of view appeared less certifiable when Waterpistol was finally released in 1995 by a German indie label called Marina, to hosannas of joy from whoever was able to track down an import copy. It was, indeed, a tremendous album. But the band had fallen apart, and though both Mick and John never stopped writing or playing together, there wasn’t much else going on in their lives. Which probably helps to explain the smack habits both had now acquired. A small French label had asked Mick if he’d like to make an album for them, on an extremely limited budget. He put a new group together, called them The Strands and proceeded to make one of the albums of the decade, a record of mystical, timeless beauty called The Magical World Of The Strands. Naturally, it didn’t come out for two years, and at first, again only on import.
Meanwhile, thanks to the residual buzz surrounding the eventual release of Waterpistol, the same record companies that had previously turned them down were reawakened to the lost potential of Michael Head, his brother John and whichever band they were in, whatever it was called. In January 1997, the Heads signed with London Records subsidiary Laurel, the good people responsible for Menswear, and embarked on the lengthy, somewhat tortuous process of making what the world will soon be privileged to greet as the new album by Shack.
“It’s that old chestnut – Magical… was a smack album, and that’s about the size of it,” Mick Head spreads his hands, matter-of-factly. “And that answers a lot of questions, about transformation, and why this, how come that… Finish with smack, Shack make another album. The Strands was me, John, a girl called Michelle on bass, a flautist called Les, and lain on drums. And then it all happened the way it probably should have, they just dissolved away. Record companies started getting interested. I don’t even know why we turned into Shack again.”
By their own admission, John and (more so) Mick are a bit fuzzy regarding some of the factual details of their recent past. Dates, for instance, are not their strong point. Asked when they began making their new album, Mick says he honestly couldn’t say. John estimates it was three years ago. Spring 1997, according to their record label, was when the process began, at Rockfield in South Wales, with producer Hugh Jones. It was finally completed in December 1998, at west London’s Town House, with Youth at the helm. Which still makes almost two years. And definitely two producers. Constantly citing the heroin-fuelled, deadline-free environment of the The Strands session by way of contrast, the Heads furrow brows and try to piece together the gestation of their latest pitch for immortality.
“With this new album,” says Mick, “it’s not a job, but we know that we’re making an album consciously and knowing that the rest of the world is gonna hear it.”
“With The Strands we didn’t give a fuck!” laughs John. “We didn’t give a fuck if anyone heard it, it didn’t matter. But this is a different avenue to explore. We were very lucky to be able to make the Strands album. Obviously, his talent was why we were lucky as well. But there’s a lot of talented people who don’t get as able to make an album how they want
“This is a totally different situation,” Mick nods. “We’re dealing with a big corporate company. It’s not a compromise, that’s the wrong word. It’s just like playing the game for everybody’s benefit Whereas with Magical… we just wanted to get it out of our system.”
It’s what the Heads were putting into their system that has fuelled much of the Shack legend over the years. Not that Mick has ever been in anyway coy about his drug use. Indeed, his depictions of high times and low life in working-class areas of Liverpool have been commendably candid and unsentimental. You might or might not have taken the very name The Strands as a euphemism for heroin, but a song like X Hits The Spot leaves so little to the imagination that Mick’s occasional policy of substituting ‘Smack’ for ‘X’ when playing it live seems a little like kicking a dog that’s already dead.
Smack was to become an issue as the Rockfield sessions with Hugh Jones ground on. Situated in fields above the village of Monmouth, Rockfield is deservedly popular for bands who want to isolate themselves and become immersed in the job at hand. But its remoteness has been known to do strange things to susceptible minds, and coupled with Jones’ relentless work ethic, a virulent strain of cabin fever struck.
“The unfortunate thing was,” says Mick, “no disrespect to Hugh, but he didn’t like the fact that the band were on drugs. And this is the fellow who’s worked with Iggy!”
Jones essentially felt that Mick’s voice was being ruined by heroin and so was the band, that the elder Head’s lifestyle was impinging upon his ability to perform.
John: “And because we were confined, little niggly things started creeping in, and it was just becoming counterproductive. Everyone was just going crosse-eyed. I saw him at the gig the other night and it was great to see him, but at the time it was anger and pent-up aggression. It was like being in the nick! Seven days a week, out of bed, straight into work, go to bed, straight into work… You can’t do that all the time. We’d go to the village and on the way back it was like your leave was over and you had to report back for duty.”
“In a way, the songs that he’s done on the album, the sound and the work that he did, was dead good,” says Mick. “At the time I thought he was being a bit of a twat, but in retrospect it’s really good.”
The Jones sessions ended, after various interruptions, last summer. “The record company were going ballistic, Mick says’ smiling the smile of a 37-year-old guilty schoolkid, “because it wasn’t a very amicable departure. They were saying ‘Who the fuck do you want to produce you, then? Youse are fucking everything up here…’ We weren’t! We’d done our job, we wrote the songs. And I don’t know producers. I wouldn’t know who the fuck’s done what, to tell you the truth. And as soon as they said ‘Youth’, I said ‘That’d be good.'”
It wasn’t a total wild card on Mick’s part. The Pale Fountains had once supported Killing Joke, and he remembered that he liked their smiley, urchin bassist. Fresh from a six-month holiday in India, Youth had come home to a mountain of tapes, listened to a fair few, then stopped at Shack’s and asked to do it. Mick took the enforced Two-month hiatus between recording sessions to finally kick heroin once and for all.
