In Liverpool, with Shack, you can go around the world in a day. But you couldn’t be anywhere but Liverpool.
Mick Head, main songwriter singer, explorer, inquisitor and eternal talker is proving himself a city guide authority, swishing through streets housing sturdy stone buildings and monuments reminiscent of Seattle, Vancouver, Tokyo, Dublin, Bombay, Glasgow, Rome and East Berlin. Except every single one of these attractions comes with a tale of such colossal human folly you’re convinced he’s making the whole lot up. But he isn’t. Seemingly mucking itself from every comer, everything in Liverpool is Wrong. “An’ y’see that statue there?” lilts Mick, a magnanimous, enormo-blue-eyed, ever-grinning, whiskery man in a fleecy top with holes in the sleeves, pointing out of the cab window to a winged creature atop a coliseum. “It’s facing the wrong way. The same fella made those (stone) lions there an’ he forgot the tongues. Couldn’t handle it. So he topped himself.” Oh dear.
Now, here in the city outskirts, quarter-of-a-mile’s forage through woodland, we’re metaphorically underwater in the Festival Garden site, built mid-‘6Os to bring in tourism on the back of the Albert Dock, Except now it’s a deserted wonderland. There’s acres of tropical foliage in the middle of which looms a gigantic, cartoon. metal-rusted-obligatory Yellow-Submarine. There’s also a huge, red hippo, a statue in tribute to “Scrappy Doo’s head and the body “of a banana” and two enormous, poetically-painted pagodas in the middle of a Chinese garden with 6ft, white, tropical ferns dancing in the breeze.
And the perfect place for the Shack “boys”, the greatest overlooked psychedelic-folk group of the decade, to have their photo taken (Mick’s idea) disappearing immediately through the Submarine’s portholes, giggling like ten-year-olds on glue; Mick, brother John Head (songwriter/ guitarist/aura of kindness/jocular curly hair), lain Templeton (drums-talking enthusiast, jocular ‘dreads’}, Ren Parry (bass, silence enthusiast, hat), four agreeable sprites of eternal mischief who believe in ‘earthy’ jokes.
Unfeasibly enough after said jests, Liverpool also shares the spirit of Jamaica: everyone’s a cartoon character, even more ridiculous than reality, which round these parts is as ridiculous as it gets, a population insulated from the world through the survival mechanism of the psychedelic mindset, some of which is drugs-related and some of which just is.
The spirit of Liverpool is the spirit of Shack themselves, and reason they’ve survived a 15-year collision with Liverpudlian Wrongness to bring us the most beautiful, vibrant, joyous guitar LP in recent memory. It’s called HMS Fable, it’s unquestionably The Album Of ’99 and there’s absolutely nothing Wrong with it whatsoever. In fact. it’s perfect. And it’s a trip, “dudes”.
Nineteen-ninety-nine has been Shack’s year. Unfortunately no-one could hear them or see them for the nonstop knees-up calypso caper bludgeoning the national psyche in the name of the Tots’ Pop Fandango going to I-beet-zer! in a Lycra doily with its chest on its chin. Shack couldn’t give a flying Ricky Martin leg-quake. Sitting in a cool, tile-floored basement bistro on a blue-skied Tuesday evening, Mick, 37, and John, 33 this very day, are a twin-grinned spectre of twinkle-eyed bonhomie, two ex-heroin addicts and profoundly Liverpudlian brothers from Kensington (“Kenny”), the most notorious housing estate in the city, without a care in their expanding universe. They’ve been drinking and smoking weed steadily throughout the day. (lain and Ren are off to their women and children.) This year, 1999, is, grins Mick, “Dead exciting. Busy. Playing gigs. We don’t play that many…” At the same time, everything is, “just the same, innit? Nothing’s changed since the Paleys. (The Pale. Fountains, their first group, formed 15 years ago.) But we’ve never had acclaim like we’ve had lately, which is… right, ‘Cos we know it sounds dead good.”
Seventeen years ago, effervescent indie-pop lilters The Pale Fountains were signed to Virgin Records for a, back then-idiotic advance of £150,000, released two albums which commercially imploded, were dropped in ’86 leaving a huge record company debt and, soon after, bassist Chris ‘Biffa’ McCaffrey, 28, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died. He was Mick’s best friend, Mick closed his front door, watched TV, smoked tobacco-free skunk-weed spliffs and wrote songs for the next four months. Around then, Liverpool and the rest of Britain’s major cities were simultaneously being “infiltrated by gangsters,” states Mick. “a big influx of fookin’ smack, calculated definitely, benefits the hierarchy, America, crack, it’s all been found for us hasn’t it?” He tried it and would be addicted to it for the next decade. And a bit.