“I was a pain in the arse,” he admits. “Everything revolved around that, so I literally was a fucking nuisance.”
During the post-Waterpistol A&R hoo-hah, there had actually been a scenario where London were thinking of signing Shack minus Mick and with John as the main songwriter. It made no difference to him at the time.
“In retrospect, they were obviously right. You’ve gotta kick that shit. I just dragged meself out doing the only thing I can do. Got me shit together. So, I had a different head on me shoulders and then I seen this spiritual man saying, ‘Come on!’ Youth not only produced it good, he brought us closer together. ‘Cos it coulda gone downhill, it could’ve easily.”
If The Magical World Of The Strands was a seamless, baroque mood-piece, a huge, languorous, narcotic stretch, bearing scant relation to most contemporary definitions of rock music, then the third album to bear the name Shack is a far more a collection of individual songs that happen to sit well together. At a conservative estimate, eight of it’s twelve tracks would make obvious singles, from the heart-melting Comedy (“That crushing feeling when you get dumped by a girl or boy and you do the rebound,” Mick says), to the anthemic brothers-against-the-world (or, in this instance, record company) Pull Together. Then there’s the plangent Byrdsian groover I Want You or Re-Instated, where Mick lifts some lyrics verbatim from Sly Stone. And all this before we’ve considered John’s Cornish Town, the sort of crushingly beautiful, yearning pastorale that REM just don’t do anymore, or Streets of Kenny, which is a sort of gist of the Velvets’ Heroin but a tune akin to All Tomorrow’s Parties, and one of Mick’s most nakedly autobiographical smack songs. And so on. It’s called HMS Fable and you’ll struggle to find a comelier vessel this year.
“It’s our greatest hits album,” says John, before near-dissolving with remorse. Such statements have been known to rebound on groups far luckier than Shack. “Nooooooo! I didn’t say that! I said ‘greatest shits’! No, I don’t mean that, eitherl”
Well, let’s pose what is, for many bands, let alone one finally living on a decent wage and with every reason to believe people might actually be able to buy their new record, the doomsday scenario: what if HMS Fable were to, err, sink without trace?
“I’m not arsed,” says Mick. “I know exactly what I’m doing next. I’m just gonna keep writing songs. I write everything, I write screenplays and Spielberg blockbusters. So I’m just gonna keep doing that. I literally don’t give a fuck if it sells. We’ve done our job. Obviously, it’s gonna be a little bit hard for the record company to comprehend that attitude, but it’s the only one, as far as I’m concerned.”
“It’s the only one they’re getting!” chuckles John.
Has it been difficult to keep body and soul together throughout this whole saga? Obviously, there must have been times when you’ve been a bit strapped for funds…
“Yeah, loads” Mick Shrugs, “I think we’ve done alright. If I had to look back at all this is 30 or 40 years time, I’d think to myself ‘OK, I joined a band…and I haven’t had another job since.’ I write songs and people like them! Whether it comes out in fucking Yugoslavia or anywhere, at least there’s respect out there for that little bit of talent I’ve got. Yeah, there’s loads of times when I’ve been skint, but just getting little bits of money here and there, little advances, loans…. ‘D’you like that album? Yeah? Lend us 500 quid.’ It’s not a big problem, because at the end of the day, everyone gets skint, don’t they? You just have to get on with it. I don’t see as being in a band as being any different. I reckon we could make money anywhere. Just fuckin’ going into somewhere and singing and saying, ‘Give us some dough.’ Which we did, when we were skint in Liverpool. Busking.”
“Yeah. Too right! We needed money! And we can’t do anything else!”
This was just two years ago. They think. Mick cracks a grin and turns to his brother.
“Ah, but how much did I come home with, though? Hanahahanal”
“Two pound fuckin’ 60!”
John and Mick still revert to babbling teenagers when they recall the time they played with Love frontman Arthur Lee during the ’60s legend’s 1994 European tour. Legend also has it that during Lee’s set at Creation’s Undrugged gig at the Royal Albert Hall, Mick Head was side-of-stage watching High Llama Sean O’Hagan and kept pointing out that he was playing it wrong. Eventually O’Hagan simply handed Mick the guitar.
So yes, there’s always been a lot of Love in Shack. But now there’s an amplitude of love, too. Before the Notre Dame gig, the four of them locked in the full huddle routine backstage. During the performance there’s an electric tension that’s just special to behold, the sort of thing that makes you glad you bothered going along to watch four otherwise not particularly watchable blokes. It might not be too late to come and see Shack snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after all.
“What I’ve found with the band lately,” says Mick, “is that, say, with the Paleys or with Shack, I never used to have any communication with the audience. Not at all. Something’s happened, maybe it’s a frame of mind. Y’know we’re playing with Catatonia in a few months. Apparently there’s gonna be 40,000 people. Doesn’t matter if there’s five out there, as long as they’re listening, that’ll do for me. I don’t get nervous at gigs but I was nervous the other night, and it was ‘cos I didn’t want to let youse all down. Swear to God.”
NME’s ten favourite Mick Head songs:
1. Something Like You – The Strands
2. Al’s Vacation – Shack
3. Daniella – Shack
4. Sgt Major – Shack
5. (There’s Always) Something On My Mind – The Pale Fountains
6. The Prize – The Strands
7. Streets of Kenny – Shack
8. Undecided – Shack
9. Glyns & Jaqui – The Strands
10. Jean’s Not Happening – The Pale Fountains