In ’87 he formed Shack with John and in ’88 released the debut LP Zilch, artistically killed by lan Broudie’s pre-Lightning Seeds programming gusto. Three years passed. Meanwhile, Mick conceived a child, Alice, named after his mum, and he and his girlfriend split up. In ’91 Shack invented Waterpistol, an inspirational jewel of fragrant guitar pop recorded through a filter of cocaine and E, only for the studio it was recorded in to bum down mysteriously, taking the LP’s master tapes with it. Eventually, a stray tape was located in a hire car glove compartment in the US, mailed back, but their record label, by then, had gone bust. Four years passed. Tiny German label Marina discovered Waterpistol and released it to critical hosannas.
Shack, meanwhile, were employed as backing band for Arthur Lee, mythologised leader of ’60s West Coast wizards Love and the brothers’ lifelong hero. Shack then disintegrated and Mick created a new group. The Strands, with John, and released his mystical heroin album, the delicate dream-folk shimmer of The Magical World Of The Strands and, soon after, Shack reemerged to sign to Laurel through major label London. Slowly, over the last two-and-a-half years they made HMS Fable.
In between all of this, they’d play shambolic/brilliant shows, busk in Liverpool, Mick became a DJ, visited crack dens in LA and volunteered himself into detox, twice. And the brothers’ beloved mum died. No wonder, then HMS Fable is an album of peerless emotional sophistication, 12 songs of timeless, harmonised romanticism, West Coast ’60s psychedelia spinning through Merseybeat optimism, soaring. sparkling, live-forever guitar-pop greats about love and drugs and death and hope, as profound as it’s unashamedly pansy. Mick Head, the greatest unsung songsmith of his generation, is an old-school lyricist in whom images such as underneath the wings of a giant dove, from the spectral Captain’s Table, become the most magical notions ever invented. Or when you cry it pulls me through from the glorious first single Comedy. And new single, the glittering, vaporous. Pull Together, is the sentiment of The Verve’s Come On, far prettier, with no shouting whatsoever, in outer space. It’s not difficult, clever or self-conscious in any way, it’s honest, Everyman truth floating through eternity on a magic carpet of silverine dreams with the clouds in suspended animation. Fundamentally, it’s a soul record. Quite possibly, the least cynical album made in the 1990s. That, in itself. is miraculous.
“…And that’s off the record! The whole thing’s off the record!” Preposterously cheery John Head, one spiral of hair sticking vertically into the air, has done a proper solo interview before and is mildly amused and wholly suspicious.
For some, the defining rapturous moment on HMS Fable is the John-written-and-sung Cornish Town, a Celtic, psychedelic whimsy, great enough to evoke ghosts of ’70s class-folk minstrel James Taylor. The song’s meaning “a secret” though he’ll tell us he almost called it “something-or-other Folly, a folly to me ‘cos I didn’t know what I was doing”. He insists he knows nothing about James Taylor who, he is informed looks like a bloke from the ’70s. “I’m not Dave Lee Travis!” he’s shouting, because he is, frankly, banjo’d off his string arrangement already, “another Hoegaarden please, mate!”
Once, after which he’d kicked his own heroin habit (which, today, he refuses to acknowledge) and his brother couldn’t, John punched a wall and broke his hand.
“See, it’s dead easy,” he’s saying, attempting to explain how he coped with his brother lose control of his entire being, “‘cos there’s four people in the band and everyone takes their turn taking the strain. And that’s all it is. And it’s probably not as bad as people make out. But probably sometimes it was.”
Did you ever think it was all over?
“I never thought I was dead, no! I look around and see people from where I’m from, fuck me, they’re dead and they’re younger than me, and it’s…that really gets to me. So how can I feel bitter about anything? What’s the point?”
Why do people think they can get away with it?
“A lot of people do, mate.”
I think a lot of people don’t know that.
Do you have to become a servant of the Devil?
“You’re not a servant of the Devil, you’re a servant of pleasure. Yeah, it is! Er, had I gone anywhere near it, that is, that’s what it would’ve been.”
What’s going to happen to Shack now, do you think?
“Mate. On the record I have absolutely no idea. Can you see into the future? Heheh, maybe I’ll end up doing James Taylor on Stars In Their Eyes.”
And with this, the supremely talented and unsung John Head launches into a speech defending current culture’s right to be inconsequential cobblers, insisting, “Music is just like a good film or a good shag, it makes you feel a bit better about whatever shitty things you’ve to deal with in the week, it’s not everything, it’s not that much.”
I think you think it’s much more important than that.
“Well, to me it is, yeah! But not to him over there, or her. But the chance will always be there. People have got a heart, feeling, so people will always look for things. It’s just things of merit that aren’t obvious.”
Happy birthday, John, 33 today.
“Might be! Sayin’ fook all….”
Mick Head, as a Character, is a unique and beserk amalgamation of Noel and Liam, Shaun and Bez, Mad Richard Ashcroft, Burt Bacharach, Norman Wisdom, a Celtic fisherman, a Buddhist monk, Henry Miller, Goofy, the Andrex pup, a total girl, a football geezer, The Incredible Disappearing Man and Rudolph Valentino. Natural charm they call it, the sort which assures he can abuse strangers in the street for having fancy hairdos and receive a matey grin, as opposed to a punch in the “kipper”